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From the provinces out into the world – Hartmut Esslinger founded frog design in Altensteig, made a career at Sony in Japan and developed Apple’s product language in Silicon Valley. Today, the enterprising designer teaches strategic design in Shanghai. We wish him all the best on his 80th birthday.

by Fabian Wurm

Hartmut Esslinger 80th Birthday
Hartmut Esslinger at the 2013 German Design Award ceremony in Frankfurt, where he received the Personality Award for his life’s work | Photo: Lutz Sternstein

Traditional dress codes mean nothing to him. Hartmut Esslinger has his own dress code. Colourful shirts instead of dark suits. Whether he is visiting customers or giving a speech. Washed-out jeans and trainers are a must. Dishevelled hair and a three-day beard: his trademark. Esslinger, who even in times of crisis is vehemently committed to the “humanisation of industrial society” and dreams of a redesign of our entire artificial environment, likes it colourful. He was already colourful as a teenager. It was his way of protesting. In Beuren, the Black Forest village where he grew up, colour was simply a “sin” at a time when post-war sadness reigned supreme. But he loved the bright sounds, the hard rock ‘n’ roll and the colourful blues; Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, later the Rolling Stones. My guitar was red, my cars are red, yellow and green.

Esslinger cultivates a casual appearance. Sometimes he can’t find the manuscript pages for a speech. That doesn’t bother him. He improvises. He speaks, as he says himself, with a “funny accent”, a certainly idiosyncratic mixture of different idioms. A little American, hardly any High German. Some people think it’s Swabian. Wrong, corrects the cosmopolitan designer, it’s more like ‘stupid Bädlisch’, as his children call the gibberish. As a boy, he was known to many as “Französle” (Frenchy) because he went to school in France for a while and even then mixed up phrases from different languages. What the hell,” he mumbles, “nobody understands it anyway. His English is not very good either. But his designs, which include Lufthansa lounges, a Walkman for Sony, a cruise ship for Disney and numerous Apple computers, are clear, formal and precise.

He Was Not Allowed to Become an Artist

Hartmut Esslinger, one of the world’s most important industrial designers, celebrated his 80th birthday on 5 June this year. His Apple Macintosh is now considered a classic and can be found in major museum design collections. But the career of this cosmopolitan from the provinces was by no means straightforward.

His natural talent for drawing was frowned upon in the pietistic home in which he grew up. His mother burned his sketchbooks, he recalls. All artists end up in the gutter,” was the verdict. The dreamy boy should pursue something respectable. So in 1966, the young man from Esslingen enrolled at the Technical University of Stuttgart to study electrical engineering – with the aim of becoming an engineer. But his plans were soon put on hold. In his third semester, a professor reminded him: “You won’t make it here, but your drawings are great

Design Comes to the Rescue

A degree in industrial design under the renowned product designer Karl Dittert at the Staatliche Werkkunstschule in Schwäbisch Gmünd was his salvation. Every morning at six he trotted off to school and drew ‘obsessively’. ‘They had to kick me out at midnight’. On the way home, he would mull over his ideas for a while, dreaming up new designs for radios, kitchen appliances and musical instruments. 

His ambition was awakened. In 1969, while still a student in Schwäbisch Gmünd, he founded the esslinger design studio, which became frog design in 1982. Esslinger later recalled that the first goal he set for himself as a student was commercial success. I refused to accept the role of the starving artist. His second goal was no less ambitious: ‘I’ll be famous by the time I’m 35. Both came true – sooner than expected. 

His Ideas Inspired Business Leaders

Back in 1968, the entrepreneurial design student Esslinger sought contact with the Fellbach based electronics company Wega. At first, though, he was only able to secure an internship. However, when Esslinger’s university project – a portable radio with stereo sound – won the German Design Council’s first Gute Form award in 1969, he was immediately commissioned by Wega to design the stereo and television sets. The breakthrough came with the Wega System 3000, which was presented at the International Radio Exhibition in Berlin in 1971: Televisions in plastic housings opened up new design possibilities. Away from wood or plywood cabinets was the motto.

From then on, things really took off. The success of the former Braun competitor Wega, now known only in specialist circles, led to a cooperation with the Japanese electronics giant Sony, which took over the Swabian company in 1974. This was the turning point in Esslinger’s early career. Now, at the age of just 30, he was suddenly working for a global consumer electronics company: as a consultant and designer for both Sony and the initially continued Wega brand, Esslinger’s job was also to explain American and European customs and markets to the Japanese company. From 1974, Esslinger recalls, he flew to Japan every month for business meetings. This sharpened his understanding of industrial processes and production. Sony was the best business school I could imagine,” he sums up. Without this experience, he would hardly have been able to successfully advise Apple founder Steve Jobs in the 1980s.

The Dreamer Is a Realist

Design is first and foremost business, not beauty,’ says Esslinger. Although he is a ‘dreamer’ and has a ‘strong sense of possibility’, he also has a ‘strong sense of reality’. Without this grounding, any designer is lost. Design must provide an economically measurable service, an added value. Like most creatives, he detests ‘the idea of prettification and all the elitist nonsense of many colleagues’. Anyone who dismisses Esslinger as a colourful bird because of his unusual outfit is mistaken. For him, progressive design and business acumen are not mutually exclusive. Today he sees himself as a pioneer of an ecologically motivated turnaround, proclaiming a global commitment to a green planet – without, of course, disregarding economic criteria.

The designer, who lives in California and holds an American passport, still advises numerous brands, including Telefunken, and reflects on the problems of design education. After leaving frog design and selling it in 2006, Esslinger initially focused on promoting young talent as a professor of design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. Since 2012, he has been teaching as Professor of Strategic Design and Innovation at the Shanghai Institute for Visual Arts (SIVA). He is also the author of highly acclaimed books: A Fine Line was published in 2009, Design Forward in 2012 and Keep It Simple, his ‘inside story’ about his work and friendship with Steve Jobs, two years later.

 Apple IIc, Snow White Design Language | © frog design, Hartmut Esslinger
 Apple IIc, Snow White Design Language | © frog design, Hartmut Esslinger

The Computer Was the Enemy

The man who created the Apple look loves to talk about his almost 60-year career. And especially about his association with the Californian computer giant in Cupertino. There is hardly an aspect of his work for Apple that has not been highlighted. Without him, his admirers are not the only ones who suspect that the cult computer company would not have become – at least temporarily – the world’s most valuable listed company. Hartmut Esslinger and Steve Jobs, who passed away in 2011, were brothers in spirit, both great inventors in their own right. I thought it was a good sign that his T-shirt was even older than mine,” the frog designer recalls of his first meeting with the Apple inventor. The similarity in appearance and demeanour surprised many, as did the strikingly similar starting points of their careers. Like Jobs, Esslinger got his start in a provincial hobby shop.

When Steve Jobs, the great admirer of German design, sought Esslinger’s advice in the early 1980s and left Cupertino for the Black Forest, computers were generally dark, square boxes that, according to Esslinger, “looked like enemies”. And Esslinger’s success continued to grow. He was also getting closer to his ultimate goal of having a Frog Design product in every shopping centre in the world.

Design Without Allure

From Apple’s Mac to Microsoft’s media player, from SAP’s software to Sony’s Trinitron television, there is hardly a high-tech genre for which Esslinger has not designed an advanced product. The all-round designer has also found compelling forms for simple everyday objects such as shower heads and garden furniture, lamps, suitcases and ice-cream cartons. Good design,” he says, “manages to bring people, business and the environment together in harmony. It may sound a little maudlin, almost clichéd. But anyone who has met Hartmut Esslinger knows that his belief in the meaningful and harmonising role of design is no empty phrase.

Airs and graces are foreign to him. His openness – even to journalists – is legendary and by no means a matter of course in the design industry. He doesn’t just talk about his successes. He also talks about his failures. In 2002, when the European branch of frog design, which had increasingly focused on the new economy, had to file for bankruptcy in the wake of the dotcom bubble, I asked him for the newspaper Horizont whether he had perhaps overestimated his competence as a businessman. Obviously, yes,” he replied succinctly. There followed no digressions or attempts at justification, but rather a relentless analysis and plenty of self-criticism. And that could go into print unfiltered, without any cuts or subsequent corrections. His sovereignty always amazed and impressed me. One thing is certain: it is not only designers who will benefit from Hartmut Esslinger’s insights, his stubbornness and, last but not least, his memories.

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