Book Reviews

Review of A Fine Line by Hartmut Esslinger

By Jon Miller Updated on May 21st, 2017

On the recommendation of Matthew May, author, speaker and consultant to blue chip companies on innovation, lean and change, I read A Fine Line: How Design Strategies Are Shaping the Future of Business. Written by Hartmut Esslinger, founder of global innovation firm frog design, inc, the book is part professional biography, part step-by-step guide to innovation and part business redesign manifesto.

This is one of the best books on business that I had never heard of by an author I had never heard of before. Reading the book revealed that the work and impact of Hartmut Esslinger was surprisingly close at hand. His work has shaped the modern consumer experience with such visionary product designs as the Apple Macintosh computer, Sony’s Trinitron television and Louis Vuitton’s brands. His designs are in the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York. Expecting a book primarily on product design and aesthetics, I was pleasantly surprised by the breadth of topics covered and their relevance to the themes of continuous improvement in business.

The book starts out feeling like another one of those books written by a luminary from a particular field who offers nuanced insight into the their field and its unique necessity for business success. While such books that tout “it’s talent development” or “it’s metrics” or strategy, or accounting, or execution, etc. all influence business direction, the scope of “it” is usually too narrow to be of lasting worth. Esslinger’s decades of experience, pioneering work over those years and his deep understanding of the entire innovation-supply chain engineering-consumption loop results in a convincing case that “it’s design.”

A central theme of this book is “strategic creativity and sustainable success” as a foil against the supply-chain efficiency-driven commoditization of products and how they are made. Esslinger asks:

How can a company add true value or even just visually differentiate its low cost cell phone from those of its competitors, when all of them are designed and manufactured in just five or six Asian factories?

The one point on which I would differ is Esslinger’s claim that, “It is a cold fact that both manufacturing and service industries are hitting the ceiling of efficiency and scale.” Scale perhaps, but the vast majority of manufacturing and service companies have yet to tap the creativity of their people neither in the design of Esslinger’s innovative human-adaptive solutions nor in process innovations which generate true and greater efficiency. Although our definitions and scope for “creative strategy” may differ, I fully agree with his conclusion that adopting such a strategy

[…] boils down to a fundamental and momentous shift in how one things about business.

In a chapter cleverly titled “True Lies” Esslinger describes successful leaders at famous companies and how they created a vision, built innovative teams, maintained focused and sustained success. The notable failures may be the most instructive. For fans of Apple products and their storied CEO, the books is worth reading for the insights Esslinger offers to the rise, fall and rebirth of this iconic electronics brand.

After making a case for strategic creativity as a business advantage, revealing how frog design puts this into practice, and explaining the step-by-step innovation process they employ, Esslinger raises the stakes in chapter 5:

Let’s be honest. Design, like marketing, is about driving mass consumption, and anything produced on a mass scale contributes to pollution and global warming. That makes designers and their business clients systemic players in an economic model that has a profound effect on the environment.

Writing about a business design revolution and “the greening of planet, inc” Esslinger states that “…we also have to understand that design’s role in building sustainability extends well beyond the profits of individual enterprises” and goes on to offer ideas for implementing environmentally sound solutions at each stage of the product life cycle.
While calling for an overturn of the “industrial-cultural colonialism” in which global supply chains with narrowly defined profit equations dictate how goods are designed, manufactured and distributed, Esslinger explains that the money motive must be effectively harnessed to bring about change, consumer behavior must be shaped, and better solutions need to be researched and offered. These design-driven strategies include cutting-edge practices of open source design, fusion products and co-design through social networks.

In a delightful concluding chapter titled The Factories, Harmut Esslinger reveals, “I love factories! I’ve loved them since my childhood” when he went to the fabric mills and steel plants with his father in Germany. He calls for designers to gain a firm grasp of factory operations and even understand every step of the manufacturing process. Esslinger bemoans the outsourcing trend that lacks collaborative innovation, and as for those responsible for not capturing this collaborative potential:

And, I’m sorry but all of those unimaginative, penny-pinching executives who have little or no manufacturing experience simply need to go. If we want to revitalize our industrial system, we need leaders and decision-makers who have a thorough understanding of how factories work.

Esslinger has a keen understanding for the long-term and strategic pitfalls (as opposed to the short-term benefits) of offshoring manufacturing, which he details as lost manufacturing skills, lost economic stability, lost innovation opportunities and lost product knowledge. He raises a list of eight tough questions to ask before outsourcing or offshoring that should be laminated to the door of every purchasing executive, at eye level, on both sides of the door. The first three are:

  • What can you do to improve your business at home?
  • Do the numbers really add up?
  • Does your existing workforce support this decision?

Esslinger is not a protectionist calling for an end to global trade nor the end of ourtsourcing. The alternatives he imagines include what he calls smart-sourcing, home-sourcing and even the fascinating personal-fab.

We know Esslinger is a designer with a true appreciation for the total creative process when he writes, “the place where all of those ideas come to life is in the factory.” He ends the book with an important question that I am pleased to learn is shared not only by those who pursue kaizen and lean manufacturing but also those who promote strategic design and innovation as core business capabilities:

[…] we business leaders, designers and manufacturers must continually work to find the answer to the same, unwavering questions: How can we make the best us of the manufacturing resources we have available to us, and how can we improve those resources?

Follow this link to download the first chapter of A Fine Line, read reviews and to watch a video of Hartmut Esslinger.

  1. Matt May

    February 20, 2010 - 9:05 am

    Maybe you missed your calling…wonderful and insightful review. Too bad The New Times Book Review doesn’t do business books. You’d be a rock star.
    Glad you liked the book, and for essentially the same reasons I did. There’s a whole lot of “lean thinking vs. design thinking” out there, which is silly. I just spent three days with the frog studio in Seattle. The sensitivities to the realities of actually making quality stuff present in Hartmut’s book are alive and well in his designers, researchers and strategists. I think studios like frog that blend design, strategy and operations–and deliver stunningly beautiful yet emminently practical and buildable solutions–are the next iteration of the traditional management consulting firm.
    Well done!

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