Helping technology leap into consumer hearts

Even in the down economy, Silicon Valley princesses are lining up to kiss this frog

Since its birth more than 34 years ago in Germany’s Black Forest region, Frog Design Inc., now based in Sunnyvale, has been a leader in creating the “coolness” factor for some of biggest consumer tech brands.

Frog’s philosophy is based on creating a mind meld of technology and human emotion to make other brands famous. During the past 30 years, its employees, called “frogs,” have been instrumental in designing consumer electronics that gain seemingly instant public adulation for a Who’s Who of tech companies, including Sony Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Apple Computer Inc.

Jojo Roy, vice president of corporate development, is Frog’s chief strategist. He joined the Frog team about three years ago after holding similar positions at IBM’s Tivoli Systems and at now-defunct Apple Macintosh clone maker, Power Computing Corp.

Roy talked with Biz Ink reporter David Speakman about the impact great design has on creating a memorable brand.

Why should technology companies care about consumer emotion?

Frog started as an industrial design firm in the late ’60s with a simple concept: Form follows emotion. The core philosophy of Frog’s founder, Hartmut Esslinger, is that to create a financially successful product, a product needs to go beyond functional competence. It must create excitement or emotional resonance with the user. Great design means great business results.

Is it true Frog’s success started with Sony?

One of Frog’s first clients was the European company WEGA. WEGA and Frog won much attention and many awards in Europe for a sleek, modern designs for a variety of consumer electronic products, including futuristic but extremely usable televisions. WEGA caught the eye of a then up-and-coming Japanese manufacturer, Sony, which later bought WEGA. After the acquisition, a team of frogs went to Japan to work with Sony on a variety of products. The first sweeping initiative resulted in the creation of a design that took advantage of unique Sony television tube technologies. The Sony Trinitron televisions moved the world away from the wood grain vinyl box to the black, “picture frame” aesthetic of the modern television monitor. Frog designed three successive generations of the Trinitron for Sony. In addition, Frog designed introduced and refined such concepts as the first front-load VCR and a variety of portables, including the Walkman. The Sony/Frog relationship lasted for well over 20 years. The interesting part of the Frog/Sony story is that it established for both companies that there was tremendous brand and marketing power in making “products indistinguishable from brand.”

How did you polish Apple?

In the early 1980s, Frog’s work with Sony caught the attention of Steve Jobs, who had a revolutionary technology platform in development at the time. He invited Frog to compete in a global competition to establish a groundbreaking, strategic design language for the to-be-introduced Macintosh platform. Frog won the competition and relocated its headquarters to Silicon Valley. A key goal of the program was — as in the case of Sony — to establish the Macintosh product family as visually distinctive from the functionally competent but bland, beige metal boxes that characterized computers at the time. The result was an extensible design language, called “Snow White” which created design guidelines for a full road map of products. At every sight and touch, the Mac products had a distinctive Apple feel, and stood out in the ocean of undifferentiated boxes at computer retailers. Again, no one had to see a logo to know it was an Apple product when they walked into a store — and the product became inseparable from the brand itself.

How did Frog tackle Windows XP?

Frog has been working with Microsoft on a variety of strategic projects since 1996. The XP team asked Frog to provide a variety of concepts on how to make the Windows experience warmer and friendlier. Microsoft appreciated the value of our interdisciplinary approach, which combines strategists, industrial designers, brand experts, and engineers to create innovative concepts. We thought about the operating system experience as though functions were triggered by three dimensional, physical contact. Many of the concepts were folded into the final release of XP.

Have you ever turned away potential customers?

We have turned away customers. Generally, this occurs when a prospect does not have a clear point of view regarding their business objectives for a project. The last thing Frog wants to do is waste the client’s and our time and money.

Why should companies spend money on branding?

Brand-building, especially by focusing on the core product, is critical. When a company is doing well, it can’t sit still and rest on its laurels. The competitive environment is too dynamic and fast moving. When a company is struggling in the marketplace, they have no choice but to spend on the things that matter if they are to succeed. One theme we’ve encountered repeatedly from clients and prospects in the last year and a half is, roughly, “We must ‘innovate ourselves’ out of tough times.”

Isn’t branding one of the first things cut in “tough times”?

If anything, in a downturn, our clients understand that the product is the core of the experience. The best brand or marketing campaign in the world won’t make a difference if the product itself is bad. Other places where customers touch the brand, like advertising or customer or technical support, can be sporadic and unpredictable in frequency. The unchanging touch point that customers have with a brand is the product itself.

How can Silicon Valley companies use this outlook to make money?

Being the center of the technology universe, many Silicon Valley companies fall in love with the technical aspects of a concept instead of focusing on the real problems a product might solve for a user. The history of the valley is littered with great technical ideas that missed the mark from a user or customer perspective. Relevant innovation is the key, not innovation for the sake of innovation.