The electric car was never considered a luxury vehicle worthy of six figures until Elon Musk unveiled his magnificently designed, lust-worthy Tesla. Nest showed that a smoke and carbon-dioxide monitor could become an object of desire--and lead to a $3.2 billion acquisition by Google--if it was both gorgeous and brilliantly functional. And the folks at Method showed that with a rocking design aesthetic, even soap, the most prosaic commodity imaginable, could be sexy--and fly off the shelves.
Any entrepreneur paying attention to recent trends has learned that embracing beautiful design--of both products and solutions--confers an entrepreneurial edge. Regardless of the size of your marketing budget or your advertising throw-weight, great design can propel your product into the public's imagination. It's an edge available to any company that makes a commitment to building both simplicity and brilliant thinking into its creations.
That's good news for the businesses featured in the first annual Inc. Best In Class Awards, which honor products that are smartly designed, and sold, by American entrepreneurs. The products that took first place in their categories all solved a problem creatively and were manufactured with a design sensibility that not only helps put new products on the map but also seems likely to ignite consumer demand.
"People have no tolerance anymore for bad design," says Bill Burnett, executive director of the design program at Stanford University and one of the Best in Class judges. "That's why good design is just essential to good business." In order for a design to succeed, it really has to do two things: It must solve a problem in a unique way, and it must surprise us, or "delight" us, as Burnett says.
Achieving that success has become simpler in the past several years. Makers now have access to a range of sophisticated and inexpensive design, prototyping, and beta-testing tools that offer functions once available to only the largest designers and manufacturers. Affordable 3-D printing technology and online communities such as Pinterest, Instagram, and Kickstarter are helping designers quickly identify trends, test ideas, prototype products, and find funding. For example, the team that designed our Accessories category winner, the KOR Nava Water Bottle, used 3-D printers to test various cap, lid, and straw designs. Then they took to Kickstarter to expose the product to a passionate and savvy group of potential consumers. Audio+Visual category winner Zipbuds likewise sought design feedback from a variety of online communities.
When Hyperlite Mountain Gear was creating the UltaMid outdoor shelter, winner of the Recreation category, it used input from an army of global adventure enthusiasts who stress-tested the design under extreme conditions. Hyperlite also got feedback from product reviews posted on recreation website OutdoorGearLab, which resulted in important changes before final production.
Product design is also benefiting from huge advancements in software technology. Electrical engineers, software developers, and designers can now collaborate far earlier in the creative process.
"The idea of putting a circuit in something to make it connect to the Internet or interact with the user is not daunting anymore," says Tomorrow Lab's Pepin Gelardi, another Best in Class judge.
Great design, our Best in Class winners know, is the great equalizer. It allows even the smallest company to snatch success from giant competitors. That's why our judges, a veritable pantheon of top design thinkers, were enthusiastic about being part of our Best in Class Awards, even though this is the first year we've given them. They wanted to meet the Teslas, Methods, and Nests of tomorrow. You can meet them, too. Turn the page, and enjoy how beautiful, creative, and game-changing entrepreneurial design can be.
2014 Best In Class Award Judges
Our distinguished judging panel features industry pioneers, successful entrepreneurs, and leading-edge creative thinkers.
Adler launched his first ceramics collection in 1994 at Barneys New York. Four years later, he expanded into housewares, opening his first namesake boutique in Manhattan. Jonathan Adler now has more than 25 stores worldwide, a thriving e-commerce site, and a wholesale business boasting more than 1,000 locations globally.
Founder and President
An inventor, entrepreneur, roboticist, and designer, Banks holds an engineering degree and an M.S. in robotics from MIT, as well as a B.S. in general physics from the University of Michigan. Her design company, RockPaperRobot, explores the intersection of art, technology, and décor. She has worked on robotic projects for Frank Gehry and Michel Gondry.
Design program, Stanford University
A graduate of Stanford's design program, Burnett has designed a range of products, including award-winning Apple PowerBooks and some original Star Wars action toys. He holds 13 patents and numerous design awards. He helped design the first "slate" computer, a precursor to the tablet.
Executive Creative Director
Damon's clients have included AT&T, Chrysler/Fiat, Colgate-Palmolive, Comcast, Google, PepsiCo, and Verizon. Raised in Germany, Damon graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and has been a visiting instructor at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs (ENSAD) in Reims, France, and the Royal College of Art in London.
Partner, Product Strategy and Industrial Design
Gelardi began his design career developing products for his family's injection molding business in Maine. Since then, he has worked at P&G, Inch, and Fahrenheit 212, developing products and brands for startups and Fortune 50 companies. He trained as an industrial designer and mechanical engineer.
Breed Junior Chair of Design
Segal Design Institute, Northwestern University
Before joining the Segal Design Institute, Gerber taught business and design at Stanford's d.school and spent 12 years researching and designing award-winning innovation programs for universities and S&P 500 companies across the globe. She is a co-founder of Design for America.
Co-founder and President
Formerly VP of innovation at Clif Bar and senior designer at IDEO, Grimmer is a pioneer in the design and consumer products industries. As head of one of the fastest-growing organic food brands in the U.S., Grimmer led the launch of 150-plus products, including the award-winning spouted pouch, a packaging that has revolutionized the baby-food category.