Sure, everyone loves lists and rankings, but sometimes they can be more limiting than informational. When facing the challenge of naming the 50 most influential designers currently working in the United States, the editors of Fast Company magazine and its site Co.Design felt that an old-school, linear list isn’t really justified, given the hyper-creative, cross-pollinating realm of design today.
The traditional categories are blurring. Just take a look at the 50 names on the infographic above (designed by Kristina Dimatteo), published both online in interactive form and in Fast Company’s annual October print “Masters of Design” issue. Today, industrial designers have to also consider how software works whenever they create a new smartphone or tablet computer (the obvious example: Apple’s Jonathan Ive). Architects design jewelry and medical equipment (Frank Gehry and Michael Graves, respectively). And then there are designers who defy the usual categories, creating such experimental, thought-provoking objects as robotic dogs that can document and analyze environmental conditions (Natalie Jeremijenko).
The Co.Design 50, as the chart is called, is colorful matrix. Its X axis indicates a range from “virtual” to “physical,” and its Y axis ranges from “maker” to “thinker.” The names of the designers are plotted across a spectrum of colors, each representing a discipline, from information design to transportation design. Architecture and fashion as well as graphic, product/object, and environmental design also appear in between. Along with superstars like Ive, there are less-established names largely unknown to the mainstream, such as Facebook’s recent hire Nicholas Felton, known for his eye-catching infographics.
The matrix isn’t meant to suggest value, meaning the decision to plot some names far away from “thinker” and closer to “maker” isn’t intended as a judgement on a designer’s level of intelligent output. Instead, “thinker” refers to those design-world figures who might write, lecture, curate, or teach about the theory of design (Jeremijenko, for instance, or the Museum of Modern Art’s senior curator of architecture and design, Paola Antonelli) more than others.
When looking at the online, interactive version of the chart, you’ll find cogent, Haiku-like summaries of each designer’s work. Scroll across the name “Eric Rodenbeck,” for example, and you’ll read “founded Stamen, a data-visualization firm that mapped American military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan for CNN.” Drag your cursor across “Lisa Strausfeld” and you’ll see “Created novel interfaces for the $100 XO laptop and the Litl Webbook.”
Anticipating discussion (and backlash) on the infographic’s design as well as the editorial decisions of what designers are included, Co.Design editor Cliff Kuang wrote in his announcement of the chart’s publication, “I expect many [comments] to be unkind. But I hope that many others will be constructive.” Yes, it was a daring choice to create a non-linear infographic instead of a typical list or chart, and include a stunningly broad mix of people. But it’s one that’s timely and appropriately experimental, laying out the dynamic, hard-to-define, and ever-evolving state of design in America today.
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Image used with permission of Fast Company.