Leapfrog

Smart Design’s urbane approach combined with frogdesign’s big global presence is a springboard to innovative product design.

frogdesign, arguably one of the most successful “international and integrated” design consultancies, has just moved into brand new, bright, shiny offices in downtown SoHo, New York City. It is frogdesign’s first intrepid step into a big city and, for the last year, Tucker Viemeister, a founder of Smart Design (one of New York’s best-loved and lauded product design companies) has been fostering the nascent amphibian, after initially approaching Hartmut Esslinger, frogdesign’s main man, to propose a merger.

Talk about timing. Smart was eager to expand its client base and Viemeister was interested in exploring new media, an arena frog-design is well versed in. Coincidentally, Esslinger was contemplating plugging a gap in his company’s global network, which stretches from California’s Silicon Valley to Taipei, via Austin, Texas and Germany’s Black Forest. Frogdesign had nearly all the bases covered, but was perhaps in need of a foothold somewhere more “vital”. A place where the cream of the world’s design talent would be glad to relocate, and clients would be happy to visit. So Viemeister joined frogdesign.

Viemeister, sitting in his temporary office, carved out of an architect pal’s studio, talking about this major career move and his idiosyncratic approach to design, is perfectly charming and disarmingly candid. “I thought frog had a lot of advantages Smart lacked – the big brand names and its own big brand name. But I also thought Smart had things frog didn’t – being in New York and having a much more systematic approach. At Smart we were interested in ergonomic research and applying solutions to real life. And, due to me especially, Smart had a real fun image and frog hadn’t.

“But the most important thing at frog is design, and the most important thing at Smart is design, and there aren’t that many design companies where design is the main thing,” he adds, with a knowing look.

Plus, after nearly 20 years being at Smart and working with five partners, Viemeister was ready for a change and a challenge.

“This past year we’ve gone through a lot of different scenarios and plans about how we will work and I’ve been signing up new clients. I really want to integrate new media with product design, because I think all design is communication,” he explains. “Industrial designers don’t usually think they’re in the communication business. They think, I’m making a pretty thing that works better. But ‘working better’ is an idea, not a fact. If the user thinks something works better, it does. I made up the word ‘psychonomics’ to describe that idea…”

Psycho-what? Here comes the definition: “…like ergonomics describes the actual physical thing: this arm-rest is in the right place. Psychonomics is about, do I want an armrest here, do I like it, does it look cool? If a person thinks a chair looks cool they’re much more apt to be comfortable in it. Design spends most of its time in the tangible-rational area and forgets about the intangible-irrational.”

A glance at frogdesign’s brochure shows a strong obsession with the bottom line (stock-market closing prices run like ticker-tape across the pages, successful projects are measured in growth percentages), while the text is heavy on rhetoric, explaining “Our Creative Process” and its methodology of “Integrated Strategic Design”.

So, more likely than not, it will be down to the personalities of the main protagonists to overcome cultural differences between frogdesign’s high-powered globalism and Viemeister’s urbane localism. For, despite all that, they are speaking the same language. Wasn’t it Esslinger who first mooted the idea that “form follows emotion”, recognising that if designers invested objects with dollops of intuition as well as research, the end results would appeal to consumers as both functional and “experiential”.

As Viemeister tells it, frogdesign was founded in 1969 by Esslinger and “some of his pals while still at school.

“They designed a Wega television and were a bit successful and Sony spotted them, and hired them to design the Trinitron, which was a big success. Then Steve Jobs spotted the Trinitron and transplanted them to California [in 1981].So they stormed into America with the backing of Apple and made a big splash.”

After launching the Apple Macintosh SE, and over their five-year association, Apple’s revenue grew from $700m (437m) to $4bn (2.5bn). It’s fair to say frogdesign was a crucial part of the mix that produced the first user-friendly personal computer and in the process fostered a level of brand loyalty usually reserved for cars and trainers. Since then, frogdesign has worked with NEC, Shell, Disney, Toshiba, Olympus, NeXT Computers, Siemens, Grundig, General Motors Europe and Eastman Kodak, and is these days raking in an approximate annual client revenue of $65bn (40.6bn).

Viemeister, on the other hand, was hanging out in London in the late-Sixties on an exchange from his liberal arts degree. He persuaded John Lennon and Yoko Ono to let him design a nightclub for them. “Yoko said, ‘why would we want you to do this?'” recalls Viemeister, “and John said, ‘you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover’. Then I realised I’d better get some credentials. So it’s because of them that I returned to the US, went to Pratt [Institute, in Brooklyn] and studied design.”

Viemeister’s father had been to the same college two decades earlier, and the two shared many of the same tutors. “The whole thing then was about form. I started off as a Modernist – it was a religion, and we were trying to clean up the world. But now we realise the Modernist aesthetic is basically a style.

“Frog started off with that Modernist thing too, but now it’s pretty much wide open, with the cutting edge in product design being biomorphics or ‘blobjects’. But nobody at frog goes around trying to create a style, or saying ‘that’s not frog-like’. Hartmut’s slogan ‘form follows emotion’ is all about designers trying to make something really cool, so that people are gonna say, wow that’s really neat. That’s the kind of effect we want, and so we end up with shapes that aren’t as formal.”

Looking at some Smart and frogdesign products, which score high on the “wow factor”, those successes are more than skin deep, for along with the funky shapes comes a heap of innovation: the OXO Good Grips, a universal utensil handle for users with a wide range of dexterity (Smart); Astralink’s Clipfone, a mobile with a pen-type clip which functions as both charger contact and speaker housing (frogdesign); and the Wurthner t’Blade, a hockey skate with a strip of conductive steel which melts the ice in order to speed the skater along. All cool stuff.

If this new partnership works, much good design is bound to follow. Viemeister has a bee in his bonnet though: “I want frogdesign to sign the products we design. When you buy a Calvin Klein shirt it has his name in it – it signifies someone cared. If you buy a cup with a handle that doesn’t look right you think no one cared. If it was signed, the guys making the next cup would elevate the whole decision-making process and say, let’s do it right this time,” he says.

“It’s like taking responsibility for your actions – it could feed back and elevate the whole idea of design in people’s minds. There’s something about designers where they want to be in the background. They don’t want the limelight and they don’t want to take the rap.”

He may have out-grown his phase of tidy Modernism, but there’s still a hint of the crusader about Viemeister.

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