Hartmut Esslinger is the founder of frog design. During the last forty years, Hartmut worked with some of the most prestigious global companies (click here for examples); notably, he helped Sony, Apple, Louis Vuitton, SAP and Lufthansa convert their technological competences and entrepreneurial vision into global brands. BusinessWeek called him the most influential American industrial designer since the 1930s and the first superstar of high-tech design. Hartmut is also a professor for convergent industrial design at the University for Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria. He received a honorary doctorate in Fine Arts from the Parson New School of Design, New York. His new book will be out in June: A Fine Line: How Design Strategies Are Shaping the Future of Business.
Question: How does Steve Jobs’s mind work??
Answer: I cannot read Steve’s mind, but he is a wonderful-crazy person for whom the word “impossible” doesn’t exist. His strongest point is to be a humanistic optimist—just think of his idea back in 1982 that a baby should be able to use a computer. My son Nico could play with a virtual slot machine and paint with the Mac when he was just one-year young. Steve has both vision and strategic discipline: where most executives stick to established business models, he pioneered the personal computer industry and then moved Apple into the new space of digital consumer electronics and entertainment. Also: Steve is not being carried away by “cool technology,” but he strives for complete and compelling experiences, which enrich people’s lives—now beyond Apple with Pixar and Disney. Steve is a “Renaissance Man” of the digital age.
Question: Why is it that companies with billions of dollars who can hire any designer or design firm in the world put out such crappy products??
Answer: Excellent products require more then just a good designer or a good design agency—they require humanistic and cultural vision, courage and discipline in execution. There are two reasons why crappy products are so common: first, most “companies with billions of dollars” don’t want to charter new ways because they are in a defensive setting in order to defend their existing business—and when the billions and the business are gone, it’s too late for change. Second, big companies normally have neither the people nor the processes to innovate and there are no real rewards for taking the risks and efforts required in the endeavor for excellent products. In my career, SONY under Akio Morita was the only big company which rejected the common addiction to mediocrity and went for world-changing innovations. Now they are stuck as well….
Question: Can customers truly tell a company how to innovate??
Answer: They cannot, which is more a challenge of professional qualification then motivation. The professional task of innovation includes to balance technological advancements with social relevance and sustainability. Naturally, one has to appeal to possible human dreams and desires, but ultimately, innovation charters new territory. Example: we all know that our fossil fuel reserves are limited and are best put to use in plastics and other durable manifestations. But still we burn it. Looking at the sweeping changes in the automotive industry, innovation now is being forced upon them by eco-political needs like to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and global warming. And companies like Toyota and Honda who thought a bit more ahead, now have an edge.
Question: What can customers do then??
Answer: Stop buying stupid products or deficient services—or buy the better product or service from a competitor. Also: tell them that their stuff sucks—and tell your friends. Social networks are a great new platform to create some momentum. Naturally, there is also a personal way: become a missionary for innovation or even better a designer when this in your genetic DNA. The world of business needs positive change more then anything else—so be the change (as Gandhi said).
Question: If a company is hiring a design firm, how can it know that it’s picking the right one??
Answer: Professionally, one needs to look at the track record and the people. However, any new relationship must be forward-looking and therefore one must look for a shared vision. On a personal level this is a bit like the process from flirting to dating and then building a relationship. In the beginning it is reputation, prestige and emotional attraction. Then issues like process, collaboration and loyalty become more important. With all these professional issues taken care off 100 percent, “WOW” is an absolute “must”—a designer or design firm must exceed the client’s wildest expectations with any project at any time.
Question: If a company is hiring a designer (as an employee), how can?it know that it’s picking the right one?
Answer: Same story! But it is more difficult, when the designer doesn’t report to a visionary and courageous leader. Ideally a designer—or the internal design team - has to report to the CEO or the one executive in charge of vision and true innovation. The challenge is economic independence, which is much more limited for employed designers.
Question: What are your top ten products of all time?
- Electric Light Bulb
- Japanese Lunch Box(es)
- Mercedes 300 SLR “Uhlenhaut”
- Boeing 707
- Porsche 911
- Apple Macintosh (after the Macintosh SE)
- Arne Jacobsen Chair “3107” by Hansen
- Sony Walkman 2
- Gibson Les Paul Custom Guitar
- Hubble Telescope
- Gas-guzzling SUVs
- Neck-pain-causing Notebook computers
- Typical conference chairs and ambiance in hotels
- Software UI on mobile phones
- Most hospital equipment
- Violent video games
- Fake “crafts” products (e.g “Hantcraft” dustpan & brushset)
- Computer accessories requiring 2+ hour installment
- Restaurant table that “kill” your kneecaps
- Myriads of power adapters
Answer: This noble initiative was started with a bold but impossible claim—“100 Dollar LapTop”—but then the lack of a professional commercial process struck it down. The team around Nicholas Negroponte certainly got the attention of the media and potential governments and educational institutions in emerging countries, but they didn’t have the ability or the willingness to innovate by listening and conceptualize an “adaptive” and customizable product concept for these very different markets.The educational cultures and tastes are very different from Brazil to China and India. In the end it was too much “we know better” and the hardware turned out like a cheap toy. It’s a pity because the software team led by Allen Kay did a sensational job. Less ego and more convergent innovation would have made success possible.
Question: If a young person wants to be a great designer, what should he or she do??
Answer: “Design” isn’t a clear-cut talent profession, but one of coordination and catalyst between human needs, science and technology, business and economy, as well as sociology and ecology. The artistic talent required is more of an enabler at the end of rational and emotional analysis as well as strategic conceptualization.Therefore, it is vital to learn and study as much as possible especially about business, technology and human nature. In the end, there are flavors in design which are more esthetic—see New York Times “Style Magazine”—but design is only relevant when it improves human lives by appealing both to the mind and the heart.Finally, a young person with the right talents needs to have infinite desire and never give up. I apply a simple test with young students: smash a teapot into pieces and then hand out the glue. Those who rebuild the teapot won’t make it, those who create phantasy animals and spaceships will.
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