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The 10 most innovative design companies of 2021

How Google, Adidas, Seventh Generation, and other top design leaders are delighting users while also addressing their changing priorities.

The 10 most innovative design companies of 2021
[Icon: Assignment Studios]
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Design used to be simple. Create the most beautiful objects and experiences you can to solve problems big and small. Today, it’s complicated. Any new design must be weighed against its impact on the environment and human equity as much as its own purpose or practicality. This year’s selections for the Most Innovative Companies in Design balance cutting-edge breakthroughs with grounded perspectives. Plus, we have some fun with Mario along the way.

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1. Adidas

For demonstrating eye-popping green innovation

Through relentless public experimentation, Adidas continues to develop new shoe-making technologies that mix performance, sustainability, and a bold aesthetic point of view. Adidas spent the last year updating its marshmallowy Loop shoe—made from one material, allowing it to be ground up, melted, and reformed. It also debuted Strung, which uses robots to wrap layer after layer of yarn to create an upper, before baking it into a near-zero-waste product that looks like string art. And in the waning hours of 2020, the company showed off one more trick: Futurenatural. Adidas can now mold the top of a shoe at the same moment it’s fused to the bottom of the shoe to create seamless footwear.

2. Google

For championing a new pragmatism

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In 2020, as supply chains tightened, Google’s industrial design team took a step back from high-tech to focus on a philosophy of “just enough.” It ripped the superfluous 3D-scanning sensor from its $800 Pixel smartphones, resulting in a $499 Pixel that still has the latest 5G speeds and a huge battery. It did something similar with its Nest thermostats, creating a more affordable model (priced at $130) that ditched metal and extraneous internal processors; the device’s beautiful mirror finish reflects the design of your own room, while processing happens in the cloud.

[Illustration: Claire Merchlinsky]

3. Level

For rethinking industrial design tropes

This San Francisco design firm is a rarity in the industry. It’s female-founded, and staffed 70% by women. Level’s perspective is appreciated by its confidential clients (who work at big corporations you’d know). But 2020 was undeniably the firm’s breakout year, with the launch of Tempo, a smart exercise mirror that sneaks all necessary weights and accessories into a shell that looks like furniture rather than fitness equipment.

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4. Floyd

For making work-from-home life more homey

Direct-to-consumer furniture brands are a dime a dozen. But Detroit-based Floyd has distinguished itself by offering just a few pieces of no-frills, quality-built furniture with a unique point of view, such as a couch designed to be easily disassembled and moved. In 2020, as much of the world began working from home, somewhat uncomfortably, Floyd released two solutions: new add-ons to its best-selling, modular shelving units and a standing desk. The shelves are affixed to the wall with Velcro anchors and can be installed in 15 minutes. The standing desk has a spartan steel-and-plywood frame that only subtly hints at its strength—350 pounds of lifting capacity, available with a button press.

5. Seventh Generation

For eliminating disposable bottles

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Plastic containers like those from cleaning products are choking our environment. So Seventh Generation debuted a series of products in 2020 that ditch plastic altogether. These new products are pellets and powders rather than liquids; without moisture inside these formulas, Seventh Generation’s new line can be delivered in steel cans—which are far more likely to be recycled than plastic bottles.

6. Teenage Engineering

For cultivating a new type of audiophile

To be an audiophile once meant that you bought $15,000 speakers and vinyl. Teenage Engineering is redefining the term for the 21st century to embrace quirky digital technologies and sharp industrial design. In 2020 Teenage Engineering sold a modular speaker and lighting kit through Ikea, developed a “magic radio” that memorizes the music you play and can replay it in an endless loop, and created a new handheld machine that lets you compose vintage-sounding gaming tracks with a real 8-bit synthesizer and classic sounds from Street Fighter and Mega Man.

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7. Box Clever

For turning the small design consultancy on its head

Design consultancies have a tough business model: work for hire. That means a studio that creates the next hit product usually gets a flat fee for its work, while losing the longer-term upside to the business. Box Clever—hot off the creation of the hit direct-to-consumer brand Caraway cookware—wants to change that. Box Clever aims to make equity investments represent 70% of future revenue, with 30% of revenue brought in from traditional contract work. Big studios like Frog have tried this sort of model in the past, but how will a team with just 16 people pull it off? Box Clever is staging a new investment fund in 2021. This fund pays the studio’s own overhead for time spent on equity projects, allowing Box Clever to keep paychecks flowing while making bigger-bet investments.

8. Velan Studios

For rethinking play

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After four years of working stealthily, this experimental design studio, focused on finding new ways to play, debuted a surprise hit in September: Mario Kart Live. Using a real radio-controlled car, Mario Kart Live turns the digital game into a mixed-reality experience. Not only did Velan figure out how to elevate mixed reality from a gimmick to a must-play game, it also convinced Nintendo to put one of its biggest franchises on the line and try it right out of the gate.

9. HmntyCntrd

For challenging the ethics and equity of UX

Algorithms can be racist and discriminatory. Apps are built to put the needs of business plans first and consumers second. HmntyCntrd (which stands for “Humanity Centered”) is a self-ascribed professional growth community for UX specialists. Through classes and monthly meetups, the team unpacks creator privilege—what it actually takes to prioritize people in design—and within real work contexts as opposed to college campus theory. Launched in mid-2020, HmntyCntrd has already attracted employees from Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, LinkedIn, Shopify, Spotify, and Adobe.

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10. Callaly

For bringing UX to periods

Tampons can leak during heavy flow. Pads can feel inflexible and diaper-like. The startup Callaly developed a third option, called a tampliner. It’s a soft, cotton tampon that features a small, winged tip that tucks inside the labia to move with a woman’s body rather than her underwear. Since launching in 2020, Callaly has sold more than a million tampliners in the U.K. alone, and nearly half of customers reported that they would use a tampliner again. Now the company is planning global expansion into the U.S. and China.