Frog’s Rolston Gives Industrial Design a Singular Sales Pitch

Core77 alerted me to an article by frog design’s SVP of Creative, Mark Rolston, that initially sounds a heck of a lot like what I’ve been discussing here over the past few years, but manages to fall short in some critical ways. The article, “Defining The New Singularity” (Link), is still worth a read… if you haven’t been keeping up with things here. And don’t mind the way he’s casually butchering the term “singularity“; which in my opinion should have remained intact given the subject matter and potential for confusion.

The Good

Anyway, it’s not all bad, so let’s start with the good bits. I particularly liked this line:

Put more simply, the story surrounding a given “thing,” a product or service we buy and use, is rapidly exceeding the value of the thing itself.

Basically, he’s getting at the reasoning supporting my take on reverse product placement (reLink). With recent news that Neopets is breaching the reality barrier and going to offer tangible goods in addition to and support of their virtual world, I think my definition is going to get some legs faster than I expected. So this was nice to read.

There’s also this much longer thought that, if it had been developed a bit further, would probably put Ralston in the transreality camp:

The identity of a product can no longer be easily defined through its form factor, but rather by the information that encases it, passes through it, and is accumulated by it over the course of its lifetime. The notion of this emerging product universe covers far more than we are used to considering in the creative equation: the form, the means of production, the business built around it, the social implications of its existence, the ecological impact of its creation, the object’s role in a system of multiple devices, the social community developed to manage, discuss, and enjoy the object at hand. Sterling calls this new modern thing a “spime”–and it has massive implications for design.

Unfortunately, there’s no indication he’s connected what I believe to be some important dots. He’s also apparently stuck on “spime” and its core limitations. However, it’s nice to see someone else beating this drum, even if the rhythm isn’t quite there. Maybe with the frog brand behind him, we’ll see a bit of interest out of the design community. Maybe.

The Bad

So those are what I consider the best bits and I was glad to see Core77 quote those. Hopefully those ideas will stick with their readers.

Where Rolston loses it, in my opinion, is in his focus on “object”; on the thing frog’s employees are often paid to design. Consequently, his perspective seems to me to be that of someone still operating inside established structures who’s thinking (and perhaps concerned) about how to sell design services.

It’s not hardware vs. software but instead the object versus its story…. This is the new virtual nature of the thing.

I couldn’t disagree more.

There is no “object versus story” because the object and its history are intrinsically part of the (Experience) story. There is no “allowing the virtual story to augment“. The story is what it is. The consumer experience is what it is. Narrative is everything.

The design process of an object – good or bad – is part of the overall “story”. If a producer hires a screenwriter to pen a cops-n-robbers screenplay, that decision is ultimately part of the moviegoer’s viewing experience. And if the producer fires the first screenwriter and hires another to tell the same cops-n-robbers story, the resulting viewing experience is changed in ways that reflect the intrinsic change in the film’s development. It’s the butterfly effect applied to creative endeavors, and it starts not with the story a client wants to tell consumers, but with the first effort to craft some story; whatever it is and for whatever reason it is.

Elevating “object” is, I believe, self-serving. And that’s because frog design is an accomplice “in the placebo business“… as are almost all designers. Unfortunately for Rolston, it shows.

And the Ugly

During the span of about a page I get a sense that some of what’s being written is going to be used in sales meetings to help convince clients that frog can help them craft their story. For example, here are a couple of bits that sound like they’ll wind up in a future sales pitch:

We must reject the tendency to force a traditional form-based story into the design of our virtual products.

To delineate the interaction between the physical and the virtual, to embrace the underlying digital-, social-, scenario-, and intelligence-based nature of the products, we must expand beyond our traditional form metaphors to seek new, more dynamic cultural reference points.

I can just hear brains scrambling trying to decypher this stuff. And much of the final page is equally messy.

Actually, reading the last page, I get the feeling that Rolston has recently read a few books (among them Greenfield’s Everyware) and is operating on information overload. And too much caffeine.

As someone who admits to being all over the map at times, I’m comfortable declaring… he’s all over the map.

There are some more good bits near the end, but there are also more bad bits. And for that reason, I’ll end my comments here. I only have four hours of free time before I go to bed. With any luck, Rolston will shed his frog perspective, cull some of the good thoughts in that piece and post future articles that don’t give me the sense they were written by both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’d enjoy reading those.

9 thoughts on “Frog’s Rolston Gives Industrial Design a Singular Sales Pitch

  1. Hi. I wrote the article. I enjoyed your criticism of it. You’re spot on with the idea that frog is focused on things (and by ‘things’ I mean both the soft and hard stuff) but the article is intentionally focused on the design challenge and therefore I’m happy to leave the focus at that and it’s requisite ‘thing’ emphasis. By itself this topic is a big enough challenge. Yes I do sometimes focus narrowly on the ID challenge. That’s our business and even more importantly, it’s a discipline that deserves focus on these idea.
    I must disagree with your notion that “story is everything”. For a writer it makes perfect sense. But the dichotomy I’m trying to point out is that as rich as the story keeps getting people still have a passionate desire to distill that into a singularity- icons. objects….things. Christianity represented by the cross is a perfect example. In that sense it is truly ‘object versus story’.
    I bit off quite a bit with the article and it has it’s messy parts. As you state, I’m ‘all over the map’. That was the fun part. If anything, I’m glad to see it start a few interesting discussions.

    best wishes,

  2. For a writer it makes perfect sense. But the dichotomy I’m trying to point out is that as rich as the story keeps getting people still have a passionate desire to distill that into a singularity- icons. objects…things.

    I don’t disagree. And I understand exactly what you’re getting at (although I had to read your piece a few times to make sure I didn’t misunderstand). However, I still believe motivations are a key part of an Object “story”.

    Why does Client A want to develop a particular product? Is it – as during my last meeting a couple of weeks ago – about jumping in, grabbing a bunch of cash, and exiting quickly? Is it – as with a more recent request – about generating cheap crap to keep the owner’s overseas factories humming? Or is it – as Steve Jobs is so good at reminding everyone – about creating “insanely great” stuff?

    Let’s start with agreement: I believe you’re correct in saying this goes beyond what we’re used to considering. I’ve even said the same thing, if in a different context:

    It’s not about the hardware or software anymore.

    After that, however, our point of departure appears to be around one key issue: Control.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re saying that the story can be controlled through careful selection of appropriate Object shapes which “augment” the story a client wants to tell.

    In contrast, I’m asserting that the story… the full narrative (which includes the client’s “story”)… will reveal itself through the Object irrelevant of shape and whether we want it to or not. More importantly, the very technologies which you reference make the expansion of the narrative a foregone conclusion. That’s what access to information does: it bursts boundaries. The more there is the more difficult is the containment and control.

    Christianity represented by the cross is a perfect example. In that sense it is truly ‘object versus story’.

    Let’s take a closer look at your “perfect example”. As it turns out the Cross was an extremely common shape on which to crucify people. It wasn’t special and it wasn’t until Jesus died on it that it took on iconic status. His Story, embraced by his followers and embodied in their behavior, gave the shape meaning, not vice versa. And had a different shape been used, it would be the associated icon.

    Let’s imagine: what if Jesus’ crucifixion had been on a unique gibbet? What if a particular shape related to something else (e.g. some pagan god) had been used instead, and that Object thus represented not only Jesus’ narrative but a connection to another narrative? Suddenly there’s a pair of intertwined narratives.

    Okay, let’s back up. What makes the Cross so iconic when so many people in addition to Jesus died on it? I’d suggest two things people probably don’t normally consider: signal-to-noise ratio and poor documentation.

    We know quite a bit about Jesus’ experience, but we know relatively little about the experiences of all the others who died. Thus, the signal-to-noise ratio is high and the narrative maintains its relative singularity due, in essence, to a lack of information technology.

    Now imagine if every cross was an Object of the kind to which you’re referring; imagine each one was a spime and we had a complete record for our review. Suddenly, the stories of all those unknown people who were crucified on a cross is known to us. We suddenly have narratives for every human being that died this way. What does that do to the Crucifixion Story? Does it amplify it or diminish it? [And how would the overwhelming ubiquity of the shape tied to these other experiences affect its iconic status; its symbolic power?] We can’t know. But I think we can assume one thing at least: it’d be much, much more complex.

    I’d qualify the difference between what you’re suggesting and what I’m saying as the difference between a single thread and a tapestry.

    As much as we, as Industrial Designers, might want to believe we have control over a story, I’m saying that we don’t; at least not as much as we think we do. And neither do the corporations in our increasingly participatory culture.

    That’s not really such a bad thing, imo, because it reminds us that we’re all connected and that our lives and experiences are interwoven. It’s a global perspective, not a provincial one.

    On a business level I’d argue it serves to strengthen brand loyalty, not diminish it. That might sound counter-intuitive if the S/N ratio is getting worse. But what exactly is “worse”?

    Better the strength of a line than a single strand, even if the computations increase in complexity.

    Better the turbulence of attached flow then a separated laminar streamline, even if we don’t have computers which can accurately model it.

    people still have a passionate desire to distill that into a singularity- icons

    I’d like to return to where we seem to agree, but perhaps are not thinking alike. One of the rules I’ve read for creating healthy communities is that it has to be about the community and whether the needs of its members are served; not whether the needs of the creators are met. I believe that same rule applies to product design. And anyone who has been stuck designing products for customers instead of consumers probably understands exactly what I mean. Because in the end, it’s the people who decide if a product sells, not the buyers; it’s the people who do the distilling, not the designers.

    All we can do is give them props. They decide whether or not they become icons.

  3. I hope you will forgive a comment from a non-designer….

    Csven, you ask what makes the cross so iconic when so many people in addition to Jesus died on it. A good question. We should also ask, though, why the cross became such a compelling symbol for Christianity out of so many other possibilities. The closest competitor I can think of is the fish you see on cars, and that’s not nearly as iconic as the cross. Somehow, then, the cross communicates the narrative very successfully. It doesn’t drive the narrative, but focuses the viewers attention in an emotionally powerful way.

    We should also consider that there are many different designs for crosses, and different “users” or “consumers” have clear preferences for some designs over others. Some like their crosses to include depictions of Jesus’ figure; others prefer it without. Some like them ornate; others like them simple. Some like them in gold; others prefer muted colors. Some wear them on the wrist; others on the neck; others prefer not to wear them at all, but to see them only hanging in houses of worship.

    My point is that a well-designed object can both communicate and focus and existing narrative AND push that narrative forward.

    I hope that made sense.

  4. No forgiveness necessary, Michael. Your comment is both welcome and appreciated. And much of what you’re saying is reasonable. However, my position is not in opposition to your point but rather one that offers what I believe to be a more clear assessment of just how important the Object is in the overall scheme of things… and imo it doesn’t come down as being sufficiently important to warrant an “object versus its story” claim.

    In other words, a poorly-designed Object is extremely unlikely essentially unable to ever overpower the real Story. It may ruin the intended story, but not the full narrative [because what it is – its poor design – is part of the complete narrative].

    Example: someone hires a design firm to augment *their* story, the one they want to sell to customers (and maybe even consumers). The telling of this story is motivated not by the story itself but by the prospect of turning a quick profit with minimal investment. And because the motivation is only a quick profit, the object suffers.

    – The market will likely be poorly researched.
    – The device will likely be insufficiently engineered.
    – The industrial design will likely be rushed.
    – The effort to build a welcoming community will be motivated not by the needs of the community, but by the wants of the client.

    But there are still two possible outcomes:

    1. – Failure. The resulting Object beat the story… the client’s story. But it didn’t beat the bigger Story, the full narrative, of all the events that resulted in what amounted to a piece of crap; details that will likely be captured in some way in a spime’s history (e.g. choice of material might reflect penny-pinching at the expense of durability).

    2. – Success. In spite of the Object being a piece of crap and maybe even in spite of a larger narrative, the Story succeeds. Why? Because in the end the people decide. They are part of the Story, the full narrative.

    There are examples of consumers turning product losers into successes. Ugly duckling cars that somehow become accepted and even desirable. Poorly managed orphan products that get picked up by a savvy business person and turned into success stories. Product failures that eventually become highly-prized collector items… because over time a more full narrative evolves and becomes associated with the product. Spimes will provide narratives the likes of which we’ve never imagined.

    So, yes, a well-designed object contributes to a narrative. As does a poorly-designed object. They’re both just the little “d” design inside a larger big “D” design effort.

    [Addendum: I neglected to directly answer Michael’s question: “We should also ask, though, why the cross became such a compelling symbol for Christianity out of so many other possibilities.” I’d venture the answer is apparent: the death and resurrection story is the compelling moment in his life’s story and the one which most resonates with fearful mortals; not the miracles or his teachings or anything else.]

  5. btw, I wanted to thank Michael for pointing out the variations in crosses. That’s a good example of what I’m getting at when I use the term “participatory culture”.

  6. csven and Mark, thanks for having this discussion out in the open. I’m happy to see others thinking about these big-picture design issues. It’s enlightening to eavesdrop on the conversation.

  7. I do see where Mark is coming from as well as you great points. I stand somewhere in between as you probably know.

    For one I agree with you csven, the story IS everything, but the story should not be just a made up fable, but can be made up of elements from research, an original idea, or a marketing angle etc.

    But I think where Mark struggles with is that the “object” should encompass or embody this story. It is a visual communication tool and more designers miss that part of a design lanaguage. The choice of form, shape or color etc should be a reflection of this story. In many ways this moves in the territory of design for brand.

    The use of the cross is a fantastic example in our discussion, and in every way represents what Christianity stands for.

    Logically our products and systems have evolve to a point that this is a product that has to reflect a 7 book harry potter novel rather than 3 little pigs.

    My guess though as design becomes de-centralised or open-sourced, we can afford to be a lot less “serious” and focus on the stories that matter.

  8. but the story should not be just a made up fable, but can be made up of elements from research, an original idea, or a marketing angle etc.

    I’m just saying that it “will be”; not “can be”.

    I was catching up on some reading earlier today: Henry Jenkins, in his book Convergence Culture, has a great chapter on the television show “Survivor”, and how information surrounds the show, is used by the “spoiler” community, and manipulated by the show’s producer. That’s exactly the sort of thing I see happening with spime’d objects. People – the consumers – are going to have their *own* reasons for investigating the histories of these objects and puzzling together a complete narrative.

    The choice of form, shape or color etc should be a reflection of this story.

    And I’m saying that the choices “will be” a reflection of not the small story the client wants to tell, but the full narrative that goes with every product.

    Want a particular shape to help tell that small story? Whoops, that’ll require more expensive tooling. (Scrapped)

    Want a particular metallic color to help make the object more iconic? Uh oh. Using real metal is cost prohibitive, and painting adds expense. Best you can get is a molded-in plastic… so long as its not a heat-resistant blend bc the factory chosen to manufacture the object can’t provide it. (Compromised)

    in every way represents what Christianity stands for

    But if Jesus had died on a different shaped gibbet, then *that* would be the representative icon and not what we have today. The Story – the full narrative – selected the shape, not vice versa.

    The best I believe we can do is help align the intended story with business realities and consumer expectations. Nothing more. Because in a spime world there’s even less control than what we have now. Much less.

    focus on the stories that matter

    And the story that matters to consumers may not, in fact, be the client’s intended story. It may be the narrative of how the client decided to tell a particular story. Not necessarily a bad thing. Clients may be interested in telling a “Green” story and develop an environmentally responsible product. But the Story that resonates with consumers may be the back story. And the object may become an icon for a different narrative altogether.

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