Q+A – Hartmut Esslinger

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Hartmut Esslinger, founder of frog design inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., says his parents didn’t react well when he announced, at age 20, that he wanted to study design. Breaking the news in his hometown of Beuren, near Germany’s Black Forest, he recalls that this “very German couple was horrified. They imagined I’d become a starving artist.” Ironically, Esslinger, now 59, with a laugh that booms like a tuba in an oompah band, says his earliest inspiration was his parents’ own business: a clothing store. “Watching the fashions change twice a year, I saw that everything is changeable, and that’s refreshing.”

Frog design is amphibian-like in its conspicuous evolution (though that’s not why Esslinger chose the name: Beuren lies five miles from Altensteig, Germany, an area known for its enormous frog population). Spawned 33 years ago as Esslinger Design, a small industrial-design shop with a frog mascot for the soccer team, the company has grown into a global, six-office operation with a suite of services that includes graphic design, branding and packaging.

Giants like Apple and Disney walk among its clientele. For Motorola, frog recently unveiled a line of wearable-technology products that promises to transform the way we communicate (see opposite). Even frog employees are expected to jump around: You won’t catch a designer working on one component of a product for long. Esslinger says he wants his designers to appreciate the convergence of ideas in frog’s projects; everyone is trained to understand every part. He also thinks the process prevents creative rigor mortis. “Who wants to be hammered into a single spot for life?” he says.

In what ways has design evolved since you started?

In the last 40 years, design has really been liberated from the cultural discrimination between developed and developing countries and has become truly global. Today, no matter where you go-the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Russia-customers want the best possible product, and they want world-class design. Tokyo, Seoul and Singapore are now as sophisticated as Milan, New York and London. Hong Kong, Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur lead in urban architecture. The most beautiful modern bridges are in Tokyo, Istanbul and Denmark. And India is taking the lead in software development.

As a corollary, we designers need to be more knowledgeable about the world’s individual cultures than ever before, and by that I mean avoiding insult and creating affection the right way.

What’s your primary objective when designing a product?

I love to design for people, and I love it when they smile using what we designed. I think that whatever we create should bring happiness to people’s faces-maybe because they really like it or they’re pleasantly astounded, like when a child receives a wonderful gift.

Who are your design idols?

Mies van der Rohe, for simplifying design and architecture into Greek-Euclidean structures. I love Le Corbusier’s work and Dieter Rams, who could reduce the most complex challenges into simple and beautiful concepts. I’ve admired Mario Bellini; his Olivetti designs are true art. And I also love the visual vocabulary of Philippe Starck and the way that Tibor Kalman converted his vision into true work.

How has your own style evolved?

My early work was iconic. Today, my personal style is to take an ethical approach to design in order to humanize industry.

What outside shifts have you observed over the decades?

Well, starting as a designer in the ’60s was easy. Design was really boring back then, and the majority of us just had to work on cleaning up and beautification. Entrepreneurs saw design more as a cultural mission than a vital element of business strategy. Then, in the early ’70s, we had the first oil shock, and suddenly designers had to be much more business-oriented and efficient, particularly in terms of resources and plastics use. We had to be more environmentally conscious and try to lessen costs, all while meeting increased value demands by consumers. That led to effective mass production and the first real design boom with affordable products until the late ’80s. That’s when marketing and corporate design managers began trying to make everything count. The bean counters took over.

Then we had the ’90s, which must have felt like a roller-coaster ride. How did the Internet bubble affect your business?

The ’90s were a dark time for design. Everything was about money, greed and hype. Worse, that decade helped create a generation of young designers who grew up believing that it’s OK to deliver mediocre work if you only act cool and charge enough-that it’s OK to forget about the basic values of human society like modesty, hard work and ethics. Now, they’re learning the hard way what it takes to succeed in the real world-and

I see improvements.

And when things finally imploded?

The downturn was hell at first. We had wasted a lot of money and energy trying to keep up with our IPO-financed competitors in the United States and Europe who could afford more losses than revenue. We closed two offices, and there were layoffs. But the economic downturn brought us back to the good realities of life. We pulled ourselves out of the crisis, we’re profitable and we do great work.

How have frog’s assignments changed in recent years?

The work we’ve gotten in the last six to nine months is so much more challenging than it was three years ago. We still have clients all over the world, but we’re doing different things. In Turkey, for example, we’re redesigning the entire image, brand-even factories-for a company. On a larger scale, we see new challenges like converging products with services and content as we do for Disney and Motorola. There’s a lot of demand for great design in software and digital space, but integrated into a deeper understanding of business strategy and real market demands.

What do you see as frog’s biggest competitive distinction?

We integrate and cross-train. We have designers who are coming to us with a strict background in digital and branding, engineering, market research, software, who would normally operate in their narrow, specialized field.

At frog, we pull them out of their single-minded space to turn them into universalists. For example, digital designers who were working on branding have heavily influenced some of the most successful products we’ve made. And our product designers have inspired some of our most advanced software projects. It’s proved the key to frog’s appeal as an employer, because this allows our more than 100 highly trained designers to find and develop their own identities within our client’s very specific brand challenges.

What do you consider your strongest quality as a designer?

My mental visualization skills and photographic memory help. In school, I’d look at a poem and bet people that I could recall it exactly. It’s useful in this business because I can create animated imagery in my mind, and I can visualize designs, processes and workflows. Or I can tell a designer, “Hey, this design has been done before.”

What’s your biggest shortcoming?

I’m a very bad communicator. Because I can quickly visualize how an entire process will play out, I assume that others can too, and I’m impatient about it and stubborn. I’m really trying to work on that.

Constance Loizos is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.