Industrial Design by Hartmut Esslinger


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 4 2017)

In the late 1960s, a student in Altensteig, in Germany’s tranquil Black Forest, had a vision. He wanted to turn the world of design entirely on its head. Hartmut Esslinger established esslinger design, thus heralding the beginning of a new era in which product design learned the language of emotions. Esslinger had always had a passionate interest in innovative technologies and preferred working with customers in this sector. Economic success was at the heart of the strategic focus. The young company gained its initial fame through its work for Wega, the German electronics company. esslinger design added well-known customers to its portfolio, such as hansgrohe, Louis Vuitton and Apple.

The firm achieved its international breakthrough when Sony offered a long-term contract in 1973. When Sony took over Wega a year later, esslinger design merged the progressive technology of both brands to create a shared, international design DNA. This created the basis for more than 100 products. This also marked the beginning of the collaboration with Steve Jobs, who was in search of a design that would provide a unique selling proposition for Apple computers on the highly competitive market. Apple and esslinger design struck a deal, and Hartmut Esslinger relocated to California. This new era was also marked by a new name for his company: frog design. In 1984, the language of design developed by frog was introduced for Apple and became a tremendous commercial success worldwide. Hartmut Esslinger, one of the most outstanding personalities internationally in the field of industrial design, visited us to talk about his philosophy, good taste and a time when software conquered product design.

Do you view design as an art form, or as a craft?

Neither one. Industrial design – no matter whether physical product or virtual software – creates solutions for us as human beings that we cannot solve with our bodies alone, or at least not as quickly or reliably. The range extends from tools to objects and everything we refer to as an ‘artificial environment’. Art? Yes, objects of design are placed on display in museums for their cultural value, but, if anything, then useful art.

What is your personal intention or your concern when it comes to design? What is your number one priority?

First of all, I love my career. It’s about being curious and capable of learning. Observing people, identifying problems, analysing technologies, weighing economic efficiency and environmental balance – and then being creative within a systematic process, in other words creating something better that is more effective and involves less effort.

Is there some kind of basic philosophy that guides your work?

‘Form follows emotion’. Emotions are one person, irrational and intangible. It goes without saying that you have to get the function right, but ‘form follows function’ is abused as a justification for boring, ‘poor styling’.

What are the factors that have to converge before a product can be referred to as a ‘successful design’? 

There is no such thing as ‘successful design’. Design must serve a particular purpose, create emotional appeal and make sense from an economic and environmental standpoint as well. And since many people, including in different cultures, always have different demands and expectations, what you see is variety, not uniformity.

How has the general understanding of design changed since the 1970s? 

In the 1970s, design was still an elite career field with a focus on beauty. There were no design paradigms where technical consumer products were concerned. Hans Gugelot’s designs for Braun were pioneering, but they also had little market impact – and it is probably to my credit that I defined high-touch design in this field and was able to carry it to strategic dominance with the aid of entrepreneurs such as Dieter Motte at Wega, Norio Ohga and Akio Morita at Sony, Steve Jobs at Apple and Hasso Plattner at SAP. Along the way, my wife, Patricia Roller, and our partners also set up frog as the first global design agency. This laid the cornerstone for a new ‘industry’. On the other hand, design is a broad term. Anyone who uses Photoshop to place a trivial motif on a t-shirt is already a designer. Much ado about almost nothing. 

In which sector of industry would you say the trend in design can be seen the most clearly over the past few decades?

Very clearly in convergent high-tech products and the customer experience. Braun occupied an elite niche as a pioneer of design in the 1960s, but economically speaking, Apple has been the most successful company for years thanks to design. Sony also enjoyed a meteoric rise from 1975 to 1990.

For you personally, what are the three most important classic designs that we are living with today?

Frankly, my personal opinion of ‘classics’ is somewhat skewed. Chairs you can’t sit on, weird furniture and bizarre lamps. My wife and I like and use the early chairs by Charles and Ray Eames, and by Arne Jacobsen. My focus is more on a company’s brand DNA. Technology evolves, while culture remains.

How does a product become a ‘classic design’ to begin with?

If a product is simply good and there is no better successor. And the situation is exactly the same if the media try to lift someone up onto the podium. This is easy enough to launch, thanks to our ubiquitous internet culture, but then it becomes inflationary. Just look at the fashion world, where it went from the top 10 to the top 100 – also thanks to a lack of technological innovation. Clothes are clothes.

Is there anyone who inspired you in your outstanding work?

Once, it was Mario Bellini, Joe Colombo, Richard Sapper and Nuccio Bertone. Today, I am delighted with every original design by my colleagues – we are a global community for sustainability and industrial culture. People with interesting and challenging problems also just inspire me.

Did trends influence your work as well? 

By then it’s too late. You always have to feel, think, simulate and project ten years ahead of your time. And then tailor that to the next years ahead. Innovation is always provocation, too.

What design trends do you think will come our way in the years ahead?

Sustainability! We have to produce a third less and improve workers’ pay and physical conditions. And boost profits by creating greater value with less waste. This is a question of survival. The design of digital interaction will improve in any case. The functional insanity and graphical garbage offered through so-called ‘apps’ nowadays is frivolous. The IoT products open up a strategic opportunity – you can't create new concepts with old technology. 

Can you recall a design of yours where you weren’t sure whether, 20 years later, it would still be considered revolutionary – or an aberration instead?

Almost every major design reaches the point at which there’s a fine line that separates success from disaster. That’s when you just have to press on – with energy, skill and ethics. In late 1982, when I worked out the design DNA for Apple for the third time, Steve Jobs was shocked. You have to stand your ground and believe in success.

How did you experience the era when software suddenly became part of the language of product design?

At frog, we were the pioneers of this beginning in 1994 – with SAP and Microsoft as the first customers. Prior to that, we already had virtual interfaces at Sony; as you know, the Macintosh was already convergent by then, too. 

How did you learn to design software that was user-friendly and still aesthetically pleasing?

Your question is half the answer. 99 percent of today’s software interactions are neither user-friendly nor smart nor beautiful. Google tools – and, more recently, Apple as well – have taken highly complex operations and reduced these to their minimum common denominator. Android and iOS are like Lego blocks. You can do that with software, because there is no physical product lifecycle, with factories and all the logistics involved. So, on the contrary, I believe a lot needs to be done to give hardware products the kind of modular design you see in software. A faulty display or headphone jack renders the entire iPhone obsolete.

Nowadays, the boundaries are becoming blurred between the physical and digital worlds and products. How important is design in this regard?

Quite simply, the networked convergence of physical and digital concepts is the basis of design today. And design as the linkage between the human being and the technical environment is the deciding factor. Yet we are still working with binary digital engines. Quantum computing will make this really exciting.

How do you view the market today? Can today’s young designers reap what you sowed 30 or 40 years ago?

Let’s talk numbers. When Bill Moggridge and I came to Silicon Valley nearly 40 years ago, there were almost no designers – and the few designers there were had to submit to the engineers. Today, the Valley is a global design centre with thousands of designers. So yes, that’s an accomplishment.

Which design or style would you personally never let into your house?

If my wife and I aren’t in agreement, it doesn’t make it past the front door. The exception are my Bösendorfers, where the modern designs aren’t very musical.

What kind of atmosphere do you personally value in your surroundings? Where do you feel comfortable?

Open, light, a handful of cool objects. Our kitchen is always the focal point.

Loved this article? Put it in your cart!



Hartmut Esslinger established the design studio of esslinger design in 1969; the studio was renamed frog design in 1982. He was the long-term CEO of frog design Europe GmbH, which, starting in the 1970s, gained prominence with its product design and branding, increasingly so in recent years with the design of multimedia applications. Today, frog design works from studios in Palo Alto, Austin, Milan, New York, San Francisco, San José, Seattle, Shanghai and Munich. Esslinger sold his final remaining shares in the company in 2006. He remained connected to the company as an exterior consultant.

Picture credit © Dietmar Henneka / frogdesign

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published