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The most innovative design companies of 2022

How companies such as Ford, Crocs, Motorola Solutions, and Pella (yes, the window maker) are developing bold, efficient ways to address today’s most pressing challenges.

The most innovative design companies of 2022

Explore the full 2022 list of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, 528 organizations whose efforts are reshaping their businesses, industries, and the broader culture. We’ve selected the firms making the biggest impact with their initiatives across 52 categories, including the most innovative media, style, and consumer goods companies.

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2021 was a disappointing year, to say the least. What was supposed to be a fresh start ended up being more of the same—COVID-19 closing offices and shutting down travel, political forces trying to reverse a tenuous climb toward equity. 2021 made progress feel elusive.

But at the same time, it was a year for innovation and fresh thinking—and that’s what Fast Company is focusing on with the 10 Most Innovative Companies in Design list. The biggest trend was in hygiene design. 2020 brought a lot of well-meaning attempts to thwart COVID-19, such as sterilizers of surfaces (which aren’t the primary way the airborne virus spreads) or plexiglass shields installed in public spaces (which actually stop air from circulating, allowing the virus to pool). But 2021 brought companies like Poppy and Fend—which developed scientifically backed tools to monitor our environments for pathogens, and enhance our own bodies to fight off viruses—while the 77-year-old window company Pella seized the moment to make a window that’s easier to open to let fresh air into buildings. Motorola Solutions, meanwhile, launched a new, streamlined software suite for 911 dispatchers to make our scariest moments more manageable.

2021’s design milestones weren’t all COVID-19 related, of course. Michigan became the first state ever to reinstate an HBCU with the design and business college Pensole Lewis, which will be free to attend when it opens this year. Ford is transforming the best-selling vehicle of all time into an electric, home-powering wonder machine. The DreamCube reimagines virtual reality as a social experience more akin to bowling. Samsung is proving that kitchen appliances can come in a color other than stainless steel. Crocs figured out how to be ugly and cool and maybe not so ugly after all. And Canva, at the top of this list, is a $40 billion company making design software that allows anyone to design anything.

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The world may still be on fire, but our top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Design showcase several ways that businesses are making sure that better days lie ahead.

1. Canva

For democratizing design

Design platform Canva’s Trojan Horse into enterprise software was its flexible slideshow maker, Presentations, which brought the tired slide deck into the 21st century when it took off a few years ago. Presentations isn’t just easy to use. It gives decks interactivity, letting users edit on mobile devices; embed slideshows with videos, maps, and social media posts; share via live URLs; and collaborate seamlessly. Today, Canva’s customers, many of them small and midsize businesses without the resources for a professional design team, use the company’s platform to create much more than slide decks and paper goods like business cards and flyers. Canva’s software suite keeps pace with—and anticipates—how companies communicate, internally and externally. Last year, Canva released a suite of tools to help businesses disseminate social media posts and help with video creation. And this year, it plans to take on the ubiquitous PDF with the launch of a tool that turns any design into a single-serve website. Canva has more than 75 million monthly active users across 190 countries and expects to exceed $1 billion in annualized revenue “imminently.” More than 800,000 teams are paying for the product in some capacity. After a recent $200 million fundraise, Canva is now valued at $40 billion.

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Canva is No. 10 on this year’s list of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies.

2. Ford Motor Co.

For building America’s electric vehicle

The F-150 Lightning, which goes on sale in 2022 after much fanfare, is the electrified version of the best-selling vehicle in U.S. history. This is a moment. On top of entering the market as an affordable EV performance version of America’s favorite vehicle and reaching nearly 200,000 preorders before Ford paused them, the F-150 is also a backup storage battery for your home that can run for days on end. This is just the sort of advanced, vehicle-to-grid power-sharing technology that researchers at UCLA proved out years ago and nearly everyone in the energy industry agrees is needed to balance power loads. But Ford is the first manufacturer bold enough to ship the option. However, car watchers shouldn’t let too much electric truck distract them from Ford’s other exciting releases. The company’s other new truck, the Maverick, starts at under $20,000. Its open bed is designed to be hacked with 2x4s, for anything from storing plants to constructing your own camping setup. In 2022, Ford has made buying a truck a tantalizing option.

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[Illustration: Daniel Salo; Photo: Eric Zachanowich]

3. Crocs

For the comeback, and doing collabs the right way

Credit Yeezy, COVID-19, and a steadfast marketing plan, but Crocs has simply exploded this year in sales, which grew 67% in 2021. Trace the turnaround back a few years, and you’ll see a carefully honed strategy to cement the Croc Clog as an icon on par with Timberlands and Sperrys. More recently, the company has mastered the collab, from reskinning the clog with brands like KFC, Minecraft, and Snapchat to handing the silhouette to sneaker god Salehe Bembury to redesign for hypebeasts. (The Bembury model sold out instantly, and reached four-figure resale prices on StockX.) Then, to finish off 2021, the company announced plans to acquire the casual footwear brand Hey Dude for $2.5 billion. Crocs hopes to push its revenue to more than $5 billion a year by 2026, not counting Hey Dude’s contributions. Sure, the Yeezy foam runner and Birkenstock molded sandal have both lent some cultural capital to Crocs over the past few years, but Crocs is responding to the moment with a come-as-you-are statement that the public is loving.

4. Samsung

For thinking beyond stainless steel

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You only have to look at the Samsung Bespoke line of home appliances to see how developed the company’s design POV has become. Bespoke is a line of refrigerators that you can customize in both shape and color. With a modular design, they can be as skinny as a locker or as wide as a commercial fridge, and include options to increase or decrease your freezer space, as you see fit. But what stands out most are their colors. Each panel on the fridge can be colored to your tastes. While Samsung Korea hopes to eventually incorporate 4,000 different Benjamin Moore paints on Bespoke appliances, for now, the line is available in eight shades and three finishes, including glass and matte glass. Samsung is now aggressively adding more appliances to its Bespoke line. At the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, the company announced plans to expand Bespoke to include ranges, microwaves, and even a new vacuum cleaner.

5. Poppy

For creating a COVID smoke detector

Poppy’s discreet air detector boxes are designed to look like everyday smoke detectors but are built to spot COVID-19 and more than 1,000 other pathogens. The device continuously samples the air via a collection tray that looks a lot like a COVID-19 test strip, using static electricity to pull viruses in without a loud fan. Each day, a building manager sends these strips to a lab, where analysis is done using a highly accurate LAMP test. (LAMP methodology proved to be effective at identifying SARS-CoV-2 in previous, peer-reviewed research.) In late 2020, Poppy launched a subscription service, and now has its devices installed at more than 100 locations, including offices, theaters, and Vancouver International Airport. Poppy is also working with a major company to test cleaning-product formulations in the real world. Subscriptions start at a few hundred dollars per month and scale by the size and scope of a project. Users benefit from turnkey installation, a simple UX, and 3D maps of indoor airflows that have never been seen before. Poppy isn’t just an important startup; it’s a precursor to a new era of building-based hygiene.

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6. DreamCube

For building VR that people might actually like

Local Projects was named Fast Company‘s 2021 Design Company of the Year for giving museumgoers meaningful experiences. A new spinoff firm it helped launch, DreamCube, is bringing interactive, social VR games . . . pretty much anywhere. The product is literally a cube, which cleverly projects interactive content on three walls and the floor. Its modular design can work with any standard floor plan. But the interaction is what’s so incredible. You can dribble a soccer ball, and the DreamCube will highlight it with a spotlight. Kick it against a wall, and it’ll explode and sparkle. The best part of the design is that the action actually takes place in an open room, so the experience feels like real life and not some creepy metaverse. The DreamCube, which the New York-based company launched commercially in 2021, is already in 16 locations across China, through a partnership with Manchester United. Most exciting is a nascent deal with the NBA.

7. Motorola Solutions

For empowering responders during our worst emergencies

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In 2021, Motorola Solutions launched a new system called CommandCentral for 911 dispatchers. Think: the workflow integration capabilities of Office 365 but for telephone operators who work in a high stress environment, with tons of employee turnover. The suite collects data from 911 calls, body cameras, field reports, records, and evidence, and makes it actionable by offering dispatchers a comprehensive view of an incident. The platform also eliminates all the silos that created barriers between different parts of the public safety workflow (routing calls, dispatching, intaking data, and managing post incident documentation), allowing teams to collaborate more seamlessly and share information up and downstream with ease. So far, the approach is catching on. In Q3 of last year, following the launch of CommandCentral, 75% of customer orders were either new to the suite or purchasing one or more additional products in it.

8. Pella

For windows that are a breeze to open

If the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that our indoor air is incredibly polluted—be it by SARS-CoV-2, off-gassing furniture, or even our “clean burning” kitchen stove. And sometimes the best solution is simply to open a window. Window and door manufacturer Pella came out with a notable innovation that replaces the unwieldy, yet ubiquitous, crank mechanism for windows. The accessible and inclusive Easy-Slide Operator enables users to open and close windows just by sliding a small bar up or down the inside of the window jam. The weight and difficulty in opening even a large window is absorbed by ball bearings and a kevlar belt. Glass windows have been around since 100 A.D. Two thousand years later, they keep getting better.

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9. Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design

For bringing equity to design education

Over the last decade, the free Pensole Design Academy (led by D’Wayne Edwards, the former head of Air Jordan design at Nike) has placed more than 500 young, aspiring designers into internships in the footwear and apparel industry. Last year, the academy initiated its most ambitious project yet: reopening Michigan’s only HBCU, Lewis College of Business, as Pensole Lewis College, to offer free classes that are subsidized by major players in shoe design, from Nike to Versace. Lewis’s HBCU status was reinstated by the state of Michigan in late 2021; Pensole is set to open in May of 2022.

10. Fend

For breathing life into a new handheld virus-defense technology

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The Harvard scientist who developed a novel COVID-19-fighting aerosol technology called Fend in 2020 partnered in 2021 with design firm Ammunition (Beats by Dre, Ember) to create a $21 disposable nasal mister that helps prevent the contraction of COVID-19 or any other airborne virus. After using the device, which contains tiny particles of saltwater fortified with calcium (e.g., seawater), a person breathes out 99% fewer respiratory droplets that could carry disease and make other people sick, and prevents inhaled droplets from reaching the lungs. Research—funded by groups including the National Institutes of Health, German public funding, and the Premji Foundation—has demonstrated efficacy, and a Moderna cofounder has voiced support of the technology, even though it is not to be used instead of a mask. Whereas the original Fend device was heavy, fragile, expensive, and required batteries, Ammunition’s miniaturized version is durable, ergonomically shaped, and preloaded with enough solution to use for a month. And when you’re done, you can send it back to Fend to be recycled. (Ammunition founder Robert Brunner became an investor in the company.) Fend says that 10 months’ worth of product sold out within 10 days after it launched commercially in October 2021. The average consumer purchases four Fend misters at a time. As for the future of Fend, don’t be surprised to see a higher-end, refillable, app-connected version arrive down the line.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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