A global leader in design innovation, Frog Design’s recent projects include TouchTunes Virtuo, a smart jukebox; ECOtality’s Blink, a family of electric vehicle chargers; and mobile money in Afghanistan, part of Frog’s social innovation efforts centered on mobile technology.
Frog Chief Creative Officer Mark Rolston co-founded the firm’s digital media group in 1996, helping clients leverage emerging technologies and setting the tone for user interface design and e-commerce platforms. I spoke with Rolston last week about gesture-based computing, why Microsoft’s Kinect is the most exciting technology since the mouse, and the inevitability of creative firms getting into the software business.
ON FROG EVOLUTION: Frog started in 1969 as a product design firm in Germany, looking at the world through the lens of making consumer products. [We were working with] the earliest form of consumer electronics—turntables, televisions. Our first client was Wega in Germany, a company that was eventfully bought by Sony. And our relationship with Sony was what opened the door to a relationship with Apple, and that’s what brought us to the U.S. I came in 1994 as a software guy. I was on the outside looking into this product firm. The idea was, “You will help us do the pixel stuff on the screens of our products.” The value of it was in the hardware. Today that’s shifted. Today a vast number of products we do cross those lines fluidly—software and the physical experience and the social experience are all intertwined. We call ourselves an innovation firm.
ON SOFTWARE AS THE NEW NEW THING: If you look at what we’re doing today, a good 70 percent of what we do—and what’s driving product innovation today– is software-driven, even if the end result is a product you hold in your hands. Nokia and HP are getting turned over because for so long they were a powerhouse for hardware, and all of a sudden the game is about software. Creative firms have to get into the business of building software. It’s an inevitability with the larger innovation firms. They’re all going to have to do this. We spend all this money building the abstracts, and it will eventually get to the point when it will seem antiquated to build an abstract. The designer who imagines the ideas is also laying it out.
We’ve been doing this since 2006 with clients. Since 2008, Sprint has been selling a whole line of handsets that we did all the software user experience for. We’re doing this with AT&T today. It means being able to offer a customer the ability to conceive of a solution, then turn it around and build it for them. Since 2006 we’ve been working jointly with Aricent [Frog, now an arm of Aricent, collaborates with 900 of Aricent’s software engineers.] What we’re doing now will become the new normal. It’s a shift to being able to build what you conceive of. It’s a big deal.
ON SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST: Ever since we opened the Austin studio in 1994 we’ve hosted the kickoff party for South by Southwest. For many years, we’d just open our doors and move the desks aside and supply our own cases of beer. We’d turn on some of the computers and run some demos to show what we’d been working on. It was more of a beer bash. Four years ago, we realized this was a great opportunity to tell a story. Last year we did this mass demonstration—we rigged all the toilets with sensors and projected images on the outside of the toilet doors. It was a giant human-scale social experiment into what social data and augmented reality could mean.
This year, 4,500 people came to the party. We bought 30 [Microsoft] Kinects. We asked all our designers and engineers to come up with social experiments. We set up games as stations where people could experience what it would be like to work in front of a gesture-based experience. We had one where a shape was coming at you from a big screen, and two people had to make a shape with their bodies to match their silhouette to the oncoming silhouette. The big hit was a room filled with an eight-by-eight grid of steps, so 64 people could collectively create music. When you stood on one spot, you could turn on and off an instrument. There were coordinating lights. It didn’t make great music, but people got the idea immediately. The whole party was set up as a technological experiment, a social experiment, a way for us to express ourselves and play out ideas.
Our clients have serious objectives and sharp focus. Using a party like this is a fantastic way to explore technology. The Kinect is a fascinating emerging technology, second only to the mouse. It has phenomenal possibilities in terms of what it will mean to computing.
ON GESTURE-BASED COMPUTING: We’ve been working with HP on the latest generation of their TouchSmart computer. They’re starting to get into gesture-based computers as a way to control the PC. You can talk to the computer without sitting down at it. Things you’d want to say—like, “back,” “stop,” “next.” Right now, a vast number of our customers are traditional product firms that are facing new challenges with the evolution of the platforms they’re using–for example, gesture-based computing. Or health monitors—a glucose monitor that now can be connected to the Internet.
ON DISNEY AS A CLIENT: We did a lot of work many years ago on their consumer product. What we’re doing today is very different, but I can’t even hint at it. We have secrets; this a secret secret. It’ll be the coolest story one day.
ON DESIGN RESEARCH: There’s whole lot of consistency among the top innovation firms in how design research is addressed. For us, we’ve stepped up in the last several years, in a qualitative difference, in the ability to reach across the globe. We’ve also started to spend more time in the field than we have in the past. We spend more time living with customers to understand how they live. It’s a much more intimate process than just collecting a small field sampling. It’s less about data and more about beginning to empathize.
We just did a project [for 3M] in China, trying to understand what an average Chinese citizen living in a small home uses to store ordinary objects–how do they solve space management problems. We’re not trying to reinvent furniture, but where else do you end up cobbling together hooks and shelving in odd places? We’ve developed a deep understanding of that by spending time with people in their homes and taking hundreds of photographs. The strongest outcome is our stories—a way to bring the customer along. You can do it with metrics and data, but that often [omits] the critical aspects of the data. It’s trying to make these human factors much more tangible.
ON THE CHINESE CONSUMER: China’s a whole story on its own. We’ve been there since 2007. We started with two people, and now we’re about 45 people–rapid expansion in our world. In that time, most of it has been our learning about the market, but we’ve also seen the Chinese market start to grow and rapidly start to assert themselves–wanting to learn to innovate on their own. Some of that is just a desire to take control of their own destiny in selling to the rest of the world. But the more interesting phenomena is that their own market is beginning to buy, so it makes sense that they are producing things tailored for their market. We’re getting this new fantastic phenomena of designing for the Chinese consumer in a new way. The Chinese consumer isn’t yet quite quantifiable. They are still in this nebulous state, forming every day.
We have shorthand, like the Soccer Mom, and that’s a meaningful stereotype you can design for and sell to. But we don’t quite have the Soccer Mom worked out or any such classification for the Chinese consumer. The absolutely most exciting part of our business right now is China. For a lot of [Chinese companies], they are trying overcome the stigma of making the cheapest version of Product X. It’s like the Japanese having to overcome the stereotypes about Japanese cars.