I was visiting with Nike CEO Mark Parker at his company's Beaverton, Oregon, headquarters last summer when I asked him if he thought of Nike as an American company. I'd been on a tour of the corporate campus, an American phenomenon—past the Mia Hamm building, the Tiger Woods Center, the John McEnroe building—and had sat in on a meeting at Nike's secretive Innovation Kitchen, where the company invents and tests new products and technologies. Now, he and I were ensconced in his distinctive office, surrounded by artifacts he had collected from around the world.
Parker paused thoughtfully, then respectfully demurred. Nike, he explained, is an international company. He pointed out that Nike does business in hundreds of countries around the globe, and that its brand is among the most widely known, well regarded, and most valuable on the planet.
Yet there is something quintessentially American about Nike—from its entrepreneurial launch by Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight to the competitive, ambitious, can-do ethos of its marketing. Its Americanness may be most evident in the combination of aesthetics and economics that drive its products. This pairing is a hallmark of American design, infusing the most successful American businesses of our day, including Apple, Starbucks, and others. That's why, at a moment when there is much discussion about the future of the U.S. economy, we've chosen to devote this issue to the topic of American design—and to the competitive advantage that this distinctive approach to business can provide.
Our purpose is not jingoistic. Many of America's best designers have emigrated here (as our profile of fashion's Phillip Lim illustrates in "'We Live By the Dress, We Die By the Dress,'." Rather, our focus is prompted by journalistic observation. Much has been written about how Silicon Valley culture has had a positive impact on American entrepreneurialism, but less recognized has been the emerging power and influence of American design culture. Coupled with Silicon Valley thinking and encouraged by technology, design is generating new circles of economic activity.
This can be glimpsed in bottom-up movements like Design for America ("The United States of Design,"), online communities such as Behance, and new business platforms like Kickstarter and Quirky. It can be seen in the ascendance of chief design officers at companies like Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and 3M (see "The Nine Passions of 3M's Mauro Porcini,"). It is apparent in the realms of web-based interaction design and 3-D films, as well as in the renewed commitment to design at venerable institutions like GM (see "How Do You Solve a Problem Like GM, Mary?").
Will design act as the next booster rocket of the American economy, helping to energize new businesses in the same way Silicon Valley has done over the past few decades? That is a tall order, particularly given the systemic challenges we face. Still, if the American design culture can continue to attract and motivate the best, brightest, and most creative technologists and businesspeople, it can't help but improve what ails us.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.