Hartmut Esslinger

Harmut Esslinger
Founder, frog design
2020 IDSA Individual Achievement Award Recipient 

It is perhaps impossible to overstate the significance of Hartmut Esslinger’s impact on modern industrial design. As the founder of Frog Design Inc., a global design consultancy he established in Mutlangen, Germany in 1969 and then moved to Silicon Valley, Esslinger has been at the forefront of design excellence for decades. He coined the phrase “form follows emotion,” which stood in stark contrast to the “form follows function” edict that dominated industrial design until that point. He has been a dynamic force in the industry, pushing boundaries and taking risks to design products that have stood the test of time. And on Sept. 16, during the virtual 2020 IDSA Awards ceremony, Esslinger was honored with IDSA’s Individual Achievement Award for his historic accomplishments and contributions to the industry at large.

From his first client, the avant-garde German electronics brand Wega, Esslinger showed he had star power. For Wega, Esslinger designed the first "full plastics" color TV and HiFi series, dubbed Wega System 3000, to international acclaim. Sony acquired Wega in the mid-1970s and tapped Frog to create designs for the Sony Trinitron and the Walkman, two products that helped to define the design style and feeling of the 1980s.

In 1982, Esslinger partnered with Steve Jobs to create a design strategy that would catapult Apple from just another Silicon Valley startup into a global powerhouse brand. Now in California, Esslinger and his Frog Design team produced the iconic Show White design language that was applied to all of Apple’s product lines from 1984 to 1990, including the original Appl IIc and the Macintosh computer.

For more than 30 years, Esslinger weathered the turbulence of Silicon Valley by doing outstanding work for loyal clients. In the 1990s, he was integral to defining Lufthansa's global design and brand strategy, as well as Microsoft Windows’ branding and user interface design. He also employed his revolutionary design talents for Siemens, NEC, Olympus, HP, Motorola, SAP and General Electric, while incubating a team of designers that spun off into other influential design firms, such as Astro Studuos, fuseproject, and Whispaw.

Beyond his dedication to design as a practitioner and as an educator in academic institutions worldwide, Esslinger is widely admired for his playfulness and refusal to play it safe when creativity strikes. “We must recognize that at the time of their release, the designs Hartmut and his team produced were anything but conventional; they set new precedents that were so ubiquitously copied that they became the standard,” writes Remy Labesque, now a senior industrial designer at Tesla. “Hartmut has dedicated his life to industrial design, design academia, and relentless disruption. Without question, his work has been foundational to the very definition of industrial design as a discipline.” According to the 2019 recipient of this award, industrial designer Michael DiTullo, IDSA, Esslinger is “still every bit the provocateur he was when he started out” and a leading example for the next class of design disrupters: “I think we need another Hartmut Esslinger today.”