Designed 20 years ago: The Macintosh SE with a minimal keyboard and new mouse. Photo © Hartmut Esslinger & frog team, Photo: Dietmar Henneka
Snow White and the Apple
by Thomas Wagner
Oct 8, 2014

Hartmut Esslinger’s book is not simply another publication about Steve Jobs and Apple, the impatient geniuses Esslinger and Jobs, Apple and Frog. Sure, it is that, too, but it also explores the difficulties and obstacles in the design process by way of a famous example. What’s more, the founder of Frog Design makes no attempt to disguise his dislike of books written by “outsiders”, who dismiss design and everything connected with it, and in this particular case as a hobby or weird spin-off of Steve Job’s fixation on products – including Walter Isaacson’s biography on Jobs. Instead, it relates “how Apple evolved from the inside, beginning at the time when Steve Jobs first recognized the true potential of design and then was driven by the desire to embed this as the guiding strategic principle in Apple’s business model.” Specifically, it explain how Esslinger joined Apple, won the legendary “Snow White“ competition and subsequently not only kissed life into Snow White, but also helped Apple achieve a uniform and successful design strategy and product language. And because Jobs and Esslinger enjoyed listening to Beatles music together (and not only because of the apple!) each chapter begins with a quote from the “White Album”. “You know I can’t sleep, I can’t stop my brain”.

This is the perfect book for anyone interested in Esslinger’s design approach and how he assesses resistance to design and restricting structures in companies. And what experiences he gained dealing with internal power struggles – including Jobs’ dismissal in 1985 and his return to Apple in 1997. You find out a great deal. Not only how the first meeting between Esslinger and Jobs went, how things developed in Silicon Valley in the 1980s – and to what extent events were influenced by design strategies, including flops. This trip to the early 1980s quickly proves to be an excursion into the founding years of an industry and a company, which have since completely altered our world. That said, it is not advisable to become overly captivated by Esslinger’s, let’s say, very robust self-confidence, or to lend credence to all the heroic sagas.

Naturally, the focus is very much on Apple, but above all on what under the name of “Snow White” has long since written design history. However, the reader also finds out a lot about Sony, the firm Esslinger worked for from 1974, about hierarchies, envy, rivals and wrangling over business models, firms’ reluctance to invest in “office machines” and managers’ difficulties in envisaging what applications might be possible using what were then totally new machines. If you disregard the one or other vanity you must concede that Esslinger’s propagated connection between design and emotion was spot on. He provided decisive stimuli and helped at an early stage to pave the way for Apple’s later success.

Essentially however – and this makes this publication truly sensational – it documents the individual steps and designs in the “Snow White” process. It is incredibly exciting to see all the sketches and models that Frog developed during the individual phases. Even those familiar with Esslinger’s position will discover just how fascinating design history can be. At the end of the book, in a section entitled “History is future”, the king of the frogs compares several of the models developed in the early 1980s with later products. You spot right away that many things that were already conceived in design would only conquer the market many years and several technical development stages later. Not only the creative heads at Frog were mulling over mobile “MacBooks”, or even floating ideas for “slates” or “pads”, these imagined products extend back to Alan Kay’s “Dynabook” from 1968, a kind of iPad with a keyboard.

With his apodictic manner of relating history from his own viewpoint, Esslinger also produces sentences that make you sit up and take notice. For example, when he recounts his first meeting with Steve Jobs, one of the things he determines is: “He was gracious enough to concede that Apple did not distinguish itself enough from the competition, but he also said he wanted to alter this and for this very reason he was looking for a world-class designer. When I asked him about his bigger ambitions he just smiled and said: ‘First, I want to sell a million Macs, and then I want Apple to become the greatest company on earth.’ For some inexplicable reason, we both believed that our goals were absolutely achievable.”
Or: “The further the Snow White project progressed, the clearer it became to me that we stood for something much bigger than having the chance to help Steve Jobs create a visual design language... the result of our work – both in our studio in the Black Forest and in our small office in Cupertino – would fundamentally alter how design was perceived in the United States.”

So can we really say, as Esslinger claims, that the design process emulates a Greek tragedy with a hero, opponents, and a hopeless situation? Where then, if you please, is the comedy? A design process, seen as a whole and in retrospect, can arguably be both. At least we now know that it was a frog from the Black Forest who showed the genius Steve Jobs how to tame his impatience and how to replace his often harsh and intuitive reactions with rational considerations. After reading the book you might therefore feel inclined to think that design, or more precisely industrial design, is the frog that you don’t have to throw against the wall to transform pure technology into a machine for people. Even if “Keep it simple” need not necessarily be translated as “genial einfach”.

Genial einfach – die frühen Design-Jahre von Apple
by Hartmut Esslinger, with an introduction by Florian Hufnagl
Paperback, 296 p., 400 ill.
Arnoldsche Art Publishers 2014.
EUR 29.80.

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Hartmut Esslinger provided decisive stimuli and helped at an early stage to pave the way for Apple’s later success. Photo © Hartmut Esslinger & frog team, Photo: Dietmar Henneka
On 296 pages the reader gets new insights into the history of the technology group.
Picture © Arnoldsche Art Publishers
In 1982 there were already first ideas for a MacBook. Photo © Hartmut Esslinger & frog team
Similarity with the Iphone has the Apple Flip Phone - the design study is from the year 1983 - not. Photo © Hartmut Esslinger & frog team
Still in the spirit of the typewriter: Esslinger and his team within the Snow White project generated plenty of ideas ¬– also in form of sketches. Picture from the discussed book
If a frog designs a mouse: Suddenly the little thing was connected not to the computer, but with the keyboard. Picture from the discussed book
"Sneezy" is name for the design of a portable computer in an early phase of "Snow White". Picture from the discussed book
Thinking about another office organization quite early: the integration of a screen and a computer in a portable workbench. Picture from the discussed book
The first Ipad: A MacBook with integrated touch screen. The design is from the year 1984. Photo © Hartmut Esslinger & frog team, Photo: Rick English