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Talking Shop with frog’s Design Leadership Team

A detailed conversation about frog's collaborative approach to creative leadership.

In March, frog CEO Harry West announced the creation of a five-member Design Leadership Team (DLT) and explained that this team “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.” Six months in, we sat down with the team to discuss everything from how we are making good on our mission statement, to the qualities great designers share. What follows is a transcript of that discussion, edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the obvious question: what is the Design Leadership Team and what does the team do?

Jeff Williams: The Design Leadership Team provides oversight of the design team and discipline, and is a partner to the executive team at frog in shaping and executing on the creative vision for the company moving forward.

Tjeerd Hoek: Yes, that’s right. It is also a collective of the top of our broad bench of creative leadership. Given the ever increasing diversity and breadth of frog’s work, having multiple senior design leaders with deep expertise in a variety of domains, working on different continents, allows us to meet the needs of our clients and our own organization effectively.

Right – great segue into our next question: In addition to your global responsibilities, what are your individual areas of focus?

Tjeerd Hoek: My individual area of focus is on large scale software realization programs. These are big-scale experience strategy programs, where software needs to be created to establish a unified and integrated experience across lots of different touchpoints. I work on these types of programs with all of our studios around the world.

Fabio Sergio: In the course of the last couple of years I’ve been helping to globally expand our Social Impact work, and I will continue to represent a reference point for that community of practice at frog. Experience strategy, which Tjeerd also mentioned, is another area of personal interest and passion, and I participate in this community of practice both globally, and at the regional and local level.

Jeff Williams: I’ve been focusing on running the creative team in the United States from a management and operation standpoint. Right now that includes leaning into our recruiting efforts, overhauling our job descriptions, and building out advancement opportunities for existing frogs on the creative team. I’m also working with a team that is redesigning the frog website to more clearly share our perspective and position on what we do, which will be great for our potential clients and also for potential employees who want to learn more about career opportunities and ways of engaging with frog. And I continue to focus on business development activities.

Ethan Imboden: I lead our Venture Design practice, where we’re developing new modes of working with our clients that align with the new types of innovation challenges they’re facing and the new pace of innovation that they need to hit. The other lens that I bring is hands-on experience in industrial design and more broadly in consumer products. The last piece is on the communications front, where I leverage my proximity to the marketing team in San Francisco by working on media relations, in an effort to provide the world at large a better view of what we do within our company, and in our partnerships and collaborations.

Rainer Wessler: My focus is to grow our presence in the APAC region. This means translating and evolving our brand, culture and offering so that it resonates both with clients and talent in the region. This is a continuous effort, as business and consumer culture changes rapidly. So one constant focus of my work is balancing clients’ desire for our global point of view with the diversity and awareness of local idiosyncrasies they expect.

At frog our mission is advancing the human experience through design. What does that mean to you, and what role is the Design Leadership Team going to play in ensuring that our work meets this high standard that we’ve created for ourselves?

Ethan: I think frog’s best use, and design’s core value, is to drive inflections and reorient the course of organizations and markets. More broadly, design shifts society by reorienting our relationships to ourselves and others. These inflections aren’t created by individuals; they’re created by teams. And these aren’t transactional projects—they’re real collaborations and partnerships that are deep and extend over time.

I think that’s what we’re getting at when we’re talking about advancing the human experience through design: driving powerful inflections through deep partnership and collaboration. And I think we most clearly live up to this mission, and we most clearly advance the human experience for the most people, when we drive impacts that reverberate beyond our client or partner to impact society more broadly. This is work where we’re redefining relationships between people, within and between businesses across industries, and are really working at the level of purpose, of endurance for the business, of resilience in their business model. I think that’s where we end up adding the most value, not only to our clients, but also to the human experience we’re looking to impact.

Jeff: I agree with Ethan and, as part of the Design Leadership Team, some of what we’re trying to do now is figure out how to push forward the excellence of the work that we’re doing to ensure that we are hitting our goals. One tangible way that we’re working toward the goal of advancing the human experience through design is by having quarterly portfolio reviews in the studios. They give us a chance to take a critical look at the work that we’re doing and make sure that the work is not only beautiful, but also to evaluate the work through the lens of outcomes for our clients, their customers, and the people that will interact with the products, services, and experiences that we’re designing.

Tjeerd: At frog we are uniquely positioned to bring real value to the world, because the products and services we create with our clients are in essence tools that allow the people who use them to do new interesting things, and to advance their own capabilities and impact on the world. Our expertise is in conceiving of and building experiences that enable people to discover new capabilities, and use those in meaningful ways: to gain new insights, come up with new ideas, and make those happen to ultimately enrich our world in positive and valuable ways. That is what we mean when we talk about advancing the human experience through design.

Fabio: Yes, I agree, and on that front, there’s definitely something to be said about the current state of the world that we live in, and the role that connectivity has played in turning almost every single product into an opportunity to discuss large, complex systems. What we observe is that designers are called more and more to really have an opinion, and help shape these complex systems, whether in health care, education, political systems, social systems or otherwise. As we take on these large-scale ecosystem level responsibilities, very often you see a lot of different stakeholders with different points of view, who really struggle to find alignment, because they might have different mandates and different agendas. So our mantra of advancing the human experience, or looking at reality through the lens of human experience, is key because it brings everybody together. Once you shine a light from the point of view of a community or an individual, you can drive a vision among different stakeholders by focusing on the experience itself. At frog we can also make visions real very quickly by prototyping ground level ideas and evaluating how they scale back up to big frameworks, strategies and system level thinking. So these are some of the ways designers are uniquely suited to advance human experiences.

I also think designers are inherently a political bunch. Design was born out of an ethos of bringing beauty to the masses through industrial production, which is really where industrial designers began. They were artists who saw potential in industrial production methods to bring what was only available to the elites, to the masses. I think our mission reflects the same desire to change the world through the connected tools we use today. You can actually change peoples’ lives with an app. That’s true; it’s not bullshit. There is the potential to change business models, change society, and question the roles companies play. So designers bring not only the skills and tools that allow companies or organizations to do what they can do, but at the same time, I think we bring a point of view to the table both about what needs to be designed, but also why it needs to be designed. That speaks to our manifesto and our history of making a difference, by making things meaningful through the lens of human beings.

Ethan: I second what Fabio is saying: there’s a great sense of accountability that we all feel as individuals, and one of the roles of this team is to gather and channel those feelings, which is something we take very seriously. It leads to a lot of constructive debate within all of the teams globally across frog, and we listen to that. We have our own debates and we try to make sure we reflect forward the vision of meaningful contribution that we’re hearing from within and that we know to be appropriate ourselves.

Rainer: I think that today we also have opportunities to advance people’s experiences by changing how our clients’ organizations think, work and decide – even beyond the projects we work on. Through our project collaboration and by evangelizing frog’s tools, methods and a strong customer focus along the way, I believe that we leave them in a better spot to make the right decisions for the people they serve.

What is it that makes a designer great at their craft, and what are some of the qualities that great designers share?

Jeff: One of the qualities that great designers share is an endless curiosity—not being afraid of a really, really difficult, challenging problem and everything that surrounds it, and really wanting to understand the bigger picture. And with that also comes a great deal of empathy. And I think that’s another quality that great designers have, is understanding how people are affected. That’s why we put such a heavy emphasis on the research that we do and the user centered approach that we take. And I would say that there is, without a doubt, the quality of a constant desire for excellence of craft, where ‘good enough’ is never enough. I think that is something that we see in frogs, and it is also something that we look for in potential frogs that we interview: are they constantly trying to push and improve their individual craft and their process? What are they adding to their toolkits and how are they evolving how they approach their work? Curiosity, empathy, and a constant striving for excellence are the three main qualities that you need to be a great designer, and it’s also important to have the ability to be a great collaborator and a team player.

Fabio: Yes, that’s right. Something else I’ve been reflecting upon in the recent past is how design has scaled beyond the craft of design as making things, to the role of design as a way to innovate. In this case I’m specifically talking about design thinking, which is an amazing tool that I can’t say enough good things about, but at the same time design thinking as advertised has created a disconnection between the design craft and the design process. And as a result, I think it has created the wrong perception that design as a process can be easily learned, in obstruction from design as a craft. So, in a way, I think we also need to speak proudly to the amount of time required to develop design crafts, whether interaction design, visual design, industrial design, design research and so on. There are hard-earned skills that take years to develop.

Tjeerd: I have a story that I’ve always told to illustrate this point: I think every creative person has been in the situation where you’re staring at an empty piece of paper or at an empty screen on a computer, and now you have to make something. You have insights in your head, you maybe have some ideas, but now you have to actually create something out of nothing. Being able to go through that type of pressure and really create something is, I think, an essential aspect of the design craft and also speaks to the grit of the people that we have at frog. Both the designers and frogs in other disciplines—we’re all regularly facing that moment and have to deliver in those moments.

Ethan: I really like this image of facing the blank page, or screen, or space. And I’m just sort of restating, I think, where Fabio was taking us, but I see the designer’s dichotomy as this: on one side there is design thinking and process, which is an ability to ingest and act on information, and on the other side the designer has to shut down logical processes to a degree and act on intuition and experience. frogs are very polyvalent; they have an ability to oscillate, in a very intentional way, between a creative lawlessness and a productive rigor. The lawlessness enables the lateral thinking to discover and explore non-obvious alternatives, and the rigor helps them separate the signal from the noise and realize the solution in the world. It’s a challenging dichotomy to have in your head, and it’s a challenging one to find in others. But I think it’s absolutely critical that designers have this mode-switching.

I also think designers who are most successful in their craft acknowledge the massive gap between an idea and a realized product or service, delivered into the world, and they value execution at least as much as conception. So they know that the only magic that matters is what the magic that makes it to market, and what gets left behind on the cutting room floor ultimately wasn’t magic. Knowing how to navigate the path from idea to execution is at least—maybe even more—critical than having a brilliant idea in the first place.

Rainer: I think that being able to disambiguate a blurry client ask is an essential skill to acquire as you grow as a designer. Using a mix of facilitation, provocation, prototyping and research skills you can both capture people’s imagination to reframe a problem but also ultimately drive towards consensus. I believe that we tend to underestimate the value clients attach to our power to create alignment. So these would be my additions: A tolerance for ambiguity combined with the ability to shape the work and create focus both for clients and project teams.

This last question is about how you guys are aligning your individual backgrounds and areas of expertise to lead frog into the future. How is that actually working so far? And what is the vision for how you stay aligned as you lead frog forward?

Jeff: I think what is working really well is that we’ve set up a framework that allows a little bit more time and energy to be provided at a regional level. So each of us has our global responsibilities, but we also focus on the needs of the specific region where we live. In the US for example, where Ethan and I have our regional area of focus, Ethan remains involved in Venture Design, which is such an important area of our business, but he is also getting much more involved in development activities across the region. What is working really well between us is that I have a heavy interest in the more operational side of running the creative team, and so our skill sets and our areas of interest are aligning very well to take advantage of what we love to do, and where are strengths are, in order to provide what’s best for our region.

Tactically speaking, we’re gathering as a group via weekly phone calls, Slack channels and other forms of constant, daily communication. We’re all transitioning into this new role, but our previous roles are, in many cases, roles we’re still playing. So I think we’re still figuring things out but, overall, it’s going incredibly well.

Tjeerd: Yes, and it’s important to recognize that we’re not starting from scratch as a collaborative team. Many of us have been working together for many, many years, and we’re building on the success of the chief creative officers that came before us: Mark Rolston and Hans Neubert. The company has always given us the opportunity to have regular gatherings of the creative leadership, and so we’re building this new Design Leadership Team on a foundation of familiarity with each other, on a foundation of friendship and also with a real understanding of each other.

Fabio: Yes, I profoundly agree with both what Tjeerd and Jeff have said. And it’s also true the creation of a Design Leadership Team is a recognition that, due to the nature of the challenges that we’re taking on, you need more than one person and one set of skills and expertise to lead the design discipline of our firm. And sometimes there will be different points of view and also different philosophies, which is fine. Actually, I think we all share the point of view that it’s not about having all the same ideas or sharing the same opinion—it’s harnessing the positive tension between different opinions that leads to innovation, to change, and ultimately to something more interesting than you might have had before.

Ethan: I think there is an amazing overlap in vision and intent among the members of this team, but there’s also a great diversity of experience. So we need to act collectively and globally but, to Fabio’s point, we’re also able to meet our teams where they are—deep in their craft, face to face, and hands on. And that’s only possible because of our plurality, and our diversity of experience. That’s why we have both the time and the ability to engage deeply, and I think that’s a new benefit of this collaborative approach to creative leadership at frog.

 

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Rainer Wessler

As Vice President, Creative, Rainer leads a multi-disciplinary team of creatives in the Asia Pacific region from frog's studio in Shanghai, where he has been based since 2009. He partners with frog’s local and global clients to help them embrace change and transform their businesses to drive growth.

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Tjeerd Hoek

Tjeerd is a creative leader focused on experience design for software and technology-amplified products and services across frog. He started the frog studio in Seattle in 2007, moving back to his homeland to join the Amsterdam studio in 2009.

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Fabio Sergio

Fabio is the global lead of frog's Social Impact practice, bringing human-centered innovation to collaborations with organizations such as UNICEF and the World Economic Forum.

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Ethan Imboden

As Vice President & Head of Venture Design at frog, Ethan Imboden oversees the firm’s work at the intersection of design and entrepreneurship. As part of his role, Ethan leads frogVentures™, which invests frog’s capabilities into shared-risk opportunities and ensures that frog’s portfolio companies start smarter, build faster and establish crucial design and strategy capabilities to support their growth.

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Jeff Williams

Jeff provides creative vision for digital, product, environmental, and brand design. He joined frog in 1999 and ventured out in 2010 to co-found a software start up. Jeff returned to frog in 2015 and is based in the Austin studio. He focuses on leading the creative team and evolving new disciplines and capabilities across frog.

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