Visiting Design Studios- frog design and Astro Studios

frog design


I contacted Michael DiTullo from frog design.  I wanted to learn as much about the design industry as possible while in San Francisco, because the Bay Area is such a hub of design and new technology: frog design, IDEO, Ammunition, Lunar, Astro Studios, Smart Design, Fuse Project, Apple, Google, Hewlett Packard, Twitter, FaceBook are all based here. Visiting some design studios was one of my goals while in San Francisco.

The office takes up two floors of a fourth story building in SOMA in San Francisco, (about a twenty minute walk from Market Street which is the ‘downtown’ and main thoroughfare of San Francisco, where all the shops are) plus they have a small workshop over the laneway out the back.

frog design San Francisco office

I had to sign a ridiculous non-disclosure form, so now talking about this means frog design are the legal guardians of my children and own my house. Fair enough because everywhere you look is work, past and present. The reception area has a great little exhibition of past work that demonstrated a little of the process. They did a phone for Motorola and Disney in the 90’s which is very Alessi like, and next to it is some of the yellow foam prototype models they used. An HP mouse also has some more of the exploratory models showing how the shape was reached. I asked Michael about having these sketch models on display and he said part of the reason is to educate clients on the process. They also had lots of coffee machines around, because they have designed lots of coffee machines. There was also copies of books written by frog employees (such as Innovation X by Adam Richardson and Disrupt by Luke Williams) plus the printed version of their blog/ magazine Design Mind.

The non-disclosure form meant I couldn’t take photos, so all the photos here are from the frog design website. To get an idea of the office and the environment, a whole wall was still covered in big boards from their “Energy Panda” project (which can be found here). It was reassuring to know what they teach us at uni. is used in the real world:

One wall is covered with IDSA ID magazine back covers, Michael told me for about 10 years they paid for the back cover, so it is a great display of products and trends over a long period of time from the 1980s.

There are 130 staff here, and San Francisco is the head office, but they are split up over 8 offices, in Amsterdam, Austin (Adelaide’s sister city), Milan, Munich, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Shanghai. It was started in founder’s Hartmut Esslinger’s parents garage in Germany, and got very successful quickly (based on work such as WEGA TVs before and after they were bought by Sony) so he bought his parents a new house and took over their old one. The California office was opened in a sort of partnership with Steve Jobs and Apple, to design the “Snow White” language of the Apple II.

There is old Apple stuff and NEXT computers (what Steve Jobs did after he was kicked out of Apple in the 1990s) and WEGA TVs and many other examples of their work around the office, but also in use- they have a great kitchen with TurboChef Ovens installed which they designed.

Over a coffee out in the back alley behind the offices, Michael and I discussed frogs’ approach and philosophy. They are less a ‘we will design you this object’ ID firm (even though they do design lots and lots of objects) but more a ‘solution’ design company. My take from all the examples he showed me is they work best with a client who has trouble framing the problem, or are trying to establish a product that actually requires a whole system in order to work, and so can’t possibly know where the solution will be located. It’s like instead of focusing on the symptom of a problem, you look at the cause, and try and work out what contributes to that cause.

They also have an ongoing project when they are not busy to approach local manufactures to see what processes they have which are underutilised, and design something the local company can manufacture. A great idea that builds relationships, allows collaboration and increases the value of local manufacturing and design. He said though unfortunately they were flat out at the moment.

We also talked about the need for physical models and the information and feedback you get from holding a real object in your hand, which you can’t get from a drawing or CAD or a photo-realistic render. He told me a story about the first all digitally designed concept BMW that was all out of proportion because there is something about having something real in your hands, and in front of you, that gives you information about how a thing works and looks that can’t be replicated any other way. It looked awesome on a computer screen but not good in real life. On the basis of that experience BMW chucked thousands of dollars of equipment to return to traditional model making.

They showed me some big sketch models and lots of 1/12 scale (I think) little car models of  some electric car charging stations:

He also showed me a motorcycle that was a pet project of the owner Hartmut Esslinger. The clients brief didn’t request a model but he said it felt so appropriate to have one, they spent the money on a working prototype and of course blew away the competition and won the contract.

Michael is a talented designer, sketcher and design advocate. He is a prominent contributor and moderator on Core77 and is a significant presence in the design world. It was a fantastic experience to be able to meet with Michael and to talk to him. He was very generous with his time and his ideas and in short it was one of the best things I did while I was in San Francisco- buy his book Analog Dreams. Here is a nice video interview Michael did with Raph Goldsworthy from “Design Droplets” (who also interviewed me a few years ago):

Astro Studios

Compared to frog design, Astro Studios has a much more “skate/ graffiti/ hardcore” vibe. Interesting that my internship boss said all the principals are middle aged with kids now (like me) but still promote this specific image. The studios were smaller than frog design, but still big, spread over two levels of a SOMA warehouse. Designer Anh Nguyen showed me around. It’s actually split into two sections- computer games and the rest. Their computer games division is huge, and they are branching into their own ‘Astro’ branded peripherals– gaming headsets and headphones. They’ve also done lots of very high profile work that you immeadiately recognise:

They also allow lots of latitude in working on personal projects, which are pinned up on the walls for all to see and to give feedback on. One of their current interns had an earbud headphone project of his own that the bosses liked so it was being brought to production. Everyone’s desk appeared very personalised with toys and stickers and guitars and stuff- it looked like a very fun place to work.

Anh gave me a copy of the ASTRO Applied and ASTRO Theory books, which highlight their philosophy and approach, and luckily they are also available here to download as pdfs:
Astro Applied   Astro Theory

Anh said most of the designers started work after being interns, some though after a bit of contracting work before becoming full time staff. A good reason for doing an internship, and many thanks to Anh for giving me a tour.


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