Frog Design's Hartmut Esslinger On Design In 1979

Hartmut Esslinger's Frog Design made WEGA/Sony's electronics fetish items, and then designed the "Snow White" language the Mac used. He's a design legend and an author. Here he tells us about the challenges of designing, then and now.

How did you shift from entertainment products to personal computers? Did you seek them out or were you pulled in? And were there others besides Apple? Was there a chance you might have ended up sharing your Snow White design language with some other company, turning a competitor of Apple into the iconic "cool computer" maker of the day?

My second client in 1970 was the German company CTM, an offspring of Nixdorf, back then a leader in making data processing affordable and usable to mid-size companies. They were quite successful and together we created the first ergonomic desktop terminal with a tilting display and detached keyboard in 1978 which won international acclaim.

Apple's "Snow White" design language was the result of a very close relationship and collaboration with Apple, and ultimately expressed the very specific values and aspirations of Apple. The key was that Steve Jobs wanted "the very best design, not only in the computer industry but the entire World". This allowed us to create a totally new design paradigm for "digital-convergent products" without historic precedence.

How have product considerations evolved in the same time? What was the 1979 equivalent of hardware vs. software? Or physical button vs. touch surface?

Let's take Sony as an example: as of 1976, we were working on remote controls for multiple sources from TV to Audio-Systems and "Home-Control" with software screens, activated both by buttons and direct-touch. Even as the key problem – aside of cost - was slow processing power and LCD screens with little contrast. Our objective was to simplify usage and some products went into the market in Japan. So to your answer: we already had it in 1979.

What design trends were hot in the late 1970s that are coming back around now? Which trends from the 1970s will NEVER come back?

The late 1970s were very much defined by the shock of the oil crisis and the subsequent recession especially here in the United States. In Europe and Japan, there was a wider acceptance of energy-saving and ecologically responsible product strategies. The hot design trends were "personalisation and miniaturisation" – SONY's Walkman being the best manifestation – and with the Japanese domination of electronic consumer electronics making professional-grade technology – e.g. cameras - accessible and affordable to millions. This also was a time, when the United States lost out big time in this field. The late 1970s also were the "Golden Age" of product design – and this trend will return for product experiences and hyper-convergence – which means to design how people feel.

Isn't part of design seems to be envisioning products that use technology that doesn't yet exist? What were the sorts of things you envisioned in the 1970s that are commonplace today but didn't yet exist? What are you envisioning now (or what have you envisioned lately) that will take some time for technology to catch up?

This may sound a bit arrogant, but in 1968 I proposed an "Atomic-Time Radio-Wristwatch" for a watch competition. People laughed at it, but in 1986 frog designed exactly such a product for the German Junghans company.

Sometimes, technology surpasses human speed: today we are using mobile phones with more computing power then could be imagined 20 years ago – and even science fiction authors like William Gibson or Arthur C. Clarke didn't even anticipate them – but the user interfaces are split into "old-phone-physical" and "agnostic-digital" (Apple's iPhone succeeds because it is the first product to bridge this idiotic chasm).

Looking a the future, I think that technology and our body will grow closer together – a couple of years ago, we designed "Dattoos", the vision of a protein-based computer "living" on human skin. Closer to reality are concepts of enhancing brain activities by electro-magnetic impulses. Already, design is expanding from "bits and atoms" to "neurons and genes" – one could call it BANG-Design.

Were there times when companies were afraid to go as far as you wanted them to? Are there any examples of companies that refused to make design improvements—perhaps because of cost—and paid a larger price for that?

Strategic design is not about "going as far as possible" but about "going the best way together". As said above with the Apple Snow White example, the interactive relationship between client and designer is a vital element for success or failure. So, even as I may push for more advanced solutions, the client may have many reasons not to follow. At the end of a day, each jointly achieved result shall be a healthy compromise, motivated by achieving the best for the user and/or consumer. Naturally, there are some negative examples where I couldn't convince clients, which I also describe in my book: Polaroid which stuck too long to chemical image creation, Maytag which refused to innovate in a strategic way and Motorola which missed the opportunity to create the iPhone long before Apple did.

Dr. Hartmut Esslinger, founder of Frog Design, just published a great book entitled A Fine Line, on the lessons he's learned in his career and on the future of business informed by design. We encourage you to check it out.

Gizmodo '79 is a week-long celebration of gadgets and geekdom 30 years ago, as the analogue age gave way to the digital, and most of our favourite toys were just being born.