Maybe the oldest question in the world is "What's new?" It's certainly the oldest question in the various worlds of design. If it weren't for constant change, how could anyone prove he or she was designing in the first place? Priests, waiters, violinists--some people can go on doing pretty much what they did 30 years ago. But if an architect proposes the same building today that she would have produced in 1970, she isn't designing things, she's just making them, the way Colonial American cabinetmakers used to bang out identical highboys from the diagrams in old British copybooks. Innovation is one of the engines of a market society, a point where economics converges with aesthetics.
It was around the 1920s, for instance, that automakers hit upon the profitable notion of yearly style "advances" for new cars, the aesthetic equivalent of planned obsolescence. Change for its own sake also helped generate the annual couture collection, which led in turn to style crazes and recreational shopping, which led in turn to fashion victims, but that's another story.
All the same, design can be the place where art converges with ethics, as it does in some of the work by the people profiled here, the first of 100 in a new series on the world's most innovative people. With them, determined imagination has rescued ruined landscapes or built housing for refugees. Design can also be the point where art meets science--some of these creative characters use computers the way another generation used pencils. In the end, design can even be the place where art and commerce both meet metaphysics. It is, after all, mostly by the sum of what designers produce that we understand ourselves to be living in a particular time. Nature is so slow to change that we can hardly grasp the flow of things. It is the world we manufacture that shows us how time passes. "Then" was when things looked that way. Now is when they look this way. Here are people making that way go this way.
--By Richard Lacayo
For more on the Innovators, go to time.com