words Justin McGuirk, Johanna Agerman, William Wiles, Anna Bates, Beatrice Galilee, Oliver Wainwright, Alex Pasternack, Matthew Barac, Sean Dodson
It's a snapshot of a generation. You may remember that last year we published our 20 Essential Young Architects (icon 058). Well, this time we've expanded it and shifted the agenda slightly so that it's not just about recognising emerging talent, but picking out the people who are doing things differently. And we haven't repeated any of the 2008 names.
We tried to capture the diversity of design disciplines today - the definitions of these are becoming ever looser. Many of the people on this list are stretching the boundaries of their practice, operating effectively in between disciplines. And we also wanted to acknowledge that some of the most influential figures in their fields are not necessarily practising architects and designers but teachers, funders, researchers and even businessmen. Also, while many of these figures are young, this is not about youth per se: one of the 40 is a middle-aged businessman and another is dead. Oh, and you're on the list too.
There are some differences between the architecture and design sections. It was often easier to judge how pioneering someone was in design than in architecture. Plus, it's very difficult for a young architect to be influential through built projects.
Broadly, this list is as global as we could make it, with entries from China, India and Latin America. The architects in particular are an international bunch. But we still get frustrated by the Western hegemony over design. If we do this next year, we're toying with the idea of indulging in some positive discrimination and only including people from outside Western Europe and the USA.
And we should mention that this is our list, and as such it is completely unscientific; it simply conforms to the limitations that we set ourselves, and often those were instinctive. However, we did call on an international network of expert friends, and we are very grateful to them for nominating people and for their advice in general.
01. Ben Fry / Casey Reas
Visualisation is digital imagery that makes sense of complex data by presenting it in graphic form. Design critic Alice Rawsthorn, who nominated Ben Fry and Casey Reas, calls it "the most important new visual language of our time". Fry and Reas are not quite the fathers of the "visualisation" phenomenon, but they took a language that belonged to computer science and made it accessible to the design community at large.
In 2007, these two former students of John Maeda at the MIT Media Lab released Processing, an open source software system that is particularly well-suited to information design, but can be used for digital fabrication or to create animation or graphic artworks. Essentially, the vaguely computer-savvy can use it to write whatever programs they might need. "It's allowing a whole new audience to approach using computers in a radical way - now they can customise their own software," says Reas. For the bigger picture, see the last entry in this list, entitled You (page 092).
Holistic car manufacturer Think is 17 years old. It is now on its third owner, having been bought and dumped by Ford and Kamkorp. Its product, one of only two crash-tested electric cars in the world, was ridiculed by the BBC's Top Gear. It nearly went bust last year. But Think has hung in there, with a devoted team of designers guided by one of the few women in the industry, Katinka von der Lippe - and the Norwegian manufacturer is finally about to get its break. The 100 refined models released are in huge demand and the car went global this year. The plastic-shelled Think City is almost completely recyclable, charges overnight, has a range of 200km and can travel at up to 105 km/h. "Von der Lippe is fantastically good at what she does and very good at working with the right people," says Dale Harrow, head of vehicle design at the Royal College of Art. "It's a different approach to a car but it's exceptionally good."
03. Oron Catts / Ionat Zurr
In 2004 Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr grew a tiny "victimless leather" jacket in a large test tube. Harvested from human and mouse cells, it was the first time living tissue had been grown into anything resembling a commercial product, and it sparked feverish speculation about the possible future of design. Catts, however, who is based with his partner Zurr at the University of Western Australia in Perth, intended it as an object for ethical debate. That's why, even though he trained as an industrial designer, he prefers to call himself an artist: "Because this is a disturbing area, and people believe designers more than they believe artists."
He feels that many of the designers currently being influenced by his work misunderstand it, and that biotech design itself is being over-hyped - tissue engineering is still a long way from producing functional objects. Nevertheless, Catts' Symbiotica laboratory is pioneering that development, and he can take personal credit for lifting biotechnology out of the preserve of medicine and into design. "In the next 10 to 15 years we'll see tissue-engineered meat products on the market," he says. And he wants us all to think about how we feel about that.
04. Ben Reason
Ben Reason's raw material is systems. The initiator of "service design" company Live/Work, Reason is putting the increasingly influential idea of generic "design thinking" into practice, using it to try and solve social problems.
Reason set up the studio with two industrial designers to solve social issues by hacking into defunct services and re-organising them, linking them with others, or building them afresh. The studio represents the expansion of design into a new area, but although it's a relatively new approach, it's truer to the more traditional idea of design than many practices working today - to improve the way we live.
So far the studio has initiated a project in Sunderland to help get locals on incapacity benefit back into work. They built a 280-strong network connecting local employers with specialist carers such as mental health and drug rehabilitation organisations. Among the 800 helped was a former heroin addict, who thanks to a chat between his carers and some local employers is now a trained forklift truck driver. Another project was with Streetcar, a pay-as-you-go car-sharing service in London. While the idea was already in operation, it was down to the service designers to turn it into a desirable product and make it successful.
Service has taken a back seat to capitalism - but as our systems continue to dissolve into Pynchonian chaos, service design will be needed to make sense of the sprawl and link it up. "We want to get involved with things on a national scale," says Reason. "There are lots of things that are wrong and they don't have to be. A bit of design in organisations like the NHS is needed."
Maps have become an increasingly important way of seeing both the online and offline worlds. San Francisco-based Stamen Design is at the forefront of building a new generation of tools that allow people to manipulate maps in such a way that the raw information available online becomes useful in hitherto unimagined ways.
One example of this is a sophisticated journey-time planner which allows the user to compare different types of data, for instance to find streets within 30 minutes of the Olympic stadium where the average house price is below a certain level. This is an example, says Michal Migurski, one of Stamen's partners alongside Eric Rodenbeck and Shawn Allen, of the studio's guiding principle. Whereas resources like Google Maps have provided what he calls an "80% solution", allowing you to answer specific queries and making things like finding local shops online a common act, Stamen wants to deliver the remaining 20%. "[In traditional routefinding] you know where you are and you know where you're going and the routefinder is telling you how to get from point A to point B efficiently," says Migurski. "And what we became interested in is this idea that you may not know where you're going, and you might use the sum of all possible routes to find out where you might go in the first place."
The studio has also built interfaces that allow users to see videos posted to Flickr arranged on a timeline, or to play with the data gathered by real estate website Trulia, or to see crime hotspots in the city of Oakland, California. Whereas the web has grown up as a thing to be searched, Stamen's tools make it a thing to be explored.