Hartmut Esslinger portrait, 1988

Hartmut Esslinger portrait, 1988

Hartmut Esslinger


Hartmut Heinrich Esslinger is one of the world’s leading industrial designers and the former head of frog design. In 1969, he founded esslinger design, which was based in Altensteig until 2010. The firm was renamed frogdesign in 1982 upon Esslinger’s move to California to work for Steve Jobs and Apple Computer as the lead designer for Apple’s “Snow White” design language. Over a career spanning more than forty years, Esslinger worked with firms in diverse fields of industry and technology. His innovative approach to design refined Louis Sullivan’s classic motto of “form follows function” into frog’s slogan of “form follows emotion,” pioneering a global design philosophy, especially to electronics, that sought a comprehensive approach to both the aesthetics and functionality of industrial design.


Hartmut Heinrich Esslinger (born June 5, 1944, in Beuren bei Altensteig, Germany) is one of the world’s leading industrial designers and the former head of frog design. In 1969, he founded esslinger design, which was based in Altensteig until 2010. The firm was renamed frogdesign in 1982 upon Esslinger’s move to California to work for Steve Jobs and Apple Computer as the lead designer for Apple’s “Snow White” design language. Snow White was applied to Apple’s products between 1984 and 1992. Along with his wife and co-CEO, Patricia Roller, Esslinger built frogdesign from a company of twelve in 1982 into a global design firm, which currently has over six hundred employees and studios in ten cities (San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Austin, Boston, Amsterdam, London, Munich, Milan, and Shanghai).[1] Over a career spanning more than forty years, Esslinger worked with firms in diverse fields of industry and technology (Wega, Sony, Louis Vuitton, Apple, Disney, Lufthansa, Microsoft, etc.). His innovative approach to design refined Louis Sullivan’s classic motto of “form follows function” into frog’s slogan of “form follows emotion,” pioneering a global design philosophy, especially to electronics, that sought a comprehensive approach to both the aesthetics and functionality of industrial design. In this process, he had a significant influence in the development of high-tech design in East Asia, Europe, and the United States—especially in Silicon Valley. Since retiring from frog in 2006, Esslinger has focused on education as a professor of design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna (2006 to 2011) and SIVA (Shanghai Institute for Visual Arts) as professor for “Strategic Design and Innovation”. He also authored three books: A Fine Line (2009), Design Forward (2012), and Keep it Simple (2014)—an internal history of his work with Steve Jobs. Esslinger became a U.S. citizen in 2002 and continues to reside with his family in California, though he maintains a schedule involving global travel, especially to Europe and Asia.

Family Background and Youth (1944-1964)

Hartmut Esslinger was born in the tiny village of Beuren in the Black Forest[2] on June 5, 1944. It was a significant date, as it was the day Rome was liberated from the Nazis and just one day before the Allies landed in Normandy. The Second World War was thus over before Esslinger was a year old. However, his childhood in Beuren[3] was shaped by the political and cultural fallout in Europe following the war. His earliest memories were of his village being occupied by French, and French-Algerian, soldiers (Beuren was in the French occupation zone); the soldiers seemed to be “the only adult men under the age of sixty” in the area.[4] His parents, Johannes Heinrich Esslinger and Ottilie Carla Christa Albers, met before World War II. However, his father was sent off to fight in the war. Injured during the Battle of Stalingrad, he luckily escaped the encirclement of German forces with one of the very last planes able to fly out. In the hospital, Esslinger’s father and mother married in March 1943, and after recovering, his father had to return to the war in Russia. He would become an American POW in Austria—barely escaping Russian imprisonment—and then was sent to a French camp, where he would stay until late 1946. Esslinger was his parents’ first child. His first brother, four years younger, died in infancy from a botched appendix surgery; Esslinger also has a younger sister and brother who still live in Germany.

Though from a rural village, Esslinger describes his family background as a “crossing of European culture.”[5] His family, in fact, has roots in the Black Forest, Switzerland, Austria, France, and East Frisia. His father’s family came originally from Vienna, though Johannes Heinrich grew up in Schiltach, a small city in the Black Forest. His maternal grandmother’s family immigrated from Switzerland in the nineteenth century and his grandfather, with whom Esslinger was especially close, came from East Frisia, having both East Frisian and Dutch roots.[6] Amidst these different migrations, a common experience and religious-ethical code in Esslinger’s family life was pietism; his family belonged to the Michael Hahn’sche Gemeinschaft, a pietistic community based on the teachings of Johann Michael Hahn that was especially active in Baden-Württemberg.[7] One of Esslinger’s most striking memories was observing his grandmother feeding little animals, including insects and mice, as a practice of honoring God’s creation.[8] A work and ethical code was instilled in him from an early age by his family, especially his beloved grandfather, who passed away, much too early, when Esslinger was only seven years old.

Esslinger was less close to his father. Though he survived the war, this invoked mixed feelings, as it did with fellow childhood friends whose fathers were veterans. There was both physical and emotional abuse growing up.[9] For Esslinger, there was also much confusion regarding the past: “No one spoke of the Nazi terror or the Third Reich – not even my extended family, which, as I learned many years later, had lost seven of its own members to the concentration camps [of Riga and Theresienstadt].”[10] Later in school, Esslinger first encountered the horror of what happened through a visit by American soldiers in Altensteig. The soldiers showed a film about the war and the Holocaust: “As I grasped the reality of what had unfolded in my country during the war, I was enveloped in shame, sadness, and fury, and a new understanding of the bitter forces that had shaped my father and his fellow soldiers. ‘Never again, fascism!’ I thought to myself. Better to be a rebellious outcast than a blindly obedient servant.”[11] Esslinger’s rebellious view was enhanced by the perception that the occupying soldiers were the only people who had the courage to tell him about the past. This sense was also mixed with a creative drive that would run into obstacles with his family and the local culture.

However, Esslinger also had great benefits in the town that nurtured his creativity and talent. His family’s landlord was a farmer and carpenter, owning a workshop that Esslinger was allowed to use.[12] He encountered occasional cars, which he began drawing at age five, and on family visits to the Rhine River and the North Sea, he saw ships for the first time.[13] Esslinger also had an excellent, and over-qualified, teacher in the local school, Dr. Hahn. A Jewish teacher, Dr. Hahn had survived during the war apparently by hiding out with the pietistic community.[14] Little Esslinger entered the village school, which combined grades 1 through 8, and was a pupil of Dr. Hahn for four years. This experience proved key to Esslinger’s later views on creativity and education. Dr. Hahn gave Esslinger the freedom to do what he wanted as long as he received good grades. Esslinger concludes, “So we kids learned like mad – and we got the rewards. My payoffs were to build a scaled-down fire truck and to decorate the classroom for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas…. We had wood, bark, paper, clay, and color to work with.”[15] Indeed, the education was exceptional, and helped to develop his artistic abilities; of the nine students in the class, six qualified for high school (Gymnasium), and two continued on to study design at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Schwäbisch Gmünd: Esslinger and the sculptor Klaus Henning.

Yet on Esslinger’s tenth birthday, June 5, 1954, a significant change occurred. His family moved from Beuren to nearby Altensteig, where his parents had bought a clothing store. This meant Esslinger had to change to the local high school and was introduced to new cultural activities. Esslinger’s parents had started the clothing business in 1948, and the store served as Esslinger’s proper introduction to fashion, beauty, and industry. By the beginning of high school, his creative drive had fully developed—which included drawing cars and other objects of industrial design. During family visits to the Ruhr Valley he saw heavy industry, and business trips to Reutlingen, Tübingen, and other nearby cities brought Esslinger into contact with weaving factories. He even recalls pushing fabric on a bike with his father through multiple checkpoints in the French and American occupied zones, starting at age five; it was a unique introduction to borders and travel for the young child.[16]

During these formative years, Esslinger began to encounter American culture. He distinctly remembers seeing Rebel Without A Cause as his first American film in 1957. He even started driving cars a year earlier, at age twelve, in the countryside.[17] Esslinger also took on “a rebel mode” and fell in love with jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll that same year.[18] This passion was nurtured when he received a radio; for example, he could listen to the Wednesday blues hour on AFN (American Forces Network).[19] He eventually started a rock band at age fourteen, causing his parents “to deeply regret giving [him] an electric guitar for Christmas.”[20] He also built some of the band’s instruments, which included “power amps from Fender kits [he] found in secondhand shops.”[21] Along with his musical and design interests, Esslinger’s major interest during his teenage years in Altensteig was in sports—track and field in particular. He is also a fan of soccer, though he admits he did not play well.

Despite these new cultural experiences, Esslinger claims that he “never felt safe” growing up.[22] This was due especially to the presence of former Nazis in the town; his grandfather even told him that he should learn English and escape in case the Nazis returned to power.[23] His pietistic parents, though they relented to buying him an electric guitar, also did not approve of his artistic inclinations—particularly his mother. For Esslinger, an especially painful and poignant moment in this conflict was when his mother burned his sketchbooks, declaring, “All artists end up in the gutter.”[24] Though his high school was a private Christian school, there were former Nazis who were teachers; in fact, his teachers criticized his drawings as “senseless stuff,” and he had a particularly awful art teacher.[25] Given that his creative drive constantly ran into obstacles in the local town, Esslinger developed the conviction in a Socratic understanding of knowledge; he believes that “learning is rediscovering what you already bring with you,” and he understands his interest in design as a natural disposition.[26]

As a result, during high school, Esslinger sometimes longed for the freedom of the elementary school years with Dr. Hahn. Yet despite these issues, he also had some positive experiences in high school and remained generally happy. This included the support of an excellent music teacher, Arthur Kusterer. Originally from Karlsruhe, Kusterer was a pianist who had worked with Herbert von Karajan and composed works himself, including operas. Kusterer requested that Esslinger study “at least the basics of Mozart and Beethoven,” but also nurtured Esslinger’s interests and supported his playing the blues.[27] He also instilled confidence in Esslinger, saying, “It’s about living a life as a creative person.”[28] These experiences would prove significant for Esslinger’s career and his move to the United States.

While interested in rock ‘n’ roll, the stages of learning English were nonetheless quite rough. French was Esslinger’s first foreign language in high school, and English his second language. As could happen in German schools, his first English teacher was, unfortunately, “a South Tyrolian who couldn’t speak English.”[29] He thus partly learned English through music and lyrics, although he was sometimes disappointed; according to Esslinger, with “some songs, I found out it’s better not to know the lyrics because they are equally shitty like the German ones”; as an example, he admits being quite disappointed with Nat King Cole, though he loved Ella Fitzgerald.[30] Outside of learning lyrics, Esslinger still spoke only broken English when he entered the military following high school, and while in service, he mainly knew “textbook military English.”[31] By the late-1960s, however, his abilities in English had progressed through business contacts, and he gradually became fluent during the 1970s.

Given that French was his first language, his connections to France were quite strong. Even his nickname was “Französle” (Little Frenchman), and a formative experience in his youth was a yearlong exchange to France in 1958 and 1959. He lived in Montluçon, experiencing a different form of education at the local high school, the Lycée des Garçons. His exchange year coincided with the Algerian War and the War in Indochina; Esslinger thus had to confront imperial history and war, encountering French soldiers as well as Algerian and Indo-Chinese refugees in Montluçon.[32] Moreover, these travels were formative for his experiences with intercultural communication, which for Esslinger was already established by living in the Black Forest area and having a constant crossing of European cultures amidst the borders of the French and American occupied zones. All the while, he was coming to terms with Germany’s postwar history.

Educations: Military Service, Engineering, Music, and Design (1964-1969)

The definitive decision for a career in design still took a number of years to make. Following graduation from high school, Esslinger entered the German army and had voluntary military service for two years, from 1964 to 1966. This decision fulfilled a commitment to his beloved grandfather; even at a young age, his grandfather requested that Esslinger serve in the military, because “otherwise it would be run by the Nazis.”[33] Esslinger was a member of the airborne engineering corps, and as an officer he gained experience in management, though fellow officers already understood his inclinations toward art. During this period, Esslinger also encountered American and French soldiers, and he was stationed in areas throughout West Germany, from the Alps to Aachen.

By serving in the military, an important educational benefit was secured. For his studies, Esslinger could choose the university that he wanted. Thus, after leaving the military, from 1966 to 1967, he studied electrical engineering at the University of Stuttgart (Universität Stuttgart), although this decision was still not quite his own. Indeed, he studied engineering partly at the insistence of his family. His professors, however, claimed that his drawings were “too nice”[34] and that he had little talent for strictly rational engineering. Nevertheless, important experiences with industrial production occurred at this time, which would help with his career in design. In 1966, he was an engineering intern with the quality-control department of the German consumer electronics company Schaub-Lorenz/Graetz,[35] and he also visited the factories of Mercedes and gathered important lessons in failures of industrial design and outsourcing.

By this time, however, Esslinger realized that design was actually possible as a career choice; and at the moment of realization, on a Tuesday, he immediately switched subjects.[36] The decision to transfer to design was life-changing. His parents were shocked, and he describes this change as “a painful family rift”[37]; after he insisted on choosing design, he did not speak to his family for a number of years. Yet for Esslinger it was clear it was the right decision: “As a design student, all that had been wrong in my life became right.”[38] He entered the College of Design Schwäbisch Gmünd (Hochschule für Gestaltung [HfG] Schwäbisch Gmünd), close to Stuttgart and Ulm. Studying in this region was fortuitous, as it was a hotbed of postwar design in West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. Along with the long-established HfG Schwäbisch Gmünd, the Ulm School of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung [HfG] Ulm) had been founded in 1953. The HfG Ulm was famous for major designers such as Otl Aicher, Hans Gugelot, Max Bill, and Tomás Maldonado. In particular, Hans Gugelot and Otl Aicher developed an influential partnership with the appliance company Braun in Frankfurt.[39] Esslinger learned model techniques from Paul Hildinger, who was a teacher at the HfG Ulm,[40] though his primary teacher was Karl Dittert. As his two major inspirations for design during this time, Esslinger cites Braun (Hans Gugelot and Otl Aicher) and Olivetti (Mario Bellini, Hans von Klier and Ettore Sottsass).[41] He saw both of these traditions as offering aesthetically pleasing and innovative approaches to consumer products. Gugelot—and later Dieter Rams—developed an “authentic simplicity” that moved beyond either “bland functionality or tasteless decoration”; Olivetti’s beautifully designed typewriters and calculators were inspirational, along with Sottsass’s incorporation of diverse influences, including Native American ceramics.[42]

Esslinger’s work at the HfG Schwäbisch Gmünd unleashed an important period of development, intense work, and professionalization. After entering professional design during his studies, he realized he had a lot to learn. This process involved the “demands that conceptual thinking and practical shaping go hand in hand (or tool in hand).”[43] Design was still in its infancy as a distinct career, and industrial designers still received extraordinarily low pay. As an intern, Esslinger even made more money (2000 D-Marks) than the chief industrial designer at Bosch (800 D-Marks).[44] Esslinger also still made money on the side by performing with a rock band, though he eventually had to commit to design.[45] Through experiences in engineering and at multiple factories, Esslinger later understood that in design “the money is made by integrating the whole thing”—the suppliers, the producers, etc.[46] He states

German education is pretty strong in process management, time planning, project management – in fact, what we call “German rigor” is really the engineering. You can see it in the cars – they’re pretty reliable. That gave me an edge. I did not have to do tableware or just a new front for a hi-fi amplifier. I could actually design the whole thing, and that set my career on a different level.[47]

esslinger design: Wega, Sony, and Other Projects (1969-1982)

While still a student at the HfG Schwäbisch Gmünd, Esslinger founded esslinger design in 1969. The inspiration occurred as a result of the dismissive attitude displayed in 1968 by a watch company, Kienzle, at the proposals of student designers, including his proposal for a radio watch. In the developing field of industrial design, Esslinger was determined to find independence and autonomy: “The first goal I set for myself was to achieve economic success. I refused to accept the role of the starving artist;”[48] in particular, he saw economic independence “as a means of being respected.”[49] Two further developments occurred at this time. First, in 1968, Esslinger contacted Dieter Motte, the CEO of the Fellbach-based electronics firm Wega, who was looking for a new chief designer. The meeting went well, though Motte was only willing to offer the young Esslinger an internship. His decision changed, however, when in 1969 Esslinger won the first Bundespreis Gute Form (a federal award for design) for his mid-term project, a portable radio with stereo sound.[50] After the ceremony in Berlin, Motte offered Esslinger the role of lead designer at Wega, which began his career in earnest.

At Wega, Esslinger’s early interests in electronics as an amateur musician and as a student were applied to a focus on stereos and televisions for Wega. His “breakthrough success”[51] came with the Wega System 3000 series (including the Wega TV 3022), which was introduced at the IFA Berlin and launched in 1971.[52] This series “combined a television set with high-end stereo components” as well as design using “plastic-bodied stereo components with foam-encased electronic elements.”[53] Wega also provided Esslinger with his first opportunity to develop a design language under his new philosophy of “form follows emotion,” which was structured “around a disciplined balance between systemic modularity and sculpted 360-degree design.”[54] This gave Wega a competitive edge over rival companies like Braun, Telefunken, and Grundig, and caused a shift in television and stereo design away from wood or plywood-encased products. Numerous products by esslinger design followed. In 1971, two designers also joined Esslinger: Andreas Haug and Georg Spreng, who were partners in the firm from 1977 until 1982, and along with some more hires, a small design team formed at esslinger design in Altensteig.[55]

These successes at Wega led Sony to acquire the company in 1974. This was an extraordinary shift for Esslinger’s early career, since he was now, at age thirty, already working for a leader in consumer technology, and the iconic heads of Sony: co-founders Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka, and Norio Ohga, who later became president and CEO of the corporation. As advisor and designer for both Sony and Wega, part of Esslinger’s job was to explain American and European markets to the Japanese firm. Beginning in 1974, he started to travel to Japan monthly for business meetings, and he gained exceptional knowledge from his work with Sony. His initial focus as a designer and artist became ever more integrated with understandings of industrial processes and production. Esslinger sums up, “Sony was the best business school I ever went to; its product planning, engineering, manufacturing, supply chain management and global business operations were second to none. Without the experience gained during those eight years with Sony, I couldn’t have succeeded with Steve Jobs at Apple.”[56]

Esslinger particularly appreciated that the design studio and management was on the same level as the factory floor; production and design were thus closely linked. He was involved in the designing of hundreds of Sony products, including the Trinitron televisions. In 1976, Esslinger also developed a classic hi-fi system, the Sony-Wega Concept 51K, which was later chosen for the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as for SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). During this time, esslinger design pioneered the model of an independent design firm that contracted out to various companies, rather than having designers employed by the companies. Esslinger could thus maintain relative autonomy. Even after the move to Silicon Valley, he continued to work with Sony throughout the 1980s; furthermore, during the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, along with his primary design work for Wega and Sony, Esslinger secured numerous highly successful contracts. He offers an appropriate summary of the many activities, and diversity, of esslinger design in the book, Design Forward:

Kaltenbach & Voigt became a global leader in dental systems (today owned by the American Danaher Corporation); Hansgrohe, a specialty maker of shower heads, grew from roots in my father’s small hometown of Schiltach in the Black Forest into a global player in bathroom design (today owned by the American Delta Faucet Company); Louis Vuitton evolved from a small specialty luggage maker, with two shops in Paris and Nice that made about $14 million revenue, into a global luxury empire… The culmination of my first professional phase came in 1982, when I was hired by Steve Jobs and joined Apple.[57]

frogdesign: Apple, Steve Jobs, and the Move to America (1982-1991)

“The work we were doing both in our Black Forest studio and in that small office in Cupertino would go on to reshape the way design was seen throughout America.” Hartmut Esslinger[58]

Esslinger’s first encounter with Apple was not in 1982, but in 1978 during the ICSID World Design Conference in Helsinki.[59] Though he was critical of Apple’s design at this time, he saw the potential in the products, in fact, buying an Apple II. Indeed, he became impressed by the potential of personal computing and tried to convince Sony to enter the market, though by 1981 it became clear that Sony wanted to remain focused on consumer electronics.[60] Esslinger was thus looking for a new possibility to enter computer design at this time. Starting already in 1970, he designed computers for CTM/Diehl Data Systems and Esselte, businesses that were oriented toward the high-end and business markets, though neither entered the personal computer market.[61] Esslinger also attempted to partner with Hewlett-Packard in Silicon Valley, though after meeting with its chief designer, he realized the company’s structure prevented a prioritization of design.

The opportunity presented by Apple’s “Snow White” design competition in 1982 was thus striking. The competition’s task, named after the seven dwarves from the Snow White fairytale, was to offer design proposals for seven product lines (ranging from a new Apple II and a new Macintosh, to proposals for flat screen computers, printers, mouse devices, and floppy disk drives) which would give Apple its first unified design language.[62] Apple, to be sure, had already been extraordinarily successful with its Apple II line; however, it was still a very young company (Jobs was twenty-seven and Esslinger thirty-seven years old at the time the briefing was drafted). The company clearly was pressed to develop both its design and company structure, since it had heavy competition from other companies in the personal computer market, especially IBM. This briefing regarding Apple’s plans for a new design language, initially made known to Esslinger in March 1982 in the so-called Red Book, ended with esslinger design presenting more than forty models to Jobs and the Apple board of directors in March 1983, and easily winning the competition.[63] Esslinger had already set up a studio during the competition, and winning it resulted in him completing his move to Silicon Valley later that year. The newly named frogdesign signed an exclusive contract with Apple, and Esslinger, while officially an independent contractor, was named Corporate Manager of Design—a post he would hold until 1986.

It should be clear though that Steve Jobs, while insisting that Esslinger move to Silicon Valley, did not cause a major shift in Esslinger’s plan for a move to the United States. His American travels and contact with Apple developed as follows: Esslinger’s first visit to America was, in fact, already in 1969, though initially he was not impressed. He visited America a couple times per year throughout the 1970s, attempting to obtain contracts and move to the United States.[64] The American market seemed to be considerably lacking in design, and Esslinger thus saw great potential. American firms had, however, rejected his designs as too radical and/or not a priority. In the fall of 1981, Esslinger’s life had also gone through some turmoil. Troubles with the partners in his firm, involving debates on the direction and vision of esslinger design, and his first marriage, to a childhood sweetheart, led to an extended, and extraordinary, round-the-world trip. This trip lasted three months—and it would set in motion some definitive changes in Esslinger’s life.

From West Germany, Esslinger first flew on a business trip to Japan for six weeks and then headed on to Hawaii for two weeks. After this much-needed vacation, he arrived in California, meeting Jack Hokanson, an American colleague who had originally been based in Europe (and had been a former intern with esslinger design). Following visits to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, Hokanson and Esslinger went to Silicon Valley, and Hokanson set up a “designers party.” This resulted in Esslinger’s first meeting with Apple designers, including Rob Gemmell; appreciating his Wega and Sony designs, Gemmell encouraged Esslinger to meet with Jobs. Having established these contacts, Esslinger then concluded his tour around the world with a business trip to Toronto and a visit to Miami Beach before finally returning to West Germany.[65]

After this trip, Apple designers followed up by visiting Esslinger in the Black Forest; they were impressed with his high-tech studio, indicating that there would be the upcoming “Snow White” design competition. Thus, in early 1982, Esslinger flew back to California and met Jobs for the first time. In his book, Keep It Simple, Esslinger details this meeting,[66] recounting Jobs’s enthusiasm for Esslinger’s Wega and Sony designs. Jobs said, “I want this for Apple.”[67] However, Esslinger explained the changes Apple would need, including having a designer who would report directly to Jobs. He also explained that Apple currently did not have the right design and departmental structure. Jobs reluctantly agreed to make the appropriate changes if Esslinger won the competition.

This discussion preceded the actual “Snow White” competition, carried out from July 1982 until February 1983, which included two finalists: Esslinger’s firm and BIB, a British firm. As previously indicated, a studio was set up across the street from Apple, and Esslinger also made use of Hokanson’s model shop in Campbell. This new California office resulted in an extraordinary jet-set schedule, arguably unprecedented in design. Esslinger explains:

But working in Cupertino did make my travel schedule a bit more complex. Typically, I would work two weeks at our studio in Altensteig, then fly to Tokyo and work two more weeks at Sony. Next, I was off to Hawaii to de-compress for a long weekend, before flying to San Francisco for a two-to-three week stint with Apple, then back to Germany where the whole routine would begin again.[68]

Esslinger’s success with Sony gave him the recognition that ultimately convinced Jobs that such radical designs could be incorporated into the industrial process. Indeed, Esslinger states that he truly convinced Jobs with the whole production system of Sony—not with design alone. Jobs was, in fact, initially quite skeptical regarding Esslinger’s new designs for Apple, though his attitudes and developing knowledge of design progressed rapidly.[69]

After winning the design competition, the move and the chance to work with Apple were extraordinary for Esslinger. As he puts it, “The project represented a life-changing moment for me too, 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.”[70] Esslinger thus completed the move of his design firm between 1982 and 1983. This move prompted its famous name change; esslinger design became frogdesign (later changed to frog design and finally frog). Interestingly, “frog” was chosen on account of the many frogs (and street signs with frog warnings) in Baden-Württemberg, although the name, in fact, is an interesting meditation on identity. “frog” stands for Federal Republic of Germany. Esslinger adds the following: “‘frog design’ is always printed in lower-case, a rebellion against German grammatical rules that, forty years later, other companies are beginning to adopt.”[71] Esslinger’s design team was a mix of Germans and Americans, though his focus for Apple design was apparently Californian: “I tried to reposition Apple as a Californian-global brand – Hollywood and music, a bit of rebellion, and natural sex appeal.”[72] The designs were, in fact, a considerable move away from Esslinger’s Wega and Sony designs, with a number of key guidelines for the new design language: authentic materials and no paint, small size, an off-white (later “platinum”) color, thin lines, symmetry, good ergonomics, and clear branding.[73]

The move and the new designs, however, were not without the challenge of balancing many rivalries, including with the original design and engineering team at Apple. Indeed, heated rivalries at Apple persisted throughout Esslinger’s tenure at Apple. His hiring was part of a shift and growing development of design firms in Silicon Valley, which began to work closely with computer companies.[74] Following the original Macintosh, Apple products from 1984 through 1992 bore Esslinger’s unified Snow White design language: most famously, the Apple IIc and Macintosh SE. By the late 1980s, however, the design language had begun to dissolve with an increased variety of products in Apple and its gradual development, led by chief Apple designer Robert Brunner, into the so-called “espresso style” of Apple design (simply named after the fancy espresso machine in Apple’s design studio). Yet throughout this period, the Snow White design language was extraordinarily influential. Apple design writer Leander Kahney states succinctly, “Snow White designs would eventually win all the major industry awards and be so widely copied that it became the de facto design language of the entire PC industry.”[75]

The timeline of the major Apple products using frog’s Snow White approach is as follows:

Apple IIc: April 1984-August 1988
Apple IIgs: September 1986-December 1992
Macintosh SE: March 1987-October 1990
Macintosh II: March 1987-January 1990
Macintosh SE/30: January 1989-October 1991

Importantly, at this time, Esslinger also met and married Patricia Roller. His first marriage had ended and, on a visit to the Black Forest, he was introduced to Roller, who was from a town only several kilometers away from Altensteig. Roller joined Esslinger in Silicon Valley in 1984 and soon became co-CEO. Esslinger emphasizes that frog’s growth, which was considerable during the late 1980s and 1990s, would not have been possible without the business skills of Roller. Esslinger’s main skills lay in design and working with clients, not in organizing finances and human resources. These matters were Roller’s focus. As a husband-wife team, frog grew into a substantial design firm—actually the largest worldwide. Indeed, while its structures are certainly different and not local or ‘niche’-based, it is arguably appropriate to consider the mid-sized firm of frog, especially in its first two decades of existence, as a kind of Silicon Valley representative of German Mittelstand companies that are especially prevalent in Baden-Württemberg.[76]

However, frog’s work with Apple quickly became strained when Steve Jobs was fired by Apple’s board in 1985. Esslinger had conflicts with the new management, though an exclusive contract signed between Apple and frog meant that Apple could not end the work with frog without a major fine. The partnership between Steve Jobs and Esslinger also continued, against Apple’s protests. When Jobs started NeXT, he chose to have Esslinger design the new NeXT “Cube” in the late 1980s. This further angered the new management at Apple, though a deal was finally negotiated. Also, through much of this time, frog maintained partnerships with other clients, including Sony. Indeed, frog was so successful during the 1980s, having won multiple awards for the Apple products, that the crowning achievement of Esslinger’s first decade in America was to be featured on a cover article for Businessweek in December 1990. He was the first designer to achieve this status since the French-American designer Raymond Loewy in the 1930s. Esslinger had seemingly matured, from his first viewing of an American film, Rebel Without a Cause, into a “Rebel With a Cause.”

Later Work and frog Expansion (1992-2006)

Following this feature in Businessweek, frog continued to expand throughout the 1990s until, by the time Esslinger and Roller sold the majority of the company to Flextronics in 2004, frog had one hundred and fifty employees. Just two years later, when Esslinger and Roller officially retired from frog, the company had three hundred employees. The corporate offices and global reach of frog design was clear by this point, and the company has continued to grow and be highly influential in design to this day.

Throughout this period Esslinger maintained a friendly working relationship with Jobs, though NeXT, to be sure, had its economic struggles. When Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, Esslinger did provide a brief advisory role. However, by this time, the Apple Industrial Design Group had expanded and Jonathan Ive became the lead designer shortly after Jobs’s return. Interestingly, frog also had a contract with Microsoft at the time, so it would have complicated any return by frog to working with Apple; nevertheless, Esslinger did advise Jobs to make amends with Bill Gates and Microsoft. On the occasion of Jobs’s return to Apple, frog was also invited by Macworld to introduce a distinctly frog vision for what the future of Apple design could look like.

frog did continue with new and increasingly complex contracts with numerous companies throughout the 1990s. Though ultimately becoming an American citizen in 2002, Esslinger also clearly continued to have close ties to Germany. This was most evident in frog’s work with Lufthansa and the redesign of Frankfurt Airport’s Terminal 1. Indeed, this work seemed appropriately to reflect Esslinger’s travel schedule: “Over my career of forty plus years, I have flown millions of miles, sometimes making three trips a month from Germany via the North Pole to Tokyo and back, or to Hong Kong for a meeting, I feel at home in airplanes.”[77] frog also worked with German retailer Karstadt and its line of digital audio players, Dual. Other significant work during this decade, and into the 2000s, included contracts with Sap, Disney (including its new cruise line business), and Sharp.[78]

Retirement and Professorship (2006-present)

After such an active and long career, Esslinger gradually slowed down and his wife, Patricia Roller, urged his retirement from frog. As previously mentioned, the majority of frog was purchased by Flextronics in 2004[79], and after frog came under the umbrella of Kohlberg, Kravis, and Roberts & Co.,[80] Esslinger and Roller eventually retired as co-CEOs in 2006. Though no longer leading the company, Esslinger and Roller are proud to have created a firm whose structure and culture could continue to thrive in their absence. Roller continues to be active in business, serving on the boards of The Angel’s Forum and several start-ups, and her work as co-CEO for frog was honored in 2003 by the YWCA in their “Tribute to Women in Silicon Valley.”[81] Esslinger’s iconic status as Apple’s first designer has also continued to rise in parallel with Apple’s success and influence in contemporary culture. Currently, Esslinger is focused on his educational ventures in China, advising CEOs and companies around the globe on strategic design and innovation, and on activist and cultural work regarding key current problems in business ethics and design philosophy.

His primary motto for design continues to be “forms follows emotion,” refining the classic Bauhaus “form follows function”—originally formulated by Louis Sullivan. As a public figure in design history, articles about and interviews with Esslinger have appeared in major publications both in the United States (Wired, etc.[82]) and Germany (Die Zeit, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Der Spiegel, etc.[83]), as well as numerous TV shows. After officially retiring from frog, Esslinger also indulged his love of soccer by founding a local soccer team, the San Jose Frogs,[84] which included supporting the careers of other bi-national athletes—eight of his former players participated in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

However, Esslinger’s primary focus since retiring has been on education, first as Professor for Convergent Design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna between 2005 and 2011.[85] His interest in education was, in fact, long standing. Already in 1989, Esslinger became a founding professor of the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe, where he established the first convergent industrial design program, integrating physical and software user interface design. He engages both in guest lecturing and teaching, but he is especially interested in the process of teamwork in design. He writes that “this combination of non-conformity and teamwork may sound like a contradiction, but I have seen the truth of it in my experiences with colleagues at frog and with my students.”[86]

Most recently, he has focused on teaching design in China—organizing the Master’s class for strategic design at DeTao Masters Academy and the Shanghai School of Visual Arts (SIVA) at the Fudan University in Shanghai.[87] He is also the academic dean of the Cida DeTao Innovation Institute (Cida stands for Chinese Industrial Design Association). Together with Liu Guangzhong—China’s most prominent designer—Esslinger is in charge of training and certifying Chinese industrial designers. Throughout this work in education, Esslinger has been especially concerned about the continuing low pay for designers and the exclusive focus on arts, which for him happens at the expense of professionalization in design that addresses “social, ecological, and economic realities.”[88]

Esslinger has also written three books that mix autobiography, design, education, technology, and business. A Fine Line: How Design Strategies are Shaping the Future of Business (2009) focuses on his general career in design, green design, and strategies for ethical success. Design Forward: Creative Strategies for Sustainable Change (2012)[89] offers more detail of his vision for future design, as well as his work with students in Vienna. Most recently, Keep It Simple: The Early Design Years of Apple (2014) has presented a detailed account, complete with numerous archival images, of Esslinger’s work with Steve Jobs and Apple between 1982 and 1986; Keep It Simple was also awarded “Business Book of 2013” by the Wall Street Journal.[90] These three books have been published not only in English and German, but also in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, reflecting the global reach of Esslinger’s work.

Esslinger’s public lecturing and writing in this context is closely linked with the turn both toward green design and debates on ethics of industrial design. For Esslinger, while design now has much higher status than when he was a student, it is also in great need of renewal. A key issue for him is the current popular perception that design is merely a part of “aesthetics” or beautification. For him, this perception does not consider material culture and the industrial process of production sufficiently. As he states, there are already enough designers “churning out new styles of T-shirts and travel mugs – the fashion victims of the profession.”[91] In A Fine Line and Design Forward, Esslinger has developed and refined a view of four social strata of design: classic designers (beauty and high performance); artistic designers (high art, visual appeal); corporate designers (low profile, mass consumption); and strategic designers (design agencies, consultants, worldwide influence). Esslinger links frog with the last, though he sees both classic and strategic designers as being key to leading a possible design revolution.

Social Status and Personality: Music, Business, and Counterculture

Hartmut Esslinger's life and social values are in many respects representative of the West German ‘68 generation. His early identification with the rebel and rock ‘n’ roll (and his strained encounters with older businessmen, who sometimes pointed out his long hair or called him the “hippie”[92]) is indicative of important shifts in business culture and styles of conduct. Esslinger’s relationship and communication with Steve Jobs is particularly interesting in this respect, though it should be noted that Esslinger was close to ten years older than Jobs. While the design, products, and work ethic were obviously the most important considerations in their partnership, Esslinger and Jobs were drawn by a common sense of values and popular culture. In a sense, this relationship reveals interconnections between the 1968 West Germans and the Californian Baby Boomers. The dismissal of formality in corporate environments is patent. Instead of ties and suits, Jobs and Esslinger could wear jeans, T-shirts, long hair, etc. as part of a new generation of entrepreneurs influenced by the counterculture. In terms of their styles, Esslinger even remarks that, during their first meeting in 1982, Jobs’s “T-shirt beat mine… in the ‘old and worn’ competition.”[93] This lack of formality had been a constant challenge for Esslinger while in West Germany in the 1960s. He later found both the optimism and countercultural influences of Silicon Valley conducive to his lifestyle.[94]

Esslinger also has a fun sense of humor, which enjoys the occasional witty use of profanity and four letter words. For example, his requirement for Jobs was simply as follows: “There is a certain limit – I will not accept shit.”[95] Also, similar to Jobs’s vision of Apple as a connector of the sciences and the liberal arts, Esslinger posits a “left brain and right brain” divide that must be overcome.[96] This includes the requirement that creative designers learn the skills to deal with industry. Yet he also insists on creativity and open structures; he sees the success of frog as derived from hiring people who did not have experience and were not accustomed to standard systems. Interestingly, he is also highly critical of the current economy of exploiting unpaid interns; his willingness to pay his interns actually bore considerable fruit. This is most evident in his hiring of Jack Hokanson, whose internship with Philips in the Netherlands was unpaid when they originally met. Esslinger immediately offered Hokanson a paid internship, and Hokanson joined frog; after relocating to California, Hokanson introduced Esslinger to the Silicon Valley community.[97] Esslinger attributes this gift for intercultural communication and his ethical concerns to his childhood in the Black Forest, where he lived at a crossroads of cultures, occupied zones, and exchanges in Europe, with French and American influences from an early age.

Music also played an important role in this sense of shared values and intercultural communication. While Jobs’s and Esslinger’s musical tastes differed in certain ways, they shared a love of rock music.[98] The Beatles played an especially important role in this relationship. In fact, each chapter of Esslinger's book on the Apple years, Keep It Simple, begins with a quotation from the Beatles’s The White Album. Esslinger’s son, Marc, recalls the Beatles’s “Revolution” playing constantly “on an outrageously expensive Yamaha stereo system” during Esslinger’s and Jobs’s meetings in the Black Forest; he further recalls humorous occasions where the local hotel owner was furious at the suspicious “Ami” (American), in jeans and a T-shirt, racking up large phone bills.[99] Along with this rock style, Esslinger often made comparisons of products using musical analogies. Already in 1971, at the IFA Berlin, he stated for example, “Braun is the Modern Jazz Quartet and Wega is the Beatles.”[100] This style is also apparent in the images from the 1990 cover article about Esslinger in Businessweek.

At the same time, Esslinger’s comparison of music and design took different forms; he also had the inspiration of his music teacher Arthur Kusterer. Esslinger writes that Kusterer’s statement, “Notes written on paper only become music by an orchestra playing them” later became “the mantra of the frog studio.”[101] While inspired by such musical references, Esslinger's use of language and cross-cultural communication is also subtle and impressive. He mixes English and German depending on whether, for example, he is giving lectures in Berkeley or Stuttgart. Esslinger has also addressed and explored the continuing development of digital design on both sides of the Atlantic. In this context, he worked together with Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist responsible for the concept of “virtual reality,” as early as the late 1980s on what was called the “frox hypermedia system.” Esslinger is interested in these potentials of virtual reality for creative design, though he also warns of the need to engage multiple tools and not fall back on “silicon doodling.”[102] In fact, he has encouraged a balance and a return to multiple skills and tools, or as he puts it, “a balanced convergence between digital and analog tools and processes” to keep a diverse and dynamic culture of design.[103]

While Esslinger’s career is linked with many projects and many different firms, in the United States and Germany he is primarily known as Apple’s first lead designer and formulator of the first Apple “Design Language.” The long history of successful Apple design has thus gradually grown clearer, with current focus on the continued extraordinary success of Apple’s British-born designer, Jonathan Ive.[104] Esslinger has publically praised Jonathan Ive for both renewing and continuing the culture of design that he sees as key to Jobs’s innovation and success in the 1980s. In addition, the inspiration and influence of German design on Ive began with his own studies in Newcastle. Similarities between Apple’s current designs and Braun/Dieter Rams were later pointed out in numerous blogs, and Ive himself has since earned the praise of Rams.[105] Thus, the global links of “Designed by Apple in California” have become clearer; two key figures of Apple’s design in California have been immigrant entrepreneurs from Germany and the United Kingdom.

Indeed, while a German-American based in California, Esslinger is himself a significant representative of a global entrepreneur and designer. His experiences in Japan in the 1970s were already lessons in cross-cultural communication and new business and process models which prepared the way for the move to California. The repeated round-the-world flights (West Germany to Japan to Hawaii to California and back to West Germany) in the early 1980s are also extraordinary examples of jet-set travel and entrepreneurship in the late modern world. Though Esslinger has been based in California since 1982, he has maintained close connections with Europe both in terms of businesses (Lufthansa, etc.) and education (Karlsruhe, Vienna). And as stated, more recently, he has been active at universities in Shanghai, China, and he is particularly interested in the future development of industry and ODMs in China.

frog design and Philosophy

While for Esslinger “frog lives happily on the borderline between art and commerce,”[106] his politics are also informed in certain respects by the 1960s counterculture. Since retiring, Esslinger has been especially critical of entrepreneurial practices and corporate culture in America, which do not consider environmental and social consequences. He states, for example, “The biggest problem we have in American business right now, aside from a lack of ethics, is a nearly fascist suppression of new thinking. Even a good executive moves to another company, gets a corporate jet, and turns into a rightwing whatever.”[107] He has also been especially dismissive of the Bush administration and the Tea Party movement, and for him, the mix of economic and environmental crisis has been deeply concerning. He writes, “We need dramatic change by new thinking and bold action, and the watchwords for this change are convergent, social, and sustainable.”[108] Esslinger also insists that “while cost efficiency is still the most prominent economic strategy, it is one doomed to economic and ecological collapse.”[109]

In one recent lecture in Stuttgart, Esslinger admitted, “I came to America thinking that [entrepreneurs and CEOs] are visionaries, but 90% are greedy cowards. They only want to exploit – corporate, and ‘I’m important,” nice cars, etc. – and Steve Jobs was really the great exception: ‘I don’t f***ing care, I want to have products.’”[110] Despite his criticism of certain aspects of American politics, especially the mix of cultural conservatism and perceived hypercapitalism, Esslinger still identifies strongly with other aspects of American culture, stating that “there is a reason why I came here as an optimist: to change the world for the better, and not to cave in to what I consider a non-American neglect of human dreams and needs.”[111] Esslinger continues to insist that designers be properly compensated for their work and hopes that the world moves from corporate capitalism to “creative capitalism.” He writes, “I think that we cannot expect fundamental change from the current people in power who, like frogs slowly lulled to their deaths in water that builds to a boil, will float along in their increasingly dysfunctional environment until they or their organizations perish.”[112]

Esslinger’s writings demonstrate a classical education in European thought and history. A Fine Line and Design Forward, for example, include references to writers such as Heinrich von Kleist[113], Max Weber[114], Karl Marx[115], and Walter Benjamin.[116] He is now focused, like many public figures and entrepreneurs, on emerging green industries and design. While strongly linked with American and Japanese, and now Chinese, design and industry, Esslinger often places his work within the tradition of German design. Beginning his educational work as a founding professor at the HfG in Karlsruhe, he writes that his vision includes redefining “the ideals and methods of the Bauhaus and the progressive HfG Ulm for the digital age.”[117] He is also concerned about the mix of capitalist speculation and resistance to cooperative partnerships between China and the United States; he criticizes the books “written on this subject by investment bankers chasing money or wannabees like Donald Trump.”[118] While a proud American, Esslinger has also seen America’s rivalry with (and exploitative dependence on) China develop into the worst trends in global capitalism in its current state: “Money has become the god – with religion mostly a hypocritical excuse for fundamental ideologies of greed, environmental neglect, and systemic social imbalance.”[119]


Esslinger’s dynamic career carried him from a small pietist community in the Black Forest to a leader in global design based in Silicon Valley. His career path is an extraordinary example of the economic and cultural changes, and exchanges, that took place between (West) Germany, Japan, and California from the 1950s to the 1990s. His role in Silicon Valley from the 1980s to the present is also indicative of a shift in a focus on design, with the rise of a number of independent design firms, including frog design, in the early 1980s. The links further demonstrate that major computer companies, including Apple and Microsoft, have significant connections with the history of European and Japanese design. Esslinger’s story is a prime example of this history; educated in German and European design, he was himself influenced by Sony’s model of industrial innovation, before going on to work with both Apple and Microsoft. By studying the work of Esslinger and similar designers, scholars can grasp some of the key current debates in balancing business, artistic, political, and environmental interests in the twenty-first century. While research on the links between German and Californian culture has primarily focused on the key period of émigré and exile history from the 1920s to the 1950s,[120] Esslinger’s story demonstrates that the history of business and cultural links between California and Germany continues to evolve in ways that are worthy of close attention.


[1] See the current homepage of frog (accessed January 12, 2015). See also the history of frog, which includes an image of the links between Altensteig and Cupertino (accessed January 12, 2015). At the time Esslinger and Roller retired from frog in 2006, the company had approximately three hundred employees: http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2006-04-18/one-great-leap-for-frog-design (accessed January 12, 2015).

[2] Unfortunately, American accounts of Esslinger sometimes resort to clichés, which include little attention to geographic detail. For example, Walter Isaacson’s best-selling Steve Jobs biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011) refers to Esslinger as the “wild Bavarian [Steve Jobs] had imported to Apple” (221); Esslinger is, in fact, from the state of Baden-Württemberg.

[3] Esslinger humorously describes his tiny hometown, Beuren, as having five houses during his childhood, whereas today it has an impressive nine houses (Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014).

[4] Hartmut Esslinger, A Fine Line: How Design Strategies are Shaping the Future of Business (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 2.

[5] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014.

[6] Computer History Museum, Hartmut Esslinger Oral History: Interview by Barry Katz (April 20, 2011), 13. His maternal grandparents actually lived in Bochum in the Ruhr Valley, but moved to the Black Forest to escape the bombings during the war.

[7] For a history of the Michael Hahn’sche Gemeinschaft, see Die Hahn’sche Gemeinschaft: Ihre Entstehung und seitherige Entwicklung, ed. M. Hahn’sche Gemeinschaft (Stuttgart: Quell Verlag, 1949/1951).

[8] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014. Computer History Museum, Hartmut Esslinger Oral History: Interview by Barry Katz (April 20, 2011), 3.

[9] A Fine Line, 2.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Hartmut Esslinger, Design Forward: Creative Strategies for Sustainable Change (Stuttgart: Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2012), 70.

[13] Computer History Museum, Hartmut Esslinger Oral History: Interview by Barry Katz (April 20, 2011), 2.

[14] Design Forward, 70. Esslinger recalls that, while the Pietists did not actively resist anti-Semitism, there were BBC reports regarding Pietist protests and opposition to the killing of disabled people; this caused tension between the community and the Nazi government (Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014).

[15] Design Forward, 70-71.

[16] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Design Forward, 71.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014.

[23] Computer History Museum, Hartmut Esslinger Oral History: Interview by Barry Katz (April 20, 2011), 14.

[24] A Fine Line 3; Design Forward 71.

[25] Design Forward, 71.

[26] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014.

[27] For an overview of Esslinger’s childhood, education, and interests in music, see Design Forward, 70-72.

[28] Computer History Museum, Hartmut Esslinger Oral History: Interview by Barry Katz (April 20, 2011), 2.

[29] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] A Fine Line, 102-3.

[33] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014.

[34] UC Berkeley, Lecture, “The Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology: Distinguished Innovator Lecture Series,” September 20, 2007.

[35] A Fine Line, 138.

[36] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014.

[37] A Fine Line, xi.

[38] Design Forward, 72.

[39] However, it should also be noted that the HfG Ulm unfortunately closed in 1968, the year Esslinger began his studies. Significant shifts were developing in design culture in Germany at this time.

[40] Design Forward, 72.

[41] Hartmut Esslinger, Keep It Simple: The Early Design Years of Apple (Stuttgart: Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2014), 33-4.

[42] Keep It Simple, 33.

[43] Design Forward, 72.

[44] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014.

[45] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Debbie Millman, “Design Matters,” July 29, 2013 (accessed January 12, 2015).

[46] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014.

[47] Computer History Museum, Hartmut Esslinger Oral History: Interview by Barry Katz (April 20, 2011), 3.

[48] A Fine Line, 4.

[49] Hartmut Esslinger, personal communication with Sean Nye, December 11, 2014.

[50] A Fine Line, 5.

[51] Design Forward, 72.

[52] Computer History Museum, Hartmut Esslinger Oral History: Interview by Barry Katz (April 20, 2011), 5.

[53] A Fine Line, 5.

[54] Keep It Simple, 33.

[55] Design Forward, 72-74 and http://www.frogdesign.com/about/history.html (accessed January 12, 2015).

[56] Keep It Simple, 7.

[57] Design Forward, 19. For a more detailed analysis of each of these partnerships, see Design Forward, 104-27.

[58] Keep It Simple, 32. For greatvisuals of Esslinger’s work, see, for example,http://www.design-is-fine.org/tagged/hartmut-esslinger (accessed March 26, 2015), which includes his work for Wega and Sony.Many of Esslinger’s classic designs for Apple and NeXT are also on display, and archived, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA.

[59] Keep It Simple, 11.

[60] Keep It Simple, 12-14.

[61] Design Forward, 104-7.

[62] Keep It Simple, 6. The final proposal actually included eight product lines, the eighth being named Flower, after Disney’s Bambi.

[63] For details regarding the Red Book briefing, and the Snow White competition presentation, see Keep It Simple, 6-8 and 31-120. For overviews, see Isaacson, 132-3 and Leander Kahney’s Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products (New York: Penguin 2013), 109-10.

[64] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014.

[65] For further details regarding this trip, see Keep It Simple, 20-21.

[66] For a detailed, informative history and collection of images of Apple’s industrial design up to 1997, see Paul Kunkel’s AppleDesign: The Work of the Apple Industrial Design Group (New York: Graphis, 1997). It should be noted, however, that Esslinger is particularly critical of AppleDesign. While admittedly an important study, the book focuses especially on the intrigues and rivalries within the group. It offers details regarding how Esslinger communicated with Steve Jobs, but it portrays Esslinger as primarily a manipulative entrepreneur and not a designer. Esslinger believes that, in this respect, Kunkel’s book primarily offers a skewed picture and is filled with misinformation. Indeed, in Esslinger’s defense, AppleDesign includes such basic mistakes as the following: it states that Esslinger was “born in 1941 in Bueren” (AppleDesign 282); the correct year is 1944, and the town is Beuren. For an updated review of Apple’s design history, with a more balanced portrayal of Esslinger, see Leander Kahney’s Jony Ive..

[67] Keep It Simple, 21.

[68] Keep It Simple, 31.

[69] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014.

[70] Keep It Simple, 5.

[71] A Fine Line, 6.

[72] A Fine Line, 8.

[73] For a list of the guidelines, as part of the proposal focusing on “lines, slates, and no angles,” see Design Forward, 142-3 and Keep It Simple, 120.

[74] The primary historian and scholar of Silicon Valley design history is Barry Katz, Professor of Industrial Design at the California College of the Arts. A discussion with Katz regarding the shift and development of Silicon Valley design firms can be found here (accessed October 1, 2014). See also Katz’s forthcoming book, Ecosystem of Innovation: The History of Silicon Valley Design (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).

[75] Kahney, 110.

[76] Esslinger analyzes German Mittelstand companies in A Fine Line, 36-7.

[77] Design Forward, 173.

[78] For an overview of frog’s work during the 1990s, see Design Forward, 172-96.

[79] See “Talk Show,” Businessweek, September 19, 2004 (accessed January 12, 2015).

[80] See Peter Burrows, “One Great Leap for frog design,” Businessweek, April 18, 2006 (accessed January 12, 2015).

[81] Erik Schlie, Jörg Rheinboldt, and Nico Marcel Waesche, Simply Seven: Seven Ways to Create a Sustainable Internet Business (New York: Palgrave MacMillon, 2011), 11-12.

[82] See, for example, Kyle VanHemert, “The Godfather of Apple Design Spots 4 Looming Tech Trends,” Wired October 7, 2013 (accessed January 12, 2015).

[83] See, for example Götz Hamann, “Er führt ehrlich,” Die Zeit, August 31, 2011; Tim Kanning, “Wir brauchen mehr Spinner in den Unternehmen,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 8, 2012; Michael Bitala, “Immer Ärger mit der Geschäftsführung,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, July 8, 2014; and Klaus Brinkbäumer and Thomas Schulz, “Der Philosoph des 21. Jahrhunderts,” Der Spiegel, April 26, 2010 (all accessed February 27, 2015).

[84] See http://www.uslpdl.com/teams/2007/6188512.html (accessed March 11, 2015).

[85] For an extensive discussion of education and his work at Vienna, see Design Forward, especially 205-12.

[86] Design Forward, 15.

[87] For reports on these classes, see http://www.detaoesslinger.com (accessed September 2, 2014). See also Design Forward, 212-15.

[88] Design Forward, 23. A study of designer employment in Germany and Austria is also analyzed: Design Forward, 23-26. See also Computer History Museum, Hartmut Esslinger Oral History: Interview by Barry Katz (April 20, 2011), 3.

[89] A promotional video connected to Design Forward details Esslinger’s advice for designers, showing his characteristic mix of humor and advice punctuated with a rebellious (foul-mouthed) spirit: http://vimeo.com/59679411 (accessed January 12, 2015). The website for Esslinger’s work at De Tao University in China can be found at http://www.detaoesslinger.com (accessed January 12, 2015).

[90] See John Maeda’s book review in the Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2013 (accessed January 12, 2015).

[91] Design Forward, 18.

[92] For example, see Hartmut Esslinger’s comments in the lecture in Stuttgart, “Fernsicht 03”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etWlAUmHEKo (accessed January 12, 2015).

[93] A Fine Line, 8.

[94] In Keep It Simple, 28, Esslinger offers an enthusiastic review of John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (New York: Viking, 2005).

[95] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014.

[96] See Design Forward, 11-16.

[97] Hartmut Esslinger, interview by Sean Nye, June 4, 2014.

[98] The role of music in Apple design culture has continued with the new generation. Instead of rock, techno music plays a major role in the life of Jonathan Ive, the world-renowned British-American designer and Senior Vice President for Industrial Design at Apple since 1997. Leander Kahney mentions Ive’s love of electronic dance music on multiple occasions in Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products. For example, Kahney writes, ”Music is an important part of the design studio’s atmosphere. There are about twenty white speakers in the room, with a pair of thirty-six-inch-high concert subwoofers… Jony is big fan of techno – music that drove Jony’s boss, Jon Rubinstein, to distraction. ‘They played loud techno-pop in the design studio,’ he said. ‘I like quiet so that I can focus and think properly. But the ID guys liked it” (162).

[99] Keep It Simple, 123-124.

[100] Design Forward, 88.

[101] Design Forward, 72.

[102] Design Forward, 78-79.

[103] Design Forward, 79-80.

[104] For a profile of Ive, see Ian Parker, “The Shape of Things to Come. How an Industrial Designer Became Apple’s Greatest Product,” New Yorker February 23, 2015, 120-139 (accessed February 26, 2015).

[105] See Matt Warman, “Dieter Rams: Apple has achieved something I never did,” The Telegraph, June 4, 2011 (accessed January 12, 2015).

[106] A Fine Line, 43.

[107] Hartmut Esslinger, UC Berkeley, Lecture, “The Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology: Distinguished Innovator Lecture Series,” September 20, 2007.

[108] Design Forward, 4.

[109] Design Forward, 21.

[110] Stated in Stuttgart, “Fernsicht 03”. Translation by Sean Nye.

[111] Hartmut Esslinger, personal communication with Sean Nye, December 11, 2014.

[112] Design Forward, 16.

[113] Design Forward, 76.

[114] Design Forward, 251.

[115] Ibid.

[116] Design Forward, 251-52.

[117] Design Forward, 203.

[118] Design Forward, 4.

[119] Design Forward, 253.

[120] The field of German exile studies (with particular attention to California) has a long and rich history. See, for example, Ehrhard Bahr’s Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008). See also the resources for exile studies available at the University of Southern California’s Feuchtwanger Memorial Library: http://libguides.usc.edu/content.php?pid=31801&sid=4035626 (accessed January 12, 2015).

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Hartmut Esslinger
  • Coverage 1944-
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date May 24, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018