The first time I went to the White House I was in grade school. This was back in the 1970s, when my family was in Washington, D.C., on vacation, and public tours were easy to arrange. My next visit, two decades later, was as a journalist, when I interviewed members of George W. Bush's economic team. This past summer, I went again, for a completely different reason. The occasion was a luncheon hosted by Michelle Obama to celebrate the Smithsonian's National Design Award winners.
In her welcoming remarks, the First Lady called design a "craft at the intersection of art and science, form and function — grounding inspiration and innovation in fundamental principles of math and physics and engineering." She praised the honorees for "having the courage, even the audacity, to pursue your vision of the world as it can and as it should be," and for doing work that "can help fight disease, educate a child, and ensure we pass on a cleaner, healthier planet to all our children."
Our annual Masters of Design issue echoes these themes, from Michael Murphy's efforts to save lives in Rwanda to Walter Hood's quest to reinvigorate neighborhoods from Oakland, California, to Pittsburgh. We also highlight McDonald's design efforts — not because we're gleeful about selling more burgers, fries, and shakes (although economic activity that provides jobs should never be reflexively rejected), but because the reimagining of McDonald's restaurants demonstrates the rising influence of design across the business landscape. McDonald's latest wave of change is a continuation of a "Plan to Win" that also introduced healthier foods to the menu. It is evidence of a global movement toward better business practices.
At Fast Company, we believe that business can be a vehicle for progress, and that lessons learned and applied — whether by specialized firms such as Gadi Amit's NewDealDesign studio or industry game changers such as JetBlue are, in the long run, moving our world forward.
But that progress is not without its challenges. During my latest visit to the White House, I viewed a selection of official presidential portraits on the walls of the East Wing, from Chester A. Arthur, who bucked the political forces of his day to rein in corruption in the awarding of government jobs, to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Most affecting for me personally was Aaron Shikler's portrait of John F. Kennedy, an emotional representation in which the young leader's face is in shadows. Remembering Kennedy's inspiring inaugural address, I thought about how difficult — but also how exciting — it is to challenge the status quo. Designing a better future is a task that never ends.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.