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Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

Hartmut Esslinger

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The early years

Born in 1944 in the small village of Beuren in the Black Forest region of Baden-Wüttemberg in Germany, Hartmut Esslinger has been a game-changer in industrial design for his entire career.

After finishing his military service, he left the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Schwäbish Gmund in 1970. One year before, he set up his own design firm, marking the start of a journey that would continue for decades.

Esslinger quickly became known for his work for key clients like the German electronics brand Wega. There, he created the Wega Compact HiFi System 3000 and the Wega Concept 51k, among other products.

When Wega was taken over by the Japanese electronics firm Sony, Esslinger continued to innovate through design, with his firm producing over 100 products, including the black-box Sony Trinitron, which removed wood from the television frame concept for the first time, and the Sony Walkman.

Apple and Snow White

In 1982, Esslinger, and the company that he founded, frog design, entered into an exclusive contract with Apple Computers to create a design strategy for the company. From the start, Esslinger dealt directly with Steve Jobs, with whom he quickly established a rapport.

“When I asked him about his bigger ambitions,” Esslinger remembers, “he simply smiled and said: ‘First, I want to sell a million Macs. Then I want Apple to become the greatest company on earth.’ For some strange reason, we both agreed that those goals were absolutely achievable.”

The resulting design language created by Esslinger set Apple apart from its competitors. Codenamed “Snow White,” the prototypes he created were built in the now famous off-white which distinguished Apple products in the early years. They carried the three-dimensional Apple logo, diamond-cut for precision. The lines all throughout the products were thin and clear, with horizontal and vertical stripes on enclosures giving an illusion of reduced size and volume to the parts. It was a design revolution.

Snow White was first rolled out through the Apple IIc system, and was an immediate commercial and critical success. The design was named “Design of the Year” by Time Magazine and was inducted into the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of Art.

It was a triumph for Esslinger. “The project represented a life-changing moment for me too,” he said years later, “giving me an opportunity to apply everything I’d learned up to that point about industrial design from my work with some of the best executive minds at companies throughout Europe and Japan.”

Growing frog design

After Steve Jobs left Apple in the mid-1980s, Esslinger teamed up with him to work on the design of the Next Cube. Meanwhile, he was growing frog design, which he ran together with his wife, Patricia Roller, with an array of new clients and high-profile projects.

Their company went from strength to strength; taking on increasingly complex projects at the interface of design and tech. Esslinger and frog redesigned Lufthansa’s terminal at Frankfurt airport, and reimagined the GUI interface for SAP, the world’s biggest business software.

Contracts with Disney, Microsoft and Karstadt, among others, cemented frog’s reputation as one of the leading industrial design studios at global level. The man Silicon Valley had come to know as “that German guy” was now an international design presence, both inside and outside design circles. His public profile grew; in 1990 Esslinger was featured on the cover of “Business Week” magazine in the United States, under the the headline “Rebel With A Cause.”

In 2005, with frog design now firmly consolidated as an important industry player, he and his wife sold a majority stake in the company to Flextronics, doubling revenue within two years. In 2007, KKR and Sequoia Capital acquired more shares in frog and in 2017, Altran acquired full ownership. Outside of frog, Esslinger also engaged in education. In 1989 he co-founded the Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe. From 2005 to 2011 he served as Professor of Convergent Design in the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, before moving to China and organising the Masters’ class in strategic design at De Tao Academy and the Shanghai School of Visual Arts at the Fudan University in Shanghai.

He has also turned to writing, producing several books which look at design from his personal and professional point of view.

Form follows emotion

Esslinger has developed the theory of “form follows emotion” as a guiding principle of his work, in direct counterpoint to the “form follows function” principle of modernist design. That, together with his belief that design should be a key strategic component in every company, has made him an influential force in modern industrial design.

He remains, after five decades of professional activity, one of the world’s most influential industrial designers and a reference point in his field.



All images © Hartmut Esslinger & frog design

Info icon The images on this page were provided by the finalists / lifetime achievement winner for communication purposes only. They are not meant to reflect the graphical representation requirements of registered Community designs. The graphical representation requirements for the purposes of registration of Community designs can be consulted at the EUIPO design guidelines.

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