I.D. magazine's January/February issue sees the return of a feature introduced by former editor Chee Pearlman: the annual I.D. Forty. These individuals are, in the magazine's assessment, the most influential figures currently at work in global design. I.D. goes a step further this time round by ranking the list from 1 to 40.
The list is, of course, a standard journalistic device. It makes good copy. It fills the pages that issue. It's a talking point and something for readers to think about (a bit). And it's marvellously flattering for those who are included. Anyone who is featured is likely to feel seriously endeared to the publication doling out the acclaim. In that sense, the idea of the list is fundamentally uncritical. It can never be a robust or rigorous way to assess the actual achievements of any of those who are featured. Those short, enthusiastic bursts of copy will sound like puffs. I know. I have written them myself in the past - for I.D., too.
So, before going any further, and for the sake of completeness, here is the I.D. Forty:
1. MoMA Design Department (curators)
2. Steve Jobs (CEO, Apple and Pixar)
3. Rem Koolhaas (architect)
4. Adobe (software company)
5. Philippe Starck (designer)
6. Richard M. Daley (mayor, Chicago)
7. Rolf Fehlbaum (chairman, Vitra)
8. Prius Design Team (car designers)
9. Stefan Sagmeister (graphic designer)
10. Rob Forbes (entrepreneur)
11. Norman Foster (architect)
12. Frank Gehry (architect)
13. Droog Design (design collective)
14. William McDonough (architect)
15. Tim Brown (CEO, IDEO)
16. Li Edelkoort (trend forecaster)
17. James Dyson (inventor)
18. Murray Moss (retailer)
19. Richard Diamandis (benefactor)
20. Nicolai Ouroussoff (architecture critic, New York Times)
21. Dean Kamen (inventor)
22. Karim Rashid (designer)
23. Naoto Fukasawa (designer)
24. Ed Welburn (car designer)
25. Patrizia Moroso (art director)
26. Tord Boontje (designer)
27. Teruo Kurosaki (entrepreneur)
28. Toshiyuki Kita (designer)
29. Pierre Keller (design educator)
30. Frédéric Beuvry (brand strategist)
31. Alice Rawsthorn (director, Design Museum)
32. Nadja Swarovski (executive, Swarovski)
33. John Maeda (educator and designer)
34. Bruce Nussbaum (journalist, BusinessWeek)
35. M/M (graphic designers)
36. Peter Cook (architect)
37. Natalie Jeremijenko (artist and engineer)
38. Cornel Windlin (graphic designer)
39. Bruce Mau (graphic designer)
40. Chris Anderson (impresario)
There you have it. No surprise, perhaps, to find names such as Steve Jobs, Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Philippe Starck, or for that matter, Bruce Mau. But the ranking has some unexpected turns. Stefan Sagmeister is apparently the ninth most influential design person in the world today. Wow. Who would have thought? Meanwhile, Mau, who has achieved greater public impact, not least with his hugely ambitious Massive Change project, just about scrapes in at number 39. Are the editors gently trying to tell him something? Mau is even passed, at no. 38, by Swiss designer Cornel Windlin. I was delighted to see Windlin in the list. I have long believed him to be one of the most gifted graphic designers working anywhere, but he keeps a relatively low profile, working in Zurich, and, if he has suddenly leapt to a position of commanding global (or is it just American?) influence, then I must have missed it.
When you encounter value judgements like these, delivered with such confident precision, you immediately want to know the one thing you are never told in any detail: how they were made. I.D. apparently asked 800 "experts" to name design people "who have made a lasting impact or who promise to shape the future". Then the editors argued among themselves, reducing the nominations to a manageable number. Having arrived at the final 40, they assigned each to one of four tiers, and debated the ranking within each tier. As to the yardsticks used, or how you go about assessing a car designer against a graphic designer, or an entrepreneur against a critic, there are few indications. Partly it was numerical: how often did a name come up? It was also important that a candidate had recently made a mark on the field. These are standard journalistic criteria, which govern what gets included in all kinds of magazine, but they don't take us very far.
I don't intend to propose a list of people that I believe to be more significant than some of those included. But, as an example of how inadequate lists are as a tool of assessment or insight, one non-inclusion in the I.D Forty struck me forcefully: Steven Heller. Heller is probably the most prolific design writer at work in the world today. He has demonstrated a phenomenal level of dedication to the history and documentation of the subject over the last quarter-century and, in that time, he has exerted an immeasurable influence on designers who buy his numerous monographs and surveys, and the critical anthologies he writes and edits. Heller has given a platform to many other voices. His editorship of the AIGA Journal showed an exceptional commitment to promoting the discussion of visual communication, and he continues this task indefatigably at the AIGA's Voice website. Somehow he finds time to lead a design program at the School of Visual Arts. He is ubiquitous, but modest. Unlike plenty in I.D.'s list, he is not a self-promoter.
If we must make these comparisons and rank people - and I.D. believes we must - then Heller's achievements arguably go far beyond anything accomplished in the graphic design field to date by Sagmeister, Maeda or Mau. How we would go about measuring this achievement against that of an inventor or trend forecaster is anybody's guess. The truth is you can't and there is no real point in attempting to do so. However, if Heller's name came up less often than that of eccentric Dutch furniture designer Tord Boontje (I have written about him for I.D.), then the editors consulted an odd bunch of experts.
So what, in the magazine's view, is the underlying purpose of its list? Editor Julie Lasky writes that, "Its most important value is that it offers perspective, to us editors as well as to you". But what exactly is this perspective? The only way to reveal it would be to move beyond journalistic reporting into critical analysis, which a list can't do, and examine the criteria. Lasky goes on to acknowledge that editing is itself a matter of selection. The list offers a concentrated version of the editorial process that underlies each issue, wherein the editors decide for their readers what is important. But such assessments must be based on something and few publications are prepared to expose their inner workings and risk their authority by making these cultural, professional and editorial assumptions explicit. The reader is simply expected to take them on trust. It's a nicely written, beautifully designed issue, but what I.D. is actually doing by publishing the list is underscoring its own position of influence as selector and taste-maker. You can see why they put MoMA's supremely powerful trio of design curators at no. 1.