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The Quest for Intuitive Design

For my last birthday, my wife gave me a spectacular present: a product so ingeniously made that every time I use it, I marvel at how marvelous it is. The item? A sturdy plastic shoehorn.

Okay, I’ll admit it sounds workaday. But what makes this shoehorn special is its length—30 inches—which allows its 6-foot 3-inch owner to put on the snuggest of loafers without sitting or bending down. There’s even a curved edge to the handle that lets me hang the thing off the side of a bureau or closet door.

In a word, it’s “intuitive”—which is about the highest compliment one can pay a product or service, whatever it may be. Yes, ever so rarely, a thingamajig or machine does what it’s supposed to do so exquisitely—so in sync with what you want and expect it to do—that it delights you every time you use it. And though I can’t tell you who manufactured my beloved shoehorn (there’s no label on it), I would bet that it didn’t get that way by accident. Rather, it was designed to be perfect.

If all that sounds hokey, you will be happily surprised to learn that there is an accelerating corporate movement to do the same—to design perfection—and it’s being led by some of the most admired and fastest-growing companies around, from Alphabet (GOOGL) to Uniqlo (please see our “Business by Design” package). While the 25 companies we dig into in this issue aren’t necessarily (or always) delivering on that goal, each is rethinking the way it develops what it makes or sells—often from the point of conception—with the aim of connecting with customers on a much deeper level.

Folks in Silicon Valley call the process “dog-fooding,” making sure that they’re eating their own cooking, so to speak—or, in Airbnb’s case, hosting guests in their own homes and overnighting in strangers’ apartments to make sure they’re experiencing what their users are. Ikea is designing environmental sustainability into everything from construction to packaging to delivery. And to make sure it’s being creative enough in its ideation and customer solutions, IBM has even dramatically changed the composition of its workforce, hiring so many in-house designers that it now has one for every eight engineers. Not long ago, the ratio was 1 to 72.

Then, of course, there’s the company that has long inspired design-­envy: Apple—and the raging debate about whether it has lost a step in the years since iconic CEO Steve Jobs passed away (see our feature here). At the risk of playing spoiler, author Rick Tetzeli makes a convincing argument it hasn’t.

The design movement is so integral to global corporate strategy these days that Fortune is launching, with partners Time and Wallpaper*, our first international conference on the subject this March in Singapore. Brainstorm Design will gather the world’s most creative thinkers and company leaders to explore how this new customer-centric approach is transforming everything from R&D to online sales.

Fortune January 2018 Magazine Cover
Fortune January 2018 magazine cover.

Perhaps no design of the past decade has been as mind-bogglingly successful as the cryptocurrency created by a mysterious coder (or coders) in 2009: Bitcoin. As much as its jaw-dropping rise of some 1,800% in 2017 (at press time) speaks to its impact, so does the sudden influx of copycat coins, from Ethereum to Litecoin. Our cover story will tell you everything you need to know about the phenomenon—and we couldn’t have designed two better reporters to explain it than Robert Hackett and Jen Wieczner. Read on!

A version of this article appears in the Jan. 1, 2018 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Quest for ‘Just Right.'”