Learning from Apple's Design Consultant

A Fine Line: How Design Strategies Are Shaping the Future of Business
by Hartmut Esslinger
Jossey-Bass — 160 pp. — $29.95

Even the title of his book makes it clear that Hartmut Esslinger, the founder of the San Francisco innovation consultancy frog design, is writing for an audience of executives.

The foreword, by venture capitalist Mike Moritz of Sequoia Capital, an early investor in Google (GOOG) backs him up. Moritz begins by recalling Steve Jobs raving about Esslinger's early 1980s vision of simple, easy-to-use personal computers. Esslinger went on to co-design Apple's original "Snow White" line of clean-looking PCs.

Throughout his book, Esslinger is keen to proffer tips on how design can affect both innovation and the bottom line. Apple stories abound, including intriguing behind-the-scenes tales that humanize both Jobs and Esslinger. But the writer also includes anecdotes of his design firm's work for an impressive, disparate collection of the world's leading brands, including Disney (DIS), Louis Vuitton (LVMH), and SAP (SAP).

In brief case study after case study, Esslinger builds momentum for his main argument. "Creative strategy offers clear benefits over the traditional supply-chain dominated approach to business," he writes. How? By producing solutions designed for human beings rather than mere commodities. Apple's (AAPL) status as the poster-child for a design-centric approach that has paid off with continuous profits underlines his argument.

Strong Partner

But for Esslinger, a focus on product design is nowhere near enough. Again, he explains with an Apple story, recalling canceling his own birthday party the day after Apple's board ousted Jobs in 1985. The point? True teamwork, respect, and loyalty are the keys to building a culture of creativity and strong partnerships. These are necessary to help people foster radically fresh ideas—and then make them happen.

Esslinger doesn't gloss over his failures. For instance, frog, which he relocated to California from his native Germany (the name is an acronym for Federal Republic of Germany) at the request of Steve Jobs in the 1980s, worked with appliance-maker Maytag in 1998. Esslinger and his team took the opportunity to propose the then-struggling company remake itself as an "innovator" by adding digital user features to their products. Maytag rejected the idea, as well as frog's suggestions of redesigning its corporate culture to encourage creative thinking and collaboration. Considered "a defeat" to Esslinger, Maytag's rejection preceded loss of market share, vast layoffs, and an eventual sale to Whirlpool (WHR). The example reads a bit like a self-serving "I told you so," but it also illustrates how forward-thinking Esslinger and frog dared to be with all of its clients, and not just Apple.

In a skinny, 160-page text, Esslinger somehow packs in nearly every hot topic that both businesspeople and industrial designers are grappling with in 2009. These range from how to create a more environmentally correct supply chain to culture clashes between global partners to the challenges of managing creative people. Each one of these topics could be a book in its own right and as a result, the book seems to lack focus at times. The zigzagging from topic to topic can be dizzying and make the reader wish Esslinger would slow down and dive deeper into each.

But while A Fine Line can be overwhelming at times, Esslinger interjects tidbits from his personal life throughout. These add color, and also help paint a complex portrait of how his highly fertile mind was formed. Sometimes, these anecdotes are painful, such as recollections of his mother burning his teenage drawings to discourage his desire to become an artist. But such details, along with the book's brevity, show that Esslinger practices what he preaches in every area of his life and work. This book, yet another of his products, manages to be elegant and utilitarian while engaging the reader's emotions, resulting in an impressive user experience.

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