Earlier this year, we put out a call to the design and business communities: What are the best design-driven innovations of the past year? More than 1,100 companies and organizations responded, offering 1,700 nominees in nine categories. An all-star group of 27 judges—from MoMA curator Paola Antonelli to Nicholas Felton of Facebook—worked with us to identify 56 finalists. Presented on the following pages, these standouts represent the creative explosion under way in our economy. (All of the finalists were introduced or came to market in the year ending June 1, 2012.) The winners will be unveiled on October 16 in New York. As you’ll see as you read ahead, they are all worth cheering.
Here, the finalists for the "Consumer Products" category.
Hulger Design and Samuel Wilkinson
Finally, a CFL lightbulb that’s beautiful. The Plumen took three years of development to bring to market, a commitment that Antonelli says "is worth rewarding."
NewDealDesign and Lytro
The Lytro brings to life cutting-edge "light field" photographic research: Unlike all other cameras, it doesn’t have to be focused because its sensors capture multiple focal points. The elegant design embodies that originality; you hold the Lytro like a spyglass.
Arduino, an open-source platform for hacking together DIY gadgets, is a geek’s dream. Teagueduino makes the powerful platform easy enough for novices.
Nike Digital Sport with Astro Studios and R/GA
The Nike+ Fuelband, which tracks your daily movement and workout performance, is designed to make the stats of your physical activity something to check as often as the time. "Networks of objects are going to change everything," says Webb. "Fuelband points to that."
Nest Labs with Bould Design
The device’s simple UI and algorithms that learn your living patterns mean that Nest can fulfill its promise of cutting your heating and cooling bills by 20%—in contrast with the 90% of "smart" thermostats that never get programmed because they’re hard to use.
Switch Lighting with Lunar
This LED bulb, which casts as much light as a 75-watt incandescent, is dimmable and instant-on—all made possible by an extraordinary liquid-cooling system.
Drosselmeyer Design Group
Key rings are singularly awful on your nails and fingers, so it’s a wonder that it took so long to make one that’s utterly easy to use: You just press down to open the ring. "Every woman can sympathize," says Antonelli. "Innovations really can be as simple as that."
In just a few years, 3-D–printing pioneer MakerBot has transformed something akin to a science experiment into a full-blown consumer product. This iteration is the first to print in two colors and with multiple materials at once. "It reminds me what happened when computers stopped looking geeky," says Webb. "MakerBot made that leap really fast."
It took Nike four years of "micro-engineering" to invent a process for knitting a shoe. The sustainable benefit: It’s 19% lighter than similar, nonknit models and uses far less material since making the uppers leaves no off-cuts.
The BioLite can turn any biomass into a hyper-efficient heat source and can also charge gadgets. More ingenious: Each sale subsidizes a cheaper model that is distributed in developing countries. "It speaks to a tremendous amount of real-world research," says Gebbia.
Paola is a senior curator in the department of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She has lectured worldwide in settings ranging from peer conferences to global interdisciplinary gatherings and has served on international architecture and design juries. Antonelli’s goal is to promote design’s understanding, until its positive influence on the world is fully acknowledged.
Joe is the CPO and co-founder of Airbnb, a global network of accommodations offered by locals. Gebbia defines the Airbnb experience and is dedicated to creating an inspiring and effortless user experience through sharp, intuitive design, and crafts the product roadmap to make it so. Gebbia values products that simplify life and have a positive impact on the environment, and ensures that the company adheres to these tenets.
Matt is CEO and principal at the design consultancy Berg. He and his firm work with companies to research and develop their technologies and strategy, primarily by finding opportunities in networks and physical things. Berg has designed numerous products including Mag+, Suwappu, and the Little Printer.
A version of this article appears in the October 2012 issue of Fast Company.