Sir John Sorrell, the outgoing chairman of Cabe takes the prize this year thanks to a combination of quiet charisma and his exemplary record of achievement


Sir John Sorrell

When John Sorrell took over the chairmanship of Cabe in December 2004, many questioned how anyone could fill the shoes of Sir Stuart Lipton, let alone take the organisation to greater heights. However, during his five-year tenure, Sorrell has not only succeeded in winning his own army of fans but he has put Cabe - and the cause of good design - even closer to the centre of public life. “He's displayed exactly the right balance between intuition, intellect and sheer staying power,” says one admirer.

When he steps down later this year, Sir John will be able to claim many things in his legacy. He has championed school design, the Olympics, Crossrail, seized the sustainability agenda and, with the Sustainable Cities initiative, refocused government attention on urban areas.

As you might expect from a man who led one of Europe's most successful design companies (Newell and Sorrell, 1974-2000), chaired the Design Centre from 1994 to 2000 and established the London Design Festival, he is lauded for having impeccable taste and an insatiable desire for quality. “He has a habit of wanting to do good things; he wants good design to improve society, he has no other agenda,” says a friend.

But he's also won many friends in government, the industry and the wider world with his softly spoken charisma and his tranquillity. Which is just as well: the chairmanship of Cabe is no role for the faint-hearted or easily flustered, but Sir John's colleagues marvel at his calmness. “I don't know how he does it,” says one.

Sir John has turned his considerable success in business into tangible benefits for society and the built environment. The Sorrell Foundation, established in 1999 with his wife Frances, aims to involve young people in designing their own schools and encourage them to remain in the industry, and in 2007, opened the Young Design Centre at Somerset House, one of the most prestigious venues in London. For the last two years, it has also recognised the best in school design with the the RIBA Sorrell Foundation Schools Award.

Sir John regularly appears in lists of the most influential design voices in British public life and that's unlikely to change after his tenure at Cabe is up. Several people have pointed out that as we enter more austere times, champions of good design from outside the industry will be more important than ever.