Hartmut Esslinger Wants You to Change the World

Hartmut Esslinger - Advice For Designers from frog on Vimeo.

Maybe there is something to the notion that age begets wisdom after all.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, Hartmut Esslinger is the founder of frogdesign, a global design consultancy with offices in Amsterdam, Austin, Boston, Bangalore, Johannesburg, Kiev, Milan, Munich, New York, Seattle, Shanghai, and Vinnytsya and headquartered here in San Francisco, California.

Esslinger began his career by starting his own design agency in 1969. His first client the Avant Garde German electronics company Wega.  Later, he was hired by Sony where he helped develop the Sony Triniton TV and Sony’s personal music products.
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In 1982, having set up shop as frogdesign in San Francisco, Esslinger signed a contract with Apple Computers to develop the “Snow White” design language. This design language, marked by it’s horizontal “frog lines,” unofficially debuted with the Lisa 2/Macintosh XL and became iconic with the release of the Apple IIc.

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This design language was present in Apple products from 1984 to the early 1990s, though frog broke their contract with Apple shortly after Steve Jobs was forced out in 1985.  frog, and Esslinger, followed Jobs to NeXT where they were responsible for hardware design.  Over the next three decades, frog worked for some of the world’s biggest companies including Lufthansa, GE, Motorola, HP, Olympus, NEC, Microsoft, and Siemens.

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In this video, Esslinger makes five key points, intended as advice for designers.  While all of these are incredibly inspiring,  I find 3 of particular interest.

Contrary to Bauhausian beliefs... and unfortunately many well intentioned followers today... form does not follow function, Esslinger asserts.  Instead, he suggests that form follows emotion.  This belief is grounded in the understanding that design is not created for the sake of the object.  It is created for PEOPLE.  This fundamental understanding should shift the way designers of all disciplines think.  Sure, the product must function effectively and work logically and transparently, but it also must create a connection with the user.

Both the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy are minimal rectangles, but only one makes the user feel special through it’s immaculate hardware that is constructed like a watch or a piece of jewelry.  They other is a plastic slab that feels like it will fall apart in 6 months.  This has nothing to do with the hardware components and technology, they are essentially equal. It has a direct relationship to the emotional connection people make with Apple products, not because the product’s features, but because of tactile experience the product enables.  We aim to do the same with every product we sell.

To be clear, I am no apple fanboy. I use a custom desktop PC and an HTC Evo 4g smartphone(one of my worst purchasing decisions ever).  With that being said, the build quality of Apple’s hardware is still unparalleled, but others like Nokia, Microsoft, and even HTC are starting to catch up.
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Next, Esslinger espouses the value of the prototype.  The idea that a rendering, a sketch, or an image has little value in the real world unless it is connected to a prototype.  The sketch has no scale, it has no proportion, it has no tactility.  While it is an excellent tool for rapid idea generation, the sketch cannot be tested in the real world.  In order to understand whether or not a design makes sense we must build it.

Though it took me a long time to understand this maxim, it is fundamental to our design process here at Modern Industry.  For example, when developing the Deviation wallet, we began prototyping almost immediately.  In that case, we were able to understand form, proportion, and function through prototypes much more efficiently and effectively than through sketching.  This experimental mentality continued to the latest possible moment, when we decided to fold two pieces of leather in half instead of sewing together four slabs. After well over 50 variations, we were finally ready to bring the Deviation wallet to you.
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Finally, Esslinger begs us to go above and beyond, to be more than what people ask for.  This is a fundamental ability that we as designers must learn.  Most people can only imagine what they know.  If we are going to change the world, even in the smallest ways, we must go beyond what people know.  We must go beyond what people are comfortable with.  We must deliver what we know they will want and will need.

Further, I believe we are called to go beyond expectations.  We owe it to ourselves and those we serve.  Here at Modern Industry, our mission is to change the way business is done by putting creativity at the center of everything we do to create a company that behaves like a decent human being.  Our vision is to change the way you think about business(and destroy you), by creating something that stands for honesty, integrity, and respect. To show that being a force for positive change can be “good for  business”.  We are doing this not because someone asked for it, but because it’s what you deserve.
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Hartmut Esslinger and frogdesign started a design renaissance in the United States that is still kicking today.  Steve Job’s dedication to the power of design, which is at least partially responsible for the rise of Apple(twice), can be traced back to his relationship with Esslinger. Oh, you know those early Apple concepts that seem to show up on the internet every six months, Esslinger and frog were responsible for those too. He has left a lasting impact on the industry and the world.  He inspired countless young men and women, like myself, to pick up a pen... and a chunk of urethane foam... and become an industrial designer.

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