Frog’s Rolston Gives Industrial Design a Singular Sales Pitch

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by: C. Sven Johnson

Core77 alerted me to an article by frog design’s SVP of Creative, Mark Rolston, that initially sounds a heck of a lot like what I’ve been discussing here over the past few years, but manages to fall short in some critical ways. The article, “Defining The New Singularity” (Link), is still worth a read… if you haven’t been keeping up with things here. And don’t mind the way he’s casually butchering the term “singularity“; which in my opinion should have remained intact given the subject matter and potential for confusion.

The Good

Anyway, it’s not all bad, so let’s start with the good bits. I particularly liked this line:

Put more simply, the story surrounding a given “thing,” a product or service we buy and use, is rapidly exceeding the value of the thing itself.


Basically, he’s getting at the reasoning supporting my take on reverse product placement (reLink). With recent news that Neopets is breaching the reality barrier and going to offer tangible goods in addition to and support of their virtual world, I think my definition is going to get some legs faster than I expected. So this was nice to read.

There’s also this much longer thought that, if it had been developed a bit further, would probably put Ralston in the transreality camp:

The identity of a product can no longer be easily defined through its form factor, but rather by the information that encases it, passes through it, and is accumulated by it over the course of its lifetime. The notion of this emerging product universe covers far more than we are used to considering in the creative equation: the form, the means of production, the business built around it, the social implications of its existence, the ecological impact of its creation, the object’s role in a system of multiple devices, the social community developed to manage, discuss, and enjoy the object at hand. Sterling calls this new modern thing a “spime”–and it has massive implications for design.


Unfortunately, there’s no indication he’s connected what I believe to be some important dots. He’s also apparently stuck on “spime” and its core limitations. However, it’s nice to see someone else beating this drum, even if the rhythm isn’t quite there. Maybe with the frog brand behind him, we’ll see a bit of interest out of the design community. Maybe.

The Bad

So those are what I consider the best bits and I was glad to see Core77 quote those. Hopefully those ideas will stick with their readers.

Where Rolston loses it, in my opinion, is in his focus on “object”; on the thing frog’s employees are often paid to design. Consequently, his perspective seems to me to be that of someone still operating inside established structures who’s thinking (and perhaps concerned) about how to sell design services.

It’s not hardware vs. software but instead the object versus its story…. This is the new virtual nature of the thing.

I couldn’t disagree more.


There is no “object versus story” because the object and its history are intrinsically part of the (Experience) story. There is no “allowing the virtual story to augment“. The story is what it is. The consumer experience is what it is. Narrative is everything.

The design process of an object – good or bad – is part of the overall “story”. If a producer hires a screenwriter to pen a cops-n-robbers screenplay, that decision is ultimately part of the moviegoer’s viewing experience. And if the producer fires the first screenwriter and hires another to tell the same cops-n-robbers story, the resulting viewing experience is changed in ways that reflect the intrinsic change in the film’s development. It’s the butterfly effect applied to creative endeavors, and it starts not with the story a client wants to tell consumers, but with the first effort to craft some story; whatever it is and for whatever reason it is.

Elevating “object” is, I believe, self-serving. And that’s because frog design is an accomplice “in the placebo business“… as are almost all designers. Unfortunately for Rolston, it shows.

And the Ugly

During the span of about a page I get a sense that some of what’s being written is going to be used in sales meetings to help convince clients that frog can help them craft their story. For example, here are a couple of bits that sound like they’ll wind up in a future sales pitch:

We must reject the tendency to force a traditional form-based story into the design of our virtual products.

To delineate the interaction between the physical and the virtual, to embrace the underlying digital-, social-, scenario-, and intelligence-based nature of the products, we must expand beyond our traditional form metaphors to seek new, more dynamic cultural reference points.


I can just hear brains scrambling trying to decypher this stuff. And much of the final page is equally messy.

Actually, reading the last page, I get the feeling that Rolston has recently read a few books (among them Greenfield’s Everyware) and is operating on information overload. And too much caffeine.

As someone who admits to being all over the map at times, I’m comfortable declaring… he’s all over the map.

There are some more good bits near the end, but there are also more bad bits. And for that reason, I’ll end my comments here. I only have four hours of free time before I go to bed. With any luck, Ralston will shed his frog perspective, cull some of the good thoughts in that piece and post future articles that don’t give me the sense they were written by both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’d enjoy reading those.

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