Thursday, April 8, 2010

Book Review: A fine line: How Design Strategies are Shaping the Future of Business

Book Title: A fine line: How Design Strategies are Shaping the Future of Business
Author: Harmut Esslinger
Year of publication: 2009
Reviewer: Deedee Clohesy, CRS 625, Spring 2010

“I understood very early on that businesses need creativity like humans need oxygen, and I was able to convince my clients that they needed to ‘breathe’ in order to flourish” (Esslinger, 2009, p. xii).

By all accounts, frog design, inc. has done everything right. In his book Fine Line: How Design Strategies are Shaping the Future of Business, frog’s founder, Hartmut Esslinger, takes readers on a personal and professional journey through forty years of cutting-edge design thinking, creative strategies, and innovative problem-solving. Remaining down to earth and surprisingly un-pompous, Esslinger’s narrative is straightforward and informative from both a design and a business perspective, and offers invaluable insight to anyone looking for an insider view of the industry and how design and business principles can be combined for greater force within it.

While still a student, Esslinger had an experience – a rejection in a design competition – that served as an epiphany. Dismissing the current world of design as a stiff and limiting hierarchy, he founded his first design firm, esslinger design (Esslinger purposely did not capitalize the name), in 1969 with one simple vision: that design could be relevant to business and industry and be redefined as a strategic profession. He formulated a six-step, simple but ambitious plan that included working for the client rather than for himself and always looking for the best people when it came to not just business partners and employees, but in clients, too. Providing the best for the best was, in Esslinger’s plan, the way to success. And it worked.

Founding frog (again, no capitalization, as a purposeful rebellion against grammatical rules) shortly thereafter, Esslinger formed a business relationship with Steve Jobs of Apple Computer and created the “Snow White language” that would serve as the basis for Apple’s revolution and a precursor for Apple’s present-day colossal market presence.

Leadership, to Esslinger, was the hinge upon which a company’s success could swing. Principles and vision and strategy were all part of success, but without effective leadership, nothing else could work. Having witnessed the implosion of Apple after Jobs’ dismissal in 1985, he attributed the ensuing dysfunction on lack of foresight and poor leadership. Leaders, Esslinger said, are obligated to make all the right decisions – for their company, its employees, its shareholders, their families, and the local economy; it’s what Tim Brown (2008) of IDEO calls “the people first approach” (87). The most important factors in effective leadership are the desire to explore the unknown, to be willing to take risks, and above all – flexibility. Creative strategy is flexible. So must be its leaders. Frog’s motto, in fact, is Change Is Fun (Esslinger, 2009).

In 2008, Amabile and Khair wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review, in which Amy Edmunson, a professor at Harvard, stressed management’s role in creating a psychologically safe environment in order to foster trust and creativity. Esslinger obviously built frog on this principle, yet was focused and confident, wielding what Jack and Suzy Welch (2007) referred to "The Velvet Hammer” (116) – the firm but gentle approach to managing creative personalities.

Esslinger moves through the various schools of thought in the design world, pointing out the importance of choosing the right creative partner for the job. His strategy was nothing new; domain specificity and interdomain creativity differences have been studied by researchers and scholars like Howard Gardner for years. Donald MacKinnon’s seminal research into the ego, personalities, and self-images of architects in the 1960’s laid solid ground for such theory. (Runco, 2007). Esslinger recognized this and worked it into his success. Putting, for example, a classic designer like Dieter Rams on a project more suited for an artistic designer such as Ross Lovegrove was, to Esslinger, counterintuitive and an irresponsible way to run things. Frog’s strategy, nonetheless, is still one of holistic design, of “strategic designers who are fluent in convergent technologies, social and ecological needs, and business”(p. 53). Like Pixar’s Ed Catmull (2008) noted about his company’s peer culture and creative process, “everyone is fully invested in helping everyone else turn out the best work” (p.69).

(And as an interesting aside, the building in which Pixar is located was designed by Steve Jobs).

Frog’s influence is far-reaching and deeply pervasive and, despite the current economic situation, is still turning a profit as a global design entity. Esslinger and frog have spent the last forty years proving what works in design and industry, and how to incorporate and merge them together to form success in business. A Fine Line puts it in plain, simple terms that not only make sense, but serve as a motivating factor to anyone wishing to follow frog’s lead. Leadership, vision, innovation, and confidence are all overwhelming factors in frog’s rise to the top of the creative design ladder, and are founded on core creativity and business principles that, when patched together the right way, spell great success.


Amabile, T. and Khaire, M. (2008, October). Creativity and the role of the leader. Harvard Business Review. 101-109.

Brown, T. (2008, June). Design thinking. Harvard Business Review. 84-92

Catmull, E. (2008, September). How Pixar fosters collective creativity. Harvard Business Review. 65-72.

Runco, M. (2007). Creativity theories and themes: research, development, and practice. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

Welch, J. and Welch, S. (2007, September 27) Wielding the velvet hammer . Business Week. 4051. 116. Retrieved from

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