Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book review: Harmut Esslinger "A fine line: how design strategies are shaping the future of business"

I have known about the design firm frog for many years, but I have not really known much about their founder, Hartmut Esslinger. Esslinger published a book in 2009 called "A fine line: how design strategies are shaping the future of business"where he tells the story about his own life as a designer and about frog. Esslinger has an impressive list of achievements and can probably be seen as one of the most influential designers in the world when it comes to high-tech.

It is always fascinating to meet the thoughts of someone who has been so successful and also has
intentionally tried to formulate his design approach in an overall 'philosophical' way. Esslinger shows clearly that it is possible to be both personal and unique while also formulating general principles and ways of thinking. The book balances on the line between design thinking and strategic business thinking. Esslinger makes a strong and convincing case that design is not only about making good products and services but that each and every designed object has a direct and and serious impact on the overall company, its image, and at the end--survival. Design is not for the faint hearted--it takes courage. Essslinger emphasizes that design is serious business and to be engaged in such processes requires that you know what you are doing, why you do it, and how to do it.

The book contains many stories that provides "evidence" that design is a question of business thinking and strategy. Esslinger formulates some approaches, frameworks, and methods on how to achieve this and how to actually do it. Most of them are fairly simple in form while not in content and are mostly presented as principles.

I find this book stimulating and I think it is a great reading for any young designer who is still trying to understand what design is, what design's purpose and goal is, and how to approach it. It is easy to agree with Esslinger and his overarching philosophy when it comes to design. He writes for instance at the end of the book that he wants to make "design the vanguard of humanistic progress and to encourage everyone, no matter what professional and personal paths he or she travels, to share my passion for improving the world." (p 159). He continues on the next page " is the living link between our human goals and needs and the material culture that helps to fulfill them". Esslinger definitely sees design as one of the most powerful forces shaping our reality.

Of course, a book like this can inspire designers but also be somewhat overwhelming and maybe scary to read. The life of Esslinger and his success has made it possible for him to work on projects that few ever get close to. The grand ideas and ideals that he expresses and lives by may feel unattainable and maybe even offensive to a young design who is involved in fairly plain and everyday design tasks. But I also think that the book can revitalize a your designers ideals and beliefs about the power of design and serve as a guiding tool on how to reach the kind of design adventures that do influence the world. It is obvious, as always, that Esslinger's story is also a story of extremely hard work, failures, extraordinary efforts and a constant struggle in figuring out what design is really about.

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