Evolving Creative Leadership at frog

The departure of Hans Neubert has precipitated a reevaluation of the best way to lead design at frog.

frog began as a small, trail-blazing industrial design firm. In the early decades, frog’s work captured the imagination of a world that appreciated design as a noun, but didn’t understand design as a verb. Much has changed since then. frog is now a global, multi-disciplinary design and strategy firm, and we have gone from having to explain ourselves to our clients, to being at risk of being crushed by their corporate embrace. In response to these evolving circumstances, we are reconsidering the role of the Chief Creative Officer in a design and strategy firm today. frog’s first Chief Creative Officer was, of course, Hartmut Esslinger who founded the firm and, in partnership with his wife Patricia Roller, grew it to international prominence through his design genius and business daring.

After Hartmut and Patricia sold the company in 2005, Mark Rolston was the natural successor, as he was already leading the rapid transformation of the firm from its original focus on industrial design to today’s primary focus: the design of digital experiences. When Mark left to found argodesign in 2013, Hans Neubert became the third Chief Creative Officer in the life of the firm and continued frog’s evolution with a push into brand and retail. I would have loved to continue working with Hans, who is a friend, but I respect each person’s need to find the right mix of challenge and opportunity for their stage in life, and his decision to leave has forced a useful reconsideration of how we should be organized. Today, frog’s eleven studios across three continents house a creative community that includes interaction design, industrial design, visual design, design research, design technology, mechanical engineering, copywriting, film, software engineering, quality assurance, solutions architecture, business strategy, and program management. We take on the biggest challenges for many of the leading companies in the world.

Our design vision and executional focus pull these organizations through large-scale transformations driven by new technology and changing customer expectations. We design new systems for these companies and work with them to build new capabilities. Today design has emerged as a key differentiator among the most valuable brands, products, and services in the world. In this new world, design leadership has to manage the development and resourcing of talent, connect with clients, promote design on the world stage, articulate the vision of the company and manage its quality, and — perhaps most importantly to our firm — serve as a point of reference to frogs by living the values of frog. And do that for 500 very different individuals, across the globe. One of the reasons frog has survived as a design leader, and continues to attract such extraordinary talent and creative challenges, is the firm’s ability to confront changing circumstances and make pragmatic choices, even when those choices are unconventional.

As frog has evolved from a single disciplinary firm focused on creating meaningful objects, to one that tackles the world’s most complex systemic challenges, the way we organize ourselves has to change too. We spent considerable time talking with people across the organization to understand what is really needed from creative leadership and how our model could be reimagined to meet those needs. Hans and I walked through SoHo — we both think better when moving — talking about what worked and what had not worked during his time at the creative helm, and thinking about how to make the role of creative lead work both for the company and for the leader. As much as it would be comforting to continue with the tradition of one Chief Creative Officer as a singular point of reference for the firm, we realized that the only way to make it work in today’s more complex creative environment would be to have a supporting team of design leaders on each continent. But that would make the Chief Creative Officer essentially a design figurehead, and frog doesn’t do figureheads. Never has.

So, in true frog fashion, we are setting a new precedent and establishing the Design Leadership Team, a nontraditional leadership model made up of a group of five diverse and experienced frogs. This will foster more collaboration and connections among each of the designers across frog’s studios, in turn delivering greater value for our global clients as we partner with them to advance the human experience. The five leaders are: Rainer Wessler, Executive Creative Director for Asia and based in Shanghai, Tjeerd Hoek, VP Creative and based in Amsterdam, Fabio Sergio, VP Creative and based in Milan, Ethan Imboden, VP of Venture Design and based in San Francisco, and Jeff Williams, VP Creative and based in Austin.

The Design Leadership Team represents a great mix of tenured experience at frog, new ways of working and engaging with our clients, a broad range of disciplines including design research, user experience design, visual design, industrial design, software design, social impact and ventures, a passion for curating and inspiring teams, and a truly international perspective. You would be hard pressed to find more different dispositions, but somehow we work together well. We are looking to this team to lead frog through the next transformation of the design industry. It’s going to be a fun ride.

Harry West
Harry West
Harry West

frog is a global design and innovation firm. We transform businesses at scale by creating systems of brand, product and service that deliver a distinctly better experience. We strive to touch hearts and move markets. Our passion is to transform ideas into realities. We partner with clients to anticipate the future, evolve organizations and advance the human experience.

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