MX | part 2 | Becoming Amphibious
It was at the peak of the first dot-com bubble. San Francisco was a frenzy of internet start-ups, and if you were not starting one, or in one already – you felt like an idiot. There were kids in the 20′s walking into a Starbuck with an just an idea (like Pets.com), meeting a couple of VC guys while in line for coffee, and walking out out with millions of dollars of funding. It was an exciting and crazy time. The ID (Industrial Design) and digital media firm frogdesign was rapidly growing its international services, literally doubling in size – they were like everyone involved in the web, completely caught up in the frenzy. Frog was raising funds, buying firms, preparing to launch an IPO, just growing like crazy. Ironically their San Francisco office couldn’t seem to make a go of its core ID competency, so they hired Tylor Garland (Founder, CMO at Genius TV and CEO of Boombang) to build a new ID team there. He found Alchemy, and we ended up his turnkey operation.
We were known as the most “digital” ID firm in the Bay area, with more invested in Alias software and SGI workstations than IDEO, Lunar, and frogdesign combined. We knew how to be effective and profitable with this expensive technology, while most of the other ID studios in the day were just exploring the potential of it. Heralding back to my GM days, an “alchemist” designer could do the work of a team of 3-5 designers, model makers, and engineers – and in a fraction of the time. This efficiency in process and effectiveness in creativity enabled us to compete with the larger offices with a much smaller team. But it took years to cultivate such multi-disciplinary “alchemists.” During our first negotiation meetings I explained to Patricia Esslinger (wife of Hartmut Esslinger and Co-CEO of frogdesign), “even if you had our technology and my know-how, it would take you another 2-3 years to build a team operating at this high a level.” I guess it was a convincing argument… By the turn of the millennium Alchemy was acquired by frogdesign, and my team of 9 alchemists found a new home in frog’s San Francisco office.
In addition to supporting creative services and art direction for frog’s SF branch, my new role of VP of Design began by spreading our unique vision and practice of digital Industrial Design throughout frog internationally. It ended up a wild ride, expanding my horizons into brand strategy and interaction design, and traveling to many of frog’s offices all over the world. It also meant helping to take the ID business that never made money in SF, and making it profitable. This also happened in the midst of the dot.com crash, and while frog was closing over 50% of its offices that following year. This was accomplished through a great management team in SF, lead by general manager Mitch Pergola (currently vice president and partner at fuseproject), and by creating lean and mean cross-disciplinary teams – I employed my bootstrap lean approach to projects, and simply did projects for less. Frog had become bloated over the years on its own success, and got comfortable charging millions for its projects. I was happy to, and was deft at getting projects done half what frog would typically charge, without sacrificing quality or integrity of design. The secret was small autonomous teams, managed with intrinsic creative direction – I loved the challenge.
Some of the noteworthy projects at frog were: new cargo concept for Ford, wearable mobile computing for Xybernaut, new 3D software interface/branding/packaging for Alias|Wavefront, internet computing for Legend Computers, noise reduction headsets for Ume Voice, monitors for Hannspree, airplane interiors for Fairchild Dornier, new games for Cranium, new products for Target, exhibit design for Saint John’s, and still more eyewear for Nike.
Part of the fun of working at frog, was their budget and bandwidth for PR. As part my leadership position was to spearhead such opportunities, speaking at conferences, doing museum and exposure projects, as well as articles for magazines. One such article was piece for Forbes Magazine. We assembled a small team of designers to explore “optical technology” in computing and set out to illustrate a future scenario. This technology’s promise was managing huge amounts of data storage in relatively very small packages and moving that data at blistering speeds. At the time we saw two primary directions: One where data storage was trusted to be kept safe and secure “out there” in the internet somewhere; The other was a scenario where you would keep your data very close and carry it with you, ensuring its security and safety personally. We followed the latter more pessimistic view. We based the idea that you could carry in your hand a holographic storage device (the size of a CD player), housing hundreds of terabytes. This storage device would be your personal data platform. So in this scenario, the ubiquitous hardware in your life would become the points of interaction with our data device (either wirelessly or through its ultra-high speed optical transfer port). Your desk at work ”came alive” to you and your data instantly when placed in its optical port, and transformed into a digital multi-touch workstation. In the same manner, it was your digital security key, even to your home. Upon arriving at your front door, your finger print with your data device became your keyless entry, your digital home-scape would become instantly aware of you, configuring news and entertainment that would follow you in whatever room you might be… Optical technology might be still coming with its promise of enormous data sets and phenomenal speed, but we sure got the direction wrong. The “cloud” approach seems to have won out, favoring convenience of access over hands on security (yet we cannot say what dystopian future might bring this direction back).
>> download digital article for forbesASAP
Another fun aspect of being a VP was collaborating with frog’s many global offices. On several occasions I was sent abroad to work on critical projects, especially if they had an excruciatingly tight deadlines. Harmut’s original German office in Altensteig, near Stuttgart, had such a project. Upon my arrival, we had less than 3 days to design plane 3 full plane interiors for Fairchild-Domier, as well as designed and built full 3D digital models for all three. Their small crack team and I worked around the clock and somehow got the project competed. Most interesting to Fairchild-Domier was a simple structural wall panel concept we derived. This panel had a triangulated form that was both visually interesting and structurally superior. The cross-braced design added sheer strength to the overall panel, which provided superior vibration dampening in addition to improving construction robustness.
On the entrepreneurial side, frog pursued some venture projects with Target looking at the Christmas decoration market. We explored the application of EL lighting (electro-luminescence) and imagined how to create more active animated experiences. Play > LIGHTS_Video
Xybernaut held all the initial patents to wearable commuting. While at Frog we explored enterprise products for fleet organizations like Fed Ex and Pac Bell, to get their patented technology out of the lab and into use. The devices were robust, pen based systems that ran full versions of Microsoft OS, years before the advent of smart phones. They needed to be handled roughly whether up high on a telephone pole, or while running around in huge factory facilities, or out on the job delivering packages.
We also explored a wore heads up display for Xybernaut, leveraging our extensive ergonomic knowledge from designing eyewear for Nike. This type of device is still the holy grail of information display, and its size and awkwardness what to be its downfall. Every year brings promise in this direction, but no technology that makes us look like technology will succeed. We are just to vain. Technology must become complementary, and ornament to our personal aesthetics – only then will it succeed in the marketplace.
The dream project we did while I was VP at frogdesign, was a program code named Speedform for Alias|Wavefront (the very same company that made the software we modeled our designs in). Like the SGI O2, we had the unique opportunity to design a product that we would ourselves use – to get to design the “horse we ride” every day. Speedform was to be the entry level 3D modeler for Industrial Designers. We were to develop the complete design language: the Graphic User Interface (GUI), its packaging, even the branding. We had simple goals: to push the GUI to the background so that the work itself came to the foreground, to minimize the amount of tool choices at any given time, and to make the entire experience friendly and inviting. We did this by first making all the GUI elements a monotone warm-blue, making it uniform and non competitive with the 3D workspace. Then organizing the tools by activity, grouping them into “rooms,” with each room focused on a specific type of modeling practice. The big idea was to focus the user on tasks, not the search for tools. Each room would present only the tools appropriate to that room’s tasks (reducing information overload of most 3D systems). The monochromatic GUI worked together with the clear modality expressed through the rooms concept, all to keep the user focused on their design work. We also designed the icons as miniature ”instructional” diagrams, illustrated them with a “sketchy” animated feeling developed by Joel Francke (Senior Art Director at Deutsch). We took this concept even further with the room icons, drawing the “user” right into the iconic scene. Putting the “user” into the interface itself not only spoke to the overarching purpose of the program, but also illustrated tangible how we saw the users’ relationship to the tool – fully involved and having fun.
The Brand and Packaging concept followed closely to our GUI development, both in color and in spirt. The product was officially named Alias ID. But alas, it was never going to see the light of day because of some technical problems with the Sub-D mathematics. So the program was shelved, but not completely.
Good Ideas Never Die – the design efforts were not lost on the company. Many of the assets we developed for Speedform ended up being used elsewhere in the company. The graphic design language was leveraged by Alias in all of its peripheral products moving forward, such as Portfolio Wall, Image Studio, and Sketchbook Pro.
The Navigation Concept we developed for Speedform ended up having a life of its own. The result was the Nav Cube. Its started out as a view handling requirement taken from Solid Works – to be able to transform any 3D window into any of the six orthographic possible views, and back to 3D again. This was specified as 9 separate buttons. We took it upon ourselves to challenge this notion, and invent a more effective way to get the job done. We simply designed the pure 3D representation of the function, and put it the 3D view window itself where it belonged. This synchronized its movement as you moved and tumbled your work in the 3D environment. This approach completely side stepped the whole issue of what was “left” or “right” – just clicking on the “relative” side of the Nav Cube, got you exactly what and where you wanted to go – no more confusion. Most importantly, it made the interaction more meaningful to the user in real-time, providing ambient feedback to the coordinate system without getting bogged down in extraneous interface details.
Since then the aesthetics have evolved some, but the functionality of the Nav Cube remains the same. Since Alias was sold to Autodesk, the Nav Cube have become part of almost every Autodesk product (AutoCAD, Revit, Inventor, etc.). Today it is the most ubiquitous UI element in the company, elevating its usability to become brand equity. Even many of the CAD competitors now have their own version of the Nav Cube. This is a great example of the power of direct intuitive UX – it is a model design for us to achieve such elegant simplicity in everything we do.
Hannspree had a crazy idea, and towards the end of tenure as VP of ID at frogdesign we started a huge project to explore computer monitors designed around the theme of “sports.” At first we all shook our heads in disbelief – how and why were we going to do this..? But it wasn’t long before we stated to have fun making this design theme work. Above are just a few of the hundreds of concepts Ethan Imboden (founder of Jimmyjane) and the rest of the team came up with – and many of them went into production.
One of the most interesting reasons I merged with frog, was a stake in the company and the promise of their upcoming IPO. This public offering was to be based on the brainchild of Hartmut Esslinger (founder and Co-CEO of frog). The idea was called frogwerk, and it was to be a marketplace for creative product ideas. It was a virtual marketplace for students, designers, inventors, VC’s, corporations, and manufacturing to all come together and make things happen. Frog invested millions into the idea, and I was involved, adding my entrepreneurial experience to the mix. The idea as sound, but the method was unclear – to truly manage the ideas, while protecting their IP, and facilitating substantial interactions with corporations was a huge sticking point. In the end, they were not able to capitalize on the dot.com bubble before it burst. This idea was a good one, but the timing was not so good. I would say the spirit of it lives today in Kickstarter. The secret that they came up that made this model work, side stepping frogwerk’s dilemma, was to forget the corporation involvement and take the idea directly to the customers. Corporations posed as middle men in this situation. Kickstarter’s brilliance lies in their going to the source (eliminating the middle man), engaging the customers themselves to fund ideas. This approach does one other important thing that traditional funding does not have – it tangibly validates the given idea by placing orders from the start. Ideas get funded and have an installed base of guaranteed customers in one precipitous step. Kickstarter insight into crowd sourcing product development makes it, in my opinion, one of the most important services of the Innovation Age.