The World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies of 2015 in Design

From Ammunition to the Iron Dome, the form-meets-function crowd proves its mettle and its value.

The World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies of 2015 in Design
Ammunition’s Tilley Surfboards Fish [Photo: courtesy of Ammunition]

1. Ammunition Group

For showing what a design shop can still do. Design shops are hurting, as many brands invest in in-house teams. But Ammunition continues to grow. How? It often partners with clients as equity holders, so that the brands feel like part of the house. And 2014 showed how that strategy pays off big. Its year began with its show-stopping tiny Polaroid Cube “action cam” in January. May brought the sale of Beats, the headphone brand Ammunition created with rapper Dr. Dre and producing legend Jimmy Iovine, to Apple for $3 billion. In August, the shop won IDEA Best of Show for the stand it developed with Square, which turns an iPad into a point-of-sale device. And there were many more hot moments, including the debut of the Smartisan T1 phone and $3,000 Octovo surfboards.


2. Gumroad

For making e-commerce as painless as tweeting. If you make physical objects—onyx earrings, eco-friendly wagons for kids—there are plenty of places, such as eBay or Etsy, to hawk them online. But what if you’re a musician or an author with digital wares and no marketing budget? That’s what three-year-old Gumroad is for. More than 10,000 sellers—mostly authors, instructors, and musicians—used Gumroad last year to sell directly to fans, and the service even attracted some big-name acts including Eminem and Bon Jovi, and the publisher Hachette. In addition to selling mixtapes and albums, some artists are using Gumroad to sell physical goods: Eminem sold limited-edition tour merchandise and Bon Jovi offered fans a premium album bundle with an autographed CD, T-shirt, and iPhone case. After signing up, creators upload their audio, PDF, or app files to the website, which generates a custom sales web page. That link can be shared anywhere—and if it’s on Twitter, fans can simply click “Buy” right in the tweet. Gumroad offers clear, unambiguous pricing, taking 5% of each sale plus 25 cents per transaction.

3. Ikea

For launching designer collaborations to create furniture that is not only stylish, but cunningly functional. More than 770 million shoppers visit an Ikea annually, and more than twice that visit the company’s website. The $38 billion Swedish home giant works harder than any other big-box retailer at making its stores charming—inspiring customers to bring that joy back home. And in the past year, it has offered some new surprises as well: The six-item Regissör series, which includes a bookshelf and a cabinet, can be put together in minutes without tools. A standing version of the Bekant desk now adjusts its height using an electric motor. And in Singapore and Arizona, life-size cardboard cutouts of homeless animals were displayed throughout stores’ designed living spaces. Each had a QR code, so visitors could learn more about the animal—and if they like, actually adopt it.

4. Herman Miller

For growing beyond its office design origins into a design-oriented lifestyle brand. With its acquisition of fashionable but historically troubled Design Within Reach, Herman Miller joins a raft of furniture companies looking to diversify their product lines. After being delisted from Nasdaq in 2009, Design within Reach closed half its stores and settled several embarrassing copyright violation suits. Last year it was profitable (and honorable) again, with revenues of $218 million. With the office-furniture market still sluggish, Herman Miller intends to boost its access to the consumer market, while enabling economies of scale in a low margin business. It doesn’t hurt that DWR comes with a portfolio of work by design stars, including venerable names like Mies van der Rohe, Isamu Noguchi, and Eero Saarinen, as well as newcomers like Sandy Chilewich and Nathan Yong. Add those to Herman Miller’s own stable of big-name talent, and you’ve got a one-stop shop for design excellence.

5. 30 Weeks

For reinventing design education. 30 Weeks is a 30-week-long design program that operates out of a Manhattan coworking space and is a collaboration among giants: four New York design schools (Parsons, Pratt, the School of Visual Arts, and The Cooper Union), the education company Hyper Island, and Google. To qualify, a student must be 18 or older, plan to be a professional designer, and have an idea for a product. The curriculum consists of crash courses in business, engineering, and product design; an array of VCs, CEOs, designers and engineers will make cameo appearances throughout the program to offer real-life lessons. The 20 students in the program, meanwhile, will simulate the world of real-life designers, learning to pitch to different audiences, investors, and professors, then to refine their products—learning the all-important pivot!—based on feedback.

6. Michael Graves Architecture & Design

For tackling design backwaters with empathy and fresh ideas. Michael Graves celebrated his 50th anniversary in business not just with the customary retrospective (in this case, at the Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey), but with the opening of the new Acute Care for the Elderly unit at Yale-New Haven Hospital. It is one of many such projects he’s overseen, and the newly renovated patient floor incorporates architectural elements and signage specifically designed to support the care of patients 65 and older, a long neglected group when it comes to design. For example, railings and thresholds are painted high-contrast colors, so patients with poor vision can see them; an easy-to-understand signage system alerts staff as to patients’ special care needs (fall risk, oxygen use, etc.); and the number of grab bars exceeds ADA requirements. Having been wheelchair-bound since 2003, Graves has used his disability to address the many shortcomings of health care design, including the design of the Prime TC Wheelchair, and a line of patient room furniture based on ethnographic research and manufactured by Stryker Corporation, a medical technology company.

7. Be Original Americas

For reframing the discussion of what to do about knockoffs. According to the International Chamber of Commerce, the estimated global value of counterfeit goods in 2008 was $650 billion; by 2015, that number will increase to $1.7 trillion annually. That translates into 2.5 million jobs lost to fake products. Alarmed by the magnitude of this trend, some of the biggest names in the furniture business—Herman Miller, Alessi, Bernhardt Design, Emeco, Flos, and Vitra, among them—have banded together to form Be Original Americas, an association of businesses, consumers, educators, and institutions committed to the protection of creators’ intellectual property. To promote its agenda, the group has launched a series of lectures, workshops, and round tables with the goal of establishing a set of industry standards. Its blog alerts readers to the hidden hazards of knockoff design, such as the high levels of mercury and lead in a popular “replica” design of the Tolux chair in Australia. The idea has begun to get traction internationally: In October, the group was asked to speak at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico; the Toronto Design Museum will mount a show in 2015. One major retailer, anxious to preserve its reputation for purveying high-quality designer goods, has already asked the group to help it screen products on its site for authenticity.


8. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

For rethinking who a design firm brings on board. When it hired former RISD president John Maeda as a design partner in 2013, Kleiner Perkins set off a rush by VC firms to get a design consultant on board. Over the past year, Khosla Ventures hired UX designer Irene Au from Google and Sequoia tapped James Buckhouse, a story designer from Twitter. But Maeda says his role is different from his peers at other firms: “I don’t go deep into the specific design of anything; I coach executives and managers on how to better leverage designers in tech and business. I also have become more active on the investment-sourcing side.” One of the firm’s latest picks: Tradesy, an online consignment shop for used luxury clothing and accessories. In May, Kleiner Perkins invested $13 million in the site, and John Doerr joined the board. The firm’s founder is a School of Visual Arts grad in painting, not the usual launching pad for Web entrepreneurs, but the kind of combination that Maeda enthusiastically evangelized while at RISD.

9. Code and Theory

For helping old-guard publishers thrive in the digital era. If the websites of longstanding publishers, such as The Los Angeles Times, Vogue, Bloomberg, and Cosmopolitan, have lately seemed friskier, more intuitive, and engaging, it’s because they share the same behind-the-scenes code creator: the digital design shop Code and Theory. Its wizardry is in creating easy-to-use, flexible toolkits that managers can use to create content that’s easily navigable and shareable, particularly on mobile devices. What’s more, each system is seamlessly integrated with the site’s sales-and-marketing team so that users may see relevant native advertising as well as editorial features—a boon for the business side of the publication. Shelves full of Webbies are nice, but the real proof is in the traffic: Nine months after its redesign, for example, Vogue’s site was up 600% from the previous June.

10. Rafael Advanced Defense Systems

For design that works under pressure. Great design is about seamless connectivity. Leaving aside politics, there’s little question that Israel’s Iron Dome has been hugely successful at intercepting the more than 2,200 rockets fired at the Israeli population since early July 2014—an 85% success rate. The system itself consists of three masterfully connected parts: a radar that tracks incoming rockets, software that predicts the rocket’s trajectory, and Tamir interceptor missiles, which target the rockets and blast them into pieces. Time magazine’s defense expert Mark Thompson says the “lack of Israeli casualties suggests Iron Dome is the most effective, most tested missile shield the world has ever seen.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers entry incorrectly stated that Google Ventures recently added a fifth design partner.