Mark Rolston, a twenty-year veteran with design agency Frog, has left the firm and has launched a new design shop that will be part incubator, part client agency, and part product development group. Called argo design, Rolston is building the firm with former Frog business development exec Mark Gauger.
With argo, Rolston is looking to create a nimble design group that can develop independent products in house, as well as work on more traditional design projects with customers, he told me in an interview. When it comes to launching products, argo could help raise funds to get those products to market. The group is already working on a cloud-based piece of software, and another product that’s further down the road that will be a physical product, Rolston said.
The structure of argo is reminiscent of other nimble design firms like Fuse Project, which was launched by Yves Behar in 1999. Behar and Fuse were deeply involved in the product creation and original ideation around Jawbone’s headset and Behar became Chief Creative Officer of Jawbone.
Likewise, Rolston plans to run argo more like an incubation group, taking on the risk of building the products (and raising the funding for them), as well as pitching products to potential client partners in new ways. Since he’s just launched the group, he said he isn’t ready to talk about potential clients and partners just yet.
The role of design in the technology industry has changed dramatically over the past couple of years. More and more, consumer-focused products now have to be well-designed and personalized to connect with consumers raised on the iPhone and used to always-on connectivity. Computing is moving off of computers and cell phones, moving deeper into the home and onto the body. Design is the key way to make sure a product has the emotional pull and valuable experience it needs to resonate with the customer.
As a result, startups and large companies alike are amassing design talent that can develop software and hardware experiences in house. At the same time, venture capitalists are launching design groups and investing in entrepreneurial designers. We devoted an entire two-day conference to the evolution of design in the tech industry last year called Roadmap (and we’ll be throwing another one later this year).
Because of this evolving landscape, the role of large design agencies and their relationship with tech firms is transforming. Many large groups like Google and Samsung are bringing design talent in house, meaning they’re less willing to spend large amounts on outside design groups. As a result margins are slimming for some of the largest design shops. I’ve heard Frog itself is undergoing some restructuring, while another design firm — Fjord — was acquired by consulting company Accenture last year.