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Interview with Mark Rolston

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Mark Rolston was, until recently, Chief Creative Officer of Frog Design and advises the biggest companies in the industry like Siemens, Apple or Lufthansa. Currently, he is building up his own new design agency based in San Francisco. We are really happy to have him for the first of our interviews. Have fun reading and get inspired.

1. Mark, what did you like most about your job as Chief Creative Officer of frog design?

First of all, I left frog at the end of 2013 to start up my own creative firm called argodesign.

There are so many things that made that job fantastic: being the public face of a well respected creative company, the access to clients, and the mix of great work. But what I found most rewarding was working with and leading a team of really talented people across the globe. I have friends and coworkers in China, Europe, and here in the US. These were people I cared about and hold great respect for. It was like an extended family. I will miss this part the most.

 2. Do you remember a project (at frog or else where), you have been working on, that you really didn’t like, that was the most annoying one ever? What was it and what has been frustrating or annoying about it?

Specifically, I have build a few custom Android phones that were beautiful and very innovative but the customer underestimated the challenge and changed their mind about entering the market.

Working as a consultant is full of heartbreaks. You must learn to get over these because so often the client will fail to ship what you have spent so much time building, or worse, they make changes that are based on silly politics or poorly considered personal tastes. But I don’t dwell on these failures. Instead I try to help the client avoid these failures.

3. What have you done before frog?

Before frog I was a partner in a small design firm here in Austin called Virtual Studio. frog hired us in 1994 and we contracted with them as their software design team. In 1996 we joined frog to officially found frog’s software UX capability.

 4. What lies next to your laptop that keeps you motivated, or rather keeps you away from stress? What helps you handling all day stress?

It’s not next to my laptop (yet) but instead in my garage. I race and work on cars in my free time. Especially because working in design can become a sometimes very abstract task- working in ideas, on computers, etc., I really like to take breaks and involve myself with very tangible and visceral problems. And there’s almost nothing as visceral as a race car- loud, hot, and full of beautiful examples of modern engineering. Part of the plans for my new studio will be to build a new racecar in the shop so it will be sitting next to our desks. We’ll also keep other industrial equipment like 3D printers, arduino kits, presses, saws, etc. in the studio to help keep the team connected to the visceral world.

 5. In your opinion; Is it important, for an industrial designer, to perform in all disciplines like conception, sketching, CAD, workshop modelling? Or do you think it is cleverer to specialize on a single discipline, since so many design studios want to fill particular gaps in their work flow?

I believe that early in your career you must explore and try to become expert in as many of these skills as possible. It will help you develop a stronger perspective and sense of what is possible. But as you mature, you will find it necessary and useful to either specialize or become a more strategic director of others. As a leader, you’ll spend much less time with the tools and more on the ideas, people, and politics. But your career experience will continue to help you stay connected to the materiality of the work.

 6. In your opinion, how important is good freehand sketching these days in everyday work?

For an industrial designer it is key to not only exploring your own ideas of form and function, but more importantly, sharing your thinking with others quickly and efficiently. But it’s also important to realize that there is a growing trend of products that have value well beyond their visual and physical qualities and these new attributes need to be captured with other artifacts such as diagrams, schematics, algorithms, and prototypes. Understanding how to communicate in those media is becoming as or even more important. Whatever you do, don’t get stuck focused only on visible artifacts.

7. What software do you prefer in your studio and why?

I don’t think my selection of software is particularly telling, but fwiw, I love photoshop, aftereffects, and omnigraffle.

8. Who inspired you when you were a student and who does now?

As a student I was entirely focused on finding any way possible to design for software. In the late 1980s and early 90s, the computer was just emerging to become a factor in everyday life. It meant that computers needed to be usable and enjoyable. It also meant an almost limitless universe of new ideas and inventions. I believe we’re still in just teh early days of this same phenomenon. The computer is not merely another tool like say, a toaster, to be designed. It is an extension of what it means to be human.

9. MAC or Windows?

duh. Mac. But seriously, who cares anymore. It’s more important to get to know all of the platforms, even if you only use one day-to-day.

10. Do you have a tip or advice for all the students out there, that you would have loved to hear back in the days?

I didn’t get much advice way back. I spent most of my time with non-designers- engineers, inventors, and business people. I’d advise the same. I don’t give much attention to the design world and what it says about itself and I suggest you should not either. It is too insular and political. Instead, put your energy into the world- people and business. And find those who need and want what we can do for them. Learn about their problems and use your unique role to help.

Thank you very much Mark. We wish you all the best and we are excited to see more of argodesign soon.

Check out argodesign here

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