Tastemakers Series: Industrial Designers
By Tiffany Meyers, January 2005
We live in a world of stuff. It accumulates in our homes, garages and offices. We tuck it into nightstands and glove compartments. Occasionally we throw it out, but, inevitably, we go out and buy more stuff. In fact, we’re buying more stuff every year. In 2004, Americans spent $987.8 billion on durable goods such as motor vehicles, furniture and household equipment, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
But even in this cycle of gather, dispose, repeat, there are objects that stand out. From the new BMW 7-Series to candy-colored iMacs, these are the products whose ingenuity captures our imaginations and whose lines catch our eye. These are the chairs that straighten our slouches, the containers that prevent us from spilling on our laps, the handy tools that are triumphs of form and function. They are the vehicles that transport us along roads–and even through the stratosphere–in comfort and style. “Good industrial design identifies unmet needs,” says Alistair Hamilton, vice president of customer experience and design for Symbol Technologies in Holtsville, N.Y., “and then fulfills those needs.”
Industrial designers must draw from a range of competencies–including ethnography, engineering, ergonomics, manufacturing and marketing, among others–to create everything from spaceships to sippy cups, interiors to interfaces.
This fall, Forbes.com celebrates the people whose innovations provide beauty and functionality where otherwise there’d be clutter or coarseness. To identify the ten most influential industrial designers working today, we talked with industry insiders and tracked print-media coverage over the last year as recorded by Factiva.
We asked readers for their input via an online poll and looked at important recent projects, major awards and–as always–dollar figures.
Industrial design is a pretty anonymous field. Unless you travel in design circles, the names Masamichi Udagawa and Sigi Moeslinger of New York’s Antenna Design probably won’t ring a bell, but their influence is profound.
If you’re one of the New York City subway system’s 4.7 million daily straphangers, you’ve likely been in one of their subway cars, about 1,800 of which have been put into service since their 2000 introduction.
Some of the designers on our list may be a bit more familiar–or at least their designs will be. Swiss-born Yves Béhar, 38, is the genius behind Aliph’s sleek Jawbone headset, a high-performing must-have for cell phone users who want to hear and be heard.
New York-based Karim Rashid, who’s created more than 2,000 products including such classics as the Garbo trash can and Oh Chair, has become a brand unto himself with an eponymous shop in New York and gig on USA Network’s reality show for designers, Made in the USA.
In design, there are few superstars. One of those few is Paris-born polymath Philippe Starck, who has created some of the most iconic objects of our time–like that spidery Juicy Salif juicer for Alessi, housed in kitchens and museums alike–as well as the interior spaces that contain them.
He’s designed the private apartments of former French President François Mitterrand, Café Costes in Paris, and the Delano Hotel in Miami, to name a few.
The impact of design is difficult–if not impossible–to quantify. A U.K.-based trade association, the Design Council, attempted to measure the payoff of good design with its Design Index Report, the only study of its kind.
The organization tracked the share-price performance of a “design index” of 63 design-forward British companies–identified on the basis of consistent showing in prestigious design awards shows–from 1994 to 2004.
Shares of design-aware companies, including Diageo, Glaxo- SmithKline and the Rolls-Royce Group, outperformed the FTSE 100 and FTSE All Share indices by a full 200% over that ten-year period. The more companies invest in design, the more likely they are to see success, according to the Design Council.
Whether you buy that logic or not, big business is increasingly getting into the business of design. These days, companies from Procter & Gamble to Target are putting design innovation at the center of their differentiation strategies. Among these corporate evangelists of design, Apple Computer has reaped particularly impressive rewards.
Spurred by a 220% growth in iPods, Apple announced revenue of $3.68 billion for its fiscal 2005 fourth quarter (ended September 2005), the highest in the company’s history.
We’ve provided financial context to our list by providing relevant statistics, such as estimated annual sales or sales of top-selling products, for the designers who made our list.
Of course, just a small slice of a product’s retail sales typically circles back to the studio, as most product designers are compensated in hourly rates, straight salaries or royalties.
Plus, many of the most important firms, like Antenna and Palo Alto’s IDEO, create one-off environments and services, not just merchandise.
But money doesn’t tell the whole story. What dollar amount could be put on a planet without waste? Architect and designer William McDonough of MBDC in Charlottesville, Va., envisions a world of products and buildings as regenerative as the ecosystem itself.
Some of the designers on the list are working on a grand commercial scale–engineering impresario Burt Rutan, of Mojave’s Scaled Composites, created SpaceShipOne, a privately funded spacecraft poised to make the moon a tourist destination.
Others create simple designs to solve the world’s most complicated problems, sacrificing high yields for the greater good. Martin Fisher, the visionary co-founder of San Francisco-based nonprofit KickStart International, has gone without pay for two of the past 15 years.
But his low-tech, affordable tools–like the Super-MoneyMaker irrigation pump–have enabled the launch of 38,000 new small-scale enterprises in Africa, lifting 190,000 people from poverty to date. Although $3 million in pump sales since 1999 is puny by most standards, KickStart’s impact is huge.
Whether high- or low-tech, industrial design is successful to the extent that its development is collaborative. The iPod’s looks might take our breath away, but its form alone could not have radically altered our relationship to music–the programmers who wrote iTunes played a huge role.
Yet even in an inherently collective endeavor, industrial design offers up ten innovators whose contributions are undeniably singular.
Go to Forbes.com to read profiles of each industrial designer on this list.