Hartmut Esslinger

Industrial Designer for Apple Computer, Sony

Hartmut Esslinger (b. 1944) is a legend in the field of industrial design. The German-born designer is perhaps best known for his collaboration with Steve Jobs and Apple Computer.

Hartmut Esslinger

Hartmut Esslinger in 2009. PHOTO: Greg Edwards (Wikimedia Commons)

Esslinger was born on June 5, 1944 in the small German town of Beuren in the Black Forest region of Baden-Württemberg. His father was a soldier in the Wehrmacht who survived the Battle of Stalingrad. After the war his parents owned a clothing store, which exposed Hartmut to fashion and design at an early age. Although they wanted him to carry on the family business, he wanted a career in design. In 1969, age 25, he graduated from the design school (Hochschule für Gestaltung) in Schwäbisch Gmünd about 30 miles from Stuttgart. That same year, with two friends, he founded the industrial design firm that would later become famous as frog design. (The lowercase name, introduced in 1982, stood for “federal republic of germany” and was also a play on the many frogs found in the Black Forest region.)

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. BUY this book from Amazon.com

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.
BUY this book from Amazon.com

Essingler’s design work for the German consumer electronics firm Wega attracted international attention. In 1974 Japan’s Sony took over Wega and asked Essingler to create a unified global design for Sony’s products, including the Trinitron TV set. It was Esslinger’s design work for Sony that caught the attention of Steve Jobs when he was looking for a designer for his new Macintosh computer and other Apple products (beginning with the Apple IIc). After Essingler’s firm won a competition for the new design work, Jobs himself flew to London and then to Germany to personally meet Harmut Essingler. The German designer impressed Jobs with his design philosophy – and with his high-speed driving on the autobahn. (See the box below for more.)

Before Jobs would give Essingler a contract with Apple he insisted that he move to California. With a $1.2 million contract in hand, Essingler’s frogdesign firm (later frog design, after 2011 simply frog) opened its Palo Alto offices in the summer of 1983.

Esslinger in the Steve Jobs Biography
In his bestselling biography of Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson refers to Hartmut Esslinger and frog design several times. In the first reference, on page 132, he writes: “Jobs flew to the Black Forest region of Bavaria to meet [Esslinger] and was impressed not only with Essslinger’s passion but also his spirited way of driving his Mercedes at more than 100 miles per hour.” Although he has written an excellent biography, Isaacson seems confused about German geography. The German designer does indeed come from the Black Forest region, but that area of Germany lies in the state of Baden-Württemberg, not Bavaria. The author’s mistake is like saying that someone is from Utah, when they are actually from Nevada – a state with a very different culture than Utah, similar to the differences between Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. He repeats his mistake on page 221 when he refers to Esslinger as “the wild Bavarian [Jobs] had imported to Apple.” He is actually Swabian. Note to Isaacson: Not all of southern Germany is Bavaria!

When Jobs left Apple in 1985, he asked Esslinger to design computers for his new NeXT venture. Unfortunately for both, NeXT was not very successful. However, frog design had many other clients. Although the firm struggled after the dot-com bust in 2001, Esslinger and his wife Patricia managed to save the company. Today frog’s global headquarters are in a renovated warehouse in the heart of San Francisco, not far from the Giants baseball stadium.

In 2006 Esslinger retired as CEO, and frog became a unit of Aricent (formerly Flextronics Software), which is controlled by the investment firm KKR. The firm has offices all around the globe, including Austin, New York City, Seattle, Munich, Milan, Shanghai, Amsterdam, Bangalore, Boston, Johannesburg and Kiev. Its clients include Disney, GE, HP, Intel, Microsoft, Lufthansa, Siemens, and many other Fortune 500 brands.

San Jose Frogs
Esslinger has always been enthusiastic about soccer (Fußball). In California he founded an amateur soccer team named the San Jose Frogs in 2005. The team was a franchise of the USL Premier Development League (PDL) and played its home games at a field on the campus of James Lick High School. Unfortunately, Esslinger discovered the difficulty of attracting US fans to soccer games and it all ended in 2008.


A Fine Line by Harmut Esslinger.
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A Fine Line
In 2009 Esslinger published A Fine Line, a book about how businesses can be more environmentally friendly while contributing to the global economy. He has published several other books in German and English. Esslinger is Founding Professor of the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe, Germany (1992), has an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the Parson School of Design, New York (1996) and is an Honorary Member of the Design Academy of Mexico. Since 2006, he has also served as a professor for industrial design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria.

In the 1990s Esslinger and his wife Patricia Roller became naturalized US citizens. They have four children.

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