by Anne C. Lee (additional reporting by Linda Tischler)
1. BMW Group Designworks-USA
There's no reason your printer should be less elegant than a BMW Z4 Roadster. That's the thinking behind BMW Group DesignworksUSA. Partnering with the likes of Starbucks and HP, the design-consulting subsidiary is applying its design excellence and attitude to everything from coffeemakers to Nokia phones. Top 50 No. 25
From childhood obesity to climate change, no challenge is too daunting for this iconic firm. Ideo's Human Centered Design Toolkit, a free guide for NGOs and social enterprises working in the developing world, is a prime example. The collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides a clear process in a variety of fields to help raise people out of poverty. Top 50 No. 35
3. Rockwell Group
David Rockwell's set design for the Oscars was such a smash he did a sequel (his 2010 set above). His Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco opened to plaudits. Ditto, the Ames Hotel in Boston. And Sin City's financially fraught CityCenter is grounded by Rockwell's tree-house-like creation.
The firm dazzles for its partners' range of work, from Lisa Strausfeld's intuitive interface for the Litl netbook to Abbott Miller's elegant identity system for the Art Institute of Chicago.
It ping-ponged from designing Barnes & Noble's hot e-book reader Nook to developing high-performance earphones for celebrity clients such as Lady Gaga and Dr. Dre.
In addition to new lamps for Herman Miller, new Jawbone headsets for Aliph, and the world's fastest production-electric motorcycle for Mission Motors, Yves Béhar and his team got frisky, with a bunny-eared sex toy for Jimmyjane and an eco-friendly underwear venture with PACT.
7. Frog Design
When it wasn't helping bring wireless communications to rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, Frog was planning workshops for MTV and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help kids brainstorm, peer to peer, on how to pay for college.
In 2009, Potion produced interactive installations that get computing out of the box: four for Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and two for New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage. One used iPod Touch devices to upgrade audio guides, and synced headsets for visitors in the same area to make the museum experience more social.
This London firm gets the systems thinking that's vital for executing large-scale projects. Its reboot of Coca-Cola's brand-identity platform is now deployed worldwide. Lexus, Scion, and Nike are also clients.
10. WET Design
Its Dubai Fountain is now the world's largest, with jets that shoot a record 50 stories high. Vegas boasts Lumia, the only fountain lit during the day (with stage lights, a first), and Focus, the world's widest water wall (280 feet wide, 24 feet high). WET's own campus has Los Angeles's first permeable grass parking lot, meaning rainwater is captured and reused.