In 2006, Esslinger and his wife, Patricia Roller, who had led frog design together for more than twenty years as co-CEOs, transferred operational control of the company to Doreen Lorenzo, frog’s chief operating officer.
In his professorial role Esslinger travels to Vienna to teach convergent design at the University of Applied Arts and is working on a book (to be released this year) about his life, frog design, business, culture and the way he wants to inspire creative people to work for a better and more ecologically minded future.
What inspires and drives you?
I am very curious and consume information like crazy. I daydream a lot and I refuse to separate design from real life. In business, I follow Marc Aurel’s advice to leaders: “be royal in what you do, but don’t expect to be popular”.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. I am driven by my mission to give culture and creativity a more prominent place in business and in our society. This means that we creative people have to be more competent when it comes to business, money and management. And we need to be less egotistical – design is about elitist collaboration.
What turns you off?
The current fad of design thinking in innovation management is a major problem. In my view this is another abuse of the creative innovation process, where managers believe they can become creative leaders themselves – and then to degrade designers so they’re little more than ‘sketch monkeys’.
What we need is an equal partnership. On the other hand, ninety-nine per cent of designers live on an island of protected creativity and this is why most of them are not taken seriously by the business world.
I am also very suspicious when consumer research and business consultants take creative leadership. However, weak executives are also a problem: many business consultants can only deliver fig leaves for their fearful clients. This doesn’t mean that their advice isn’t valuable; the problem is that their advice isn’t used and applied.
How did you become a designer?
I grew up in a small village where my grandparents had found refuge with my mother during World War II. Still, we had a great teacher and I still have fond memories of our one-classroom school.
My parents then started a fashion store, which meant, unfortunately, that we kids were always overdressed; otherwise, fashion was a great schooling for life. After having survived the horrors of World War II, my dad wanted only to surround himself with beautiful things. I adored the aesthetics, and the girls at the fashion shows.
Fashion is about a higher and very abstract aesthetic and relates to personal identity, not absolute beauty. I learnt from an early age that aesthetics are a tool that can be used to express a strategic intent – which is all important. Actually, ‘shape’ and ‘style’ are only expressions, without content.
In high school I was considered a bit of a rebel and was thrown out of class a lot – especially because of my love for drawing cars, motorcycles, airplanes and boats, no matter what the class was about.
Ironically, my distractions – sports, music and arts, which didn’t count much at school – helped me tremendously with my career. Then, after studying engineering, I switched to design. I had found my calling.
Can you explain your design process and how this has developed over the years at frog?
‘Process orientation’ is the driving principle of my work, probably because I studied engineering. Working with Sony, I got into the principles of kaizen, the art of constant improvement – but, more importantly, also the inclusion of all participants in a project as competent and important partners.
Our design process at frog is structured so that we follow the flow of the supply chain and product life-cycle management, from early stage research and strategy to design and engineering and finally to production, usage and recycling.
The art of this holistic process is to see the big picture, while being absolutely focused on the important issues of each specific stage. And it requires discipline: think long and design quickly, don’t change things late in the process and, most importantly, make people work together as professionals, and listen.
One problem we face on the business side quite often is that many companies prefer to punish failure rather than reward success. However, frog manages to work with this and innovate and create new business opportunities nevertheless.
What do people need to experience or feel when they interact with products?
First of all, a product has to work well, be easy to understand and be smart and fun to use. If a design makes someone smile or causes an instant ‘wow’ effect, it means a product will be successful and is connecting immediately.
But user experiences and expectations vary with age. Children like to have fun, play and click things. Professionals don’t like taking risks, and seniors just want life to be made better, for products to be easy to use.
From a designer’s point of view, it’s important to use prototypes to simulate and test in order to achieve these objectives with users. It is rare that the first design of a product gives that immediate positive reaction. You have to keep refining the product idea until you get it right.
Where do you think digital design is heading?
Digital design is just twenty-six years young – still at an embryonic stage – and this is how most digital products look. Even though frog is hugely successful – we have been designing user interfaces since 1995, and it’s a highly rewarding business segment for designers – most of today’s digital products, including websites, e-commerce portals and some of the most successful social networking websites, are looking amateurish.
In terms of fashion and personal identity, I see fabrics and digital engines converging, which will provide a totally new set of patterns, colours, moods and communicative abilities – just think about what your dress can say about you.
How do you research user needs and desires at frog?
Market research gives us information about what is already out there. What is really interesting is ‘social marketing’, which has always existed in villages.
Just think of a weekly market where the dealers bring goods the people have ordered the week before. This was not scalable across wider geographic areas, but now, with Web 2.0 technology, viewing patterns and affinities can be grouped and tailored to personal interests.
By sharing and ranking these across a wider web community, economic appeals can be much more effective. Therefore, frog participates actively in Web 2.0 projects such as Second Life and Facebook, and we also use web tools to find out what people want and need.
The design community is saying that designers are well positioned to drive the sustainable design of products. Do you agree with this? Do you think they have the necessary knowledge?
Designers have to play a leading role, because we are in an ideal position to influence the early stage process before the mistakes happen – recycling is still just cleaning up the mess caused by poor business practices in the first place. However, in most cases designers don’t have the knowledge or the desire to drive sustainable design.
Ecology is not about a ‘constant new’ but a ‘constant’ and many designers find this boring. This is not as flashy as many like to see their work; therefore, I want to explain this in a bit more in depth. ‘Greening’ our societies is a slow and complex process. Greening our industrial system is a huge challenge.
When we look at today’s consumer electronics and the usage behaviors going with them, we see rapid changes in style and shape, as if technology were fashion. However, as the infrastructure of high-tech factories is much more complex than in clothing factories, the changes are quite superficial – and the waste created by fully functioning products, simply because they are ‘out’, is quite frustrating.
And technology adds its own Catch-22: newer (and often cheaper) technology accelerates the speed with which products become obsolete, and asynchronous lifecycles (components in fusion products such as computers, cameras, displays, keyboards, touchpads, batteries and antennas) add to the problem.
I’m not talking just about mobile phones; it could be a washing machine with a defective user interface, a digital camera with a broken display or a laptop computer with a slow processor that cannot be upgraded. The secret of greening industry is to start with the seeds.
Should we be questioning why some products are made at all?
We should also ask why we have so many ugly and meaningless products. The entire process is compromised by notions of ‘cheaper’ and ‘more’. Even without the challenges of global warming, we have a visual pollution, which destroys our cultural sensitivity. Consumerism kills culture.
And we should apply our creative abilities to do more for the needs of the disabled and socially excluded. People with certain disabilities (such as cerebral palsy) have to use ‘cranky’ machines to help them to communicate.
We need to go deeper and find another way for them to communicate through sensual experiences. We should also look at hospital equipment: why are these machines that make us healthy so inhuman?
Has frog designed products for not-for-profit organisations?
We did a project for Médecins Sans Frontières to provide a quick way to assess who needs food most urgently, called Poptech. It is daunting to think that your design may help a human being to starve later, or sooner.
What do you think the world we live in will be like in fifty years time?
I hope it will be better. I hope the focus will be on preserving human integrity and life – not on war and violence. But, in reality, I am not that optimistic. There is now a huge gap between the rich and poor in many countries.
We will be approaching ‘the Singularity’, which means that artificial intelligence will learn faster than the human brain – so we will learn from our devices.
Philosophically, we need to root ourselves more in history and, especially, philosophy: we are defined by yin and yang; we are a unity of opposites.