At Tech-forward Firm frog, Design is All About Process

This article was originally published on AIGA’s Eye on Design blog; photos by Nicholas Prakas.

You know that Apple product you’re reading this on right now? Aside from Steve Jobs + co., you can thank German designer Hartmut Esslinger, whose early product design work caught Jobs’ eye and, with the IIc system and its Snow White design language, put Apple on the path to greatness. When your first U.S. client is Apple, you can either go big or home; after Esslinger founded frog in 1984 upon his arrival in Northern California, he chose the latter option. Since then frog has gone on to work on huge projects for major brands in every industry, from travel and technology to fashion and entertainment.

But before the massive team of designers, researchers, strategists, and engineers at frog’s 11 global offices can even begin to tackle one of the diverse, multi-disciplinary, multi-platform projects the firm is known for (confronting financial inclusion in Rwanda for Visa, rethinking disaster relief management with FEMA, and creating software that improves the energy efficiency at GE’s power plants are just the beginning) they first have to think about how they’re going to think about solving a given problem. That may seem like an unnecessary added step, but tackling interdisciplinary design problems requires complex solutions, so frog has come up with a host of proven methods that keep the process clear and madness at bay. These practices have names like frogFocus, frogMob, frogImmersive, frogFilm, and frogThink, which they’ve even trademarked.

It’s as impressive as it is potentially intimidating for new hires, something executive creative director Sean Rhodes experienced for himself when he first joined the company as an ACD. Unlike other jobs, like his previous role as creative director at a Detroit ad agency, Rhodes says he had “a really difficult first year. The challenges at frog are much broader, they’re always changing, and every project is very different… The work we do can be very challenging and not super well-defined.”

Challenging is the key word here—it could also describe frog’s company culture. “I’ve never worked somewhere where so many people have advanced degrees,” says Rhodes. “It’s a very competitive and focused culture—in a good way. Other industries I’ve worked in are much more jocular and social. Here, the hours are shorter, [roughly 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., in case you’re wondering], but they’re 300 times more intense.”

Rhodes has long since overcome the hurdle of “thinking about design in a more holistic way.” As ECD he manages the relationships between clients, employees, and the work itself. “I look at all the design processes and make sure that our internal processes and outputs are as optimal as they can be.” It’s a job description Rhodes might not have envisioned for himself over a decade ago when he was studying graphic design, but after hearing him describe the way frog’s 11 offices interact both with each and with the world—something akin to operating a many-levered, well-oiled machine—it’s clear he’s at ease in the control room. It also makes him the perfect person to walk us through how frog’s complex work actually gets done.

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First up, cue the pursuit team, a group that includes someone hand-picked from every discipline. These are the people who determine that all-important frog step: the approach. “Finding a way to solve a problem is a design process in itself. It’s kind of an art form,” says Rhodes proudly. Then, after deciding who should be involved, which often means borrowing designers from other offices, the pursuit team drafts a proposal with a “thought piece” that reflects their perspective on a given sector of the client’s industry. And then they get to work.

In frog’s New York City office, teams meet in the 7th floor lounge areas and moveable spaces, sometimes building full-scale prototypes in what Rhodes describes as a “living lab,” as opposed to the more traditional set up on the 10th floor: rows of desks packed tightly with an arsenal of gleaming Apple monitors.

It’s a charged, highly collaborative environment that doesn’t always leave much room for designers to put their individual signature on a project. But that’s not to say people don’t stand out. Those same qualities that get young designers hired at frog—being entrepreneurial, self-sufficient, and excellent craftspeople—are also what help separate them from the crowded pond. Rhodes recalls one instance when a junior designer created a storyboard toolkit for her team to use internally on a project that then “spread like wildfire throughout the studio. Now tons of people are using it,” says Rhodes. “No one told her to do it. She just did it on her own and the studio came together to help support it.”

But if you’re not a rock star right out of the gate, that’s okay, too. According to Rhodes, “there isn’t an expectation for new junior people to shine right away.” In fact, frog is shifting its strategy to hire more junior-level designers and mentor them as they move up within the company—and this includes everyone from those with hyper-specific skill sets to generalists with what Rhodes describes as “a more holistic, broader perspective that can tune into the array of business problems as opposed to zeroing in on craft.” (If that sounds like you, Rhodes suggests sending in your portfolio and following frog’s creative team on Twitter. You can find Rhodes at @917k.)