Out of the 100 people featured in Fast Company’s 2013 list of the 100 most creative people working today, 13 are designers. This group of multidisciplinary visionaries hails from mega-companies like Starbucks and Disney, as well as smaller outfits like Baggu and LittleBits. A quick comparison of this list to our 2012 edition makes it clear that designers this year are playing an increasingly crucial role in business. Not only do we name more at the forefront of the list than we did in the past, but we’ve found that even at major tech or food companies, it’s the designers leading the charge toward creating new interaction experiences for consumers. We’ve highlighted people thinking about interaction in a macro way, such as how cities mesh with surrounding bodies of water, and micro, such as how we emotionally connect with apps on our smartphones. See who the designers are and where they rank below, and find the full list of 100 people here.
2. Dong-Hoom Chang, EVP, head of design at Samsung
Samsung–under the design direction of Dong-hoon Chang–has been killing the smartphone game, from the gargantuan Galaxy Note 2, which further popularized the “phablet” trend, to the Galaxy S III, which briefly unseated the iPhone last year as the best-selling phone in the world. To gather ideas during the development of the S III, Chang led his design team on a city-hopping observation tour around the globe, from hot-air-balloon rides in Africa to Singapore’s Skypark on the Marina Bay. He says the travels inspired the S III’s oval, pebblelike shape and shimmery color, as well as the water-ripple effect of its touchscreen. “We were able to come up with a new design paradigm,” he says. And with it, a cool factor to rival Apple’s.
3. Diana Balmori, Principal, Balmori Associates
“Landscape architecture,” says architect Diana Balmori, “is an agile tool kit for dealing with the complexity of the city.” That complexity–exacerbated by the now annual recurrence of “storms of the century”–has inspired her work for decades. Balmori has addressed lake and flooding issues in Minneapolis and Memphis, and now wants to buttress New York for the next Hurricane Sandy. Balmori’s plan calls for floating islands on the edge of Manhattan. The man-made islands, woven from ropes and marshy plants, would provide a buffer against heavy rainfall as well as extra land for urban farming.
11. Liz Muller, Director of Concept Design, Starbucks
“You can’t just take it for granted that the Starbucks sign is a powerful icon,” says Liz Muller, whose task is to introduce the chain into foreign markets via splashy flagship stores. Her efforts often stray from the first 18,000 shops’ formula, and while that consistency has garnered a devout customer base, Muller wants to consider how to design each new outpost as if the brand were opening today. She builds based on how cultures interact with brands: In Amsterdam, coffee without a biscuit is unthinkable, so the store tweets when warm pastries are ready. In New Delhi, customers come in groups for multiple cups, so soft lights and big tables encourage lounging. “The most sustainable thing is to make people truly want to be there,” she says.
15. Ivan Poupyrev, Senior Research Scientist, Disney Research
Every time you touch your iPhone’s screen, you create a circuit, and a small jolt of electricity shoots through your skin. As a result, your screen knows just where you touched it. Ivan Poupyrev had a theory: What if he sent a broad spectrum of AC current through everyday objects? Would those objects be able to sense touch? The answer is yes, and Touche is the sensor system developed by Poupyrev and his team at Disney to do it. Connect Touche to a living orchid and the plant’s entire skin becomes touch-sensitive just like a smartphone screen; attach it to a computer-music program and you can play the flower like a violin. Touche is compatible with almost any object you can grab–wooden tables, metal sculptures, water tanks, even breathing humans. Touche could make every square inch of Disney World responsive to touch–and open up a world of possibility for connecting objects to the Internet. “My long-term vision,” Poupyrev says, “is making the entire world interactive.”
22. Phill Ryu and David Lanham, Founders, Impending
The duo’s app studio had a hit last year with Clear, a to-do-list maker that uses commonsense touch gestures. Now they’re focusing their talents on Hatch, an app with perhaps the most charming virtual pet ever. “When we started, I’d gotten a dog, and that helped. Then I had my daughter, and that helped drive the animations,” of the initial impressions for creating a heart melting character. Also important to the cuteness factor are audio cues: “Noises and vocalizations are definitely big. We’ve been trying to model sounds off of puppy and kitten noises,” Ryu says. Instead of using precanned computer animation, like most app developers would, Lanham painstakingly drew 14,000 layered frames of animation to bring Hatch to life. “It’s the difference between a wooden puppet walking across the stage and an actual actor. You can tell there’s something more alive there. So in the end, you’re going to connect emotionally a lot faster.” Read more about their process here.
25. Jason Wilson, Lead Product Designer, Pinterest
Jason Wilson pulled off an impressive feat with Pinterest’s first major redesign last March: Its 28 million monthly users didn’t get out their digital pitchforks to skewer the visual social network. “Companies piss off their users when they don’t respect what they love about their products,” says Wilson, who, from November to January, worked 100-hour weeks, creating 70 “wildly different” versions of the site’s design. The redesign isn’t radical (the new Pinterest engine simply shows an endless scroll of others’ pins), but that wasn’t the goal. “A redesign is not about ego,” he says. “It’s about taking a fantastic product and making it better.”
31. Tony Fadell, Founder, CEO, Nest Labs
Tony Fadell, a onetime Apple VP who was one of the original designers of the iPod, now runs Nest Labs. His startup’s beautiful and intuitive smart thermostat has turned a dreary domestic device into a conversation piece, and inspired a new wave of automated home gear. “There are a lot of designers who think they understand technology and a lot of technology guys who think they understand design,” he says. “But to put them together and make it robust and repeatable for the mass market? It’s an art.”
32. Hosain Rahman, Founder, CEO, Jawbone
Hosain Rahman is the mastermind behind Jawbone, which has given flair to product categories, including the wireless speaker (Jambox) and the activity wristband (Up). Both men bring a strong design sensibility to their technological pursuits. “Nest and Jawbone have gone into spaces where there are giant, established players,” Rahman says. “You’re talking about companies such as Bose, which has been around since my grandfather’s time. And [Fadell] with Honeywell.” One advantage Rahman has over the competition is speed. “The efficiency with which we move and the speed at which we deliver is still faster than a lot of those big companies.”
At this year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival, in Austin, we asked the two friends to discuss the art–and business–of merging design and consumer electronics. See the full conversation here.
33. Ayah Bdeir, Founder, CEO, LittleBits
Ayah Bdeir was 12 when her dad signed her up for programming lessons. The only problem: “I wanted to be an architect,” she says. Today, Bdeir has merged the two disciplines and created LittleBits, like Lego sets for the 21st century that let tinkerers build their own electronics. Her neon-hued components snap together magnetically to form circuit boards, making it easy–and, more important, fun!–to construct anything from a remote-control car to an alarm clock to a talking puppet. LittleBits has caught on in the art and design worlds–this spring, New York’s Museum of Modern Art stores featured an installation of LittleBits creations–and Bdeir envisions her kits as tools for prototyping real products. “Everyone is creative,” she says, “and everyone is a techie.”
37. Darrin Crescenzi, Senior Designer, Prophet
Darrin Crescenzi ticks off his loves: “alphabetical order, hyphens, right angles, No. 2 pencils.” (What, not in alphabetical order?) But the New York–based designer isn’t all perpendiculars and pocket protectors. He was the creative mind behind a range of Nike branding campaigns, from the latest LeBron James logo to the typography on the 2012 Team U.S.A. Olympic basketball uniforms. Now, as a senior designer at global brand consultancy Prophet, Crescenzi works with companies ranging from Samsung to Visa. “I try to do a lot of sketching, mostly because I can’t not do it,” he says. “I’m known among my friends for always having these disgusting sketchbooks with me, which I make out of scrap paper. I’ll be at a bar and I’ll have this thing in front of me.”
60. Peter Marino, Principal, Peter Marino Architect
A Peter Marino–designed store works like a Ouija board: Customers float in a preordained direction–to a cash register. His eponymous firm, the go-to for the fashion houses Chanel, Christian Dior, and Louis Vuitton, finishes 80 projects per year and has to turn down a new project request every day. “Now that I’ve done more than 100,000 hours of design, ideas come in a nanosecond,” he says. For example, because only 20% to 30% of customers ever leave the ground floor, Marino created a more expansive staircase in Tokyo that creates better views of the second floors. It entices double the upstairs traffic, he says. And every room in the Louis Vuitton store has two to three clandestine cash registers. “You can’t have a line in a luxury business.” The flagship store reopens this September.
69. Emily Sugihara, Founder, Baggu
Former J.Crew designer Emily Sugihara gathers her team regularly to ask: “What do we want?” As she puts it, “All our products originate from someone saying, ‘I really need this.’” It’s a guiding principle for the company that she started in 2007, when she made her own chic and reusable shopping bag. Baggu now has 26 products, including a sling to carry a surfboard, and a collaboration with West Elm. Her products are on the shelves of Urban Outfitters, letting bag lovers everywhere see them and say: “That’s what I want.”
72. Ian Spalter, Director of Design and UX, Foursquare
Ian Spalter is constantly rethinking the look and feel of Foursquare’s app. He’s got a knack for inspiring creativity. His tricks? Work backward, for one. At interactive agency R/GA, Spalter used to create a product’s press release before his team started working on the product. The aim: Make sure the client and R/GA had the same goal. “I wrote it up as a Mad Libs, and they’d fill in the blanks,” he says. It helps nail down what’s important. Or, sketch your user. Spalter asked designers and engineers to “draw a person who they’d want using Foursquare, along with a nickname and one-sentence description.” They hung the drawings on the design-studio walls. Envisioning the user, he says, “helps people to focus.”
Written by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, Austin Carr, J.J. McCorvey, Matt McCue, Max Chafkin, Margaret Rhodes, and Mark Wilson