Apr 23

Cream of the crop of design firms

Category: Design,Linux   — Published by tengo on April 23, 2008 at 2:27 pm

There are thousands of designers in the world, and nearly as many companies offering design services. But still, some of these "design shops" stand out. Some do so because of their charismatic founders or leaders, others impress with innovative or groundbraking designs. Time to have a look at the top design firms worldwide, who affect our daily life so much.


IDEO is the prototype of the design firm. The company's history of design concepts and innovations reads like a brainstorm protocol of greatest products. It is likely that you encountered IDEO's designs during your daily chores, it's absolutely inevitable in case you have ever touched a computer. The company's fame can be traced back to their first scoop: the invention of the computer mouse. Although the concept is rooted in a Stanford research project, the claim is that the design by IDEO for Apple's Lisa was the first "production mouse". The mouse is also the link to the company's history: David Kelley, owner of David Kelley Design, was professor at Stanford. In 1991 his company and two other shops, ID Two (founded/owned by Bill Moggridge), and Matrix Product Design (founded/owned by Mike Nuttall), merged to form the new company IDEO. If you look at IDEO's "cube" logo today, you can find the ID and the Matrix in it.

Since the mouse days, a number of well known products came out of IDEO: the Palm V, the (2nd) Microsoft Mouse or WD's My Passport drives. An interesting fact is that furniture manufacturer Steelcase holds a majority stake in the company. This relationship, although loose (Steelcase operates IDEO as an independent unit), has also lead to Steelcase's Leap Chair, the answer to Herman Miller's Aeron.

Besides the actual products, IDEO has managed to become well-known for it's design principles, design methods. Similar to what became known as the BCG-Matrix, Boston Consulting's tool to analyze businesses, is IDEO's designing in 4 steps: Observation, Brainstorming, Prototyping, Implementation. This mantra has found its way into numerous books celebrating IDEO's unique design culture:

Wired Magazine in the past had quite a number of specials about IDEO, one of them portrays the idea to explore new ways of the old fashioned calling card. The New ID is an interesting look into the firms workings and how systematic brainstoming and competing concepts finally lead to a satisfying result.

frog design

frog design inc. [website] (note the all lowercase naming frog design, formerly frogdesign) has its roots in Germany. Founded in 1969 by industrial designer Hartmut Esslinger along with fellows Andreas Haug and Georg Spreng as Esslinger Design. During its first years the shop moved a couple of times in Germany and finally jumped abroad to Palo Alto, California where the headquaters reside until today.

Their break-through was in 1969, when Esslinger won the deal to design the Wega television sets. An important style element he used on that job was a rectangular matrix of round holes, used as loudspeaker covers and such, with varying sizes to give the impression of a gradient. In 1975, the Sony Corporation bought WEGA, which was back then already famous for its elegant design by Esslinger. In fact, the Sony management liked the WEGA design so much that the dot-matrix-style design was adopted as the 80 "It's a Sony" logo some of you might remember.

Also in the 70s, the studio began to venture into industrial design for computers. Over lesser known jobs, among them for Computertechnik Müller and Diehl Data Systems, frog finally got the chance to design for Apple. The result was the Apple IIc and a number of accessory devices. Interesting about the Apple job is that frog introduced the white case design for Apple, an attribute Apple has largely expanded since then.

The strong affiliation with the computer industry was surely one of the main arguments that lead to the move to Silicon Valley. The focus on computer design fostered and frog designed Sun's SPARCstations in 1986 and the rule-breaking NeXTcube the following year. With the dawn of the new century, frog was an established company, what lead to Flextronics, a manufacturing services supplier, taking an equity stake in the company. This again resulted in frog becoming a part of KKR, an investment firm that took over Flextronics and renamed it Aricent. So today, like IDEO, frog is a design-subdivision (although an independent one) of a huge corporate group.

Another similarity with IDEO is frog's trend to turn away from classic industrial design towards a more philosophical approach, becoming a "strategic-creative consultancy", thus the move to emphasize its principles ("Discover, Design, Deliver").

Some reading:

By the way: "frog" is an acronym for "Federal Republik of Germany".

And: frog design was the first career step of many of todays design hotshots, among them were Tylor Garland, Steven Skov Holt, Herbie Pfeifer and Paul Montgomery, Jon Guerra, Gadi Amit, Tucker Viemeister and Yves Béhar - who brings us to the next design company.


Fuseproject is Yves Béhar. The San Francisco based design firm, was founded by Béhar in 1999 - this fact alone explains why they haven't reached the universal fame of bigger shops like IDEO or frog. Nevertheless, this last decade has been a successful one. To date, Fuseproject has managed to win over 50 prestigious awards. And- Fuseproject is industrial design. Much more like IDEO or frog, Fuseproject focuses on singularly designing objects, while IDEO's approach is a more conceptual philosophical one. Béhar's outfit believes in the improvement of objects as a vehicle to convey a client's image to intensify the brand experience. Logically, this philosophy is reflected in the company's motto "dedicated to the emotional experience of brands through storytelling".

As Yves Béhar is the driving force behind Fuseproject, many of the company's milestone concepts were actually designed by him personally. Among them is an innovative (but admittedly ugly) Bluetooth headset (the Jawbone, buy), Birkenstock's Crocs fork "Birkies" and a part installation/part product chandelier Voyage for Swarovski (followed by the consumer version Morpheus). But the singular project that actually lead to Béhar's new designer stardom is OLPC's XO laptop. Since 2005 Béhar helms the device's design as chief industrial designer. He was selected as result of a pitch, where his concept won over the Media Lab MIT jury. The interesting green and white laptop case of Béhar's XO features a 50% thicker plastic shell that is also the carrying case, complete with a handle, a sealed rubber keyboard, movable rubber Wi-Fi antennas and a reversible display to function as a tablet PC.

Some related reading:

Remember: this is just meant as a stub, feel free to comment and add your thoughts about who should join the mentioned companies on the list. A few ideas who would qualify can be found on Wikipedia's list of US design firms.