At Frog, Being Green Isn’t Easy; It’s Essential

Committing to clean design.

Looking back, 2007 may well be remembered as the year green went mainstream: Al Gore got an Oscar, Wal-Mart flogged organic jammies, and bottled water went from being a symbol of purity to the beverage equivalent of a pack of Luckies.

Nowhere, perhaps, has the green ethos been embraced more fervently than in the design community, a group that, in the words of Frog Design president and COO Doreen Lorenzo, "inherently wants to do good and change the world."

At Frog, a creative consultancy with 350 employees in four countries, that fuzzy impulse was harnessed by one young staffer's off-the-wall initiative. In May, Ashley Menger, a design analyst in Austin, pledged to live a garbage-can-free life for two weeks and keep all the detritus she generated within 5 feet at all times, documenting her travails on a Frogblog called Trash Talk. Soon, Frogs from Seattle to Stuttgart had picked up her trashy torch and were attempting to replicate her mission.

Later that month, Frog executives resolved to channel this grassroots enthusiasm into something more formal, a lab for green concept development dubbed Frogware. The project's first mission: to come up with a couple of provocative green prototypes in time for the World Design Congress in San Francisco in October. To ensure that staffers' thinking was unfettered by such pedestrian constraints as budgets or market size, the company pledged to spend $1 million in otherwise billable time and resources to develop in-house ideas. These were to be true, blue-sky prototypes that might, in the long run, find a commercial home but meanwhile would simply serve to stretch the Frogs' green muscles.

By July, the company had convened six brainstorming sessions, or Frog-Thinks, and the outpouring of ideas stunned the top brass. "In 10 years, I've never seen anything like this," says Lorenzo. "It was like an ant farm. It kept getting bigger." Designers were spending their weekends honing ideas, and sketches began arriving from staffers on vacation in Africa. Within weeks, hundreds of ideas were on the table.

The concept for a green cell phone was a natural for Frog. Having designed products for Alltel, Motorola, and Vodafone, staffers already had considerable expertise in the area. And they knew that cell phones were environmental villains. "The batteries are toxic, the plastics aren't designed for sustainability, and they can't be easily disassembled for recycling," says creative director Luke Williams.

Originally, the team planned a phone for developing countries, where adoption rates are booming. "We chose a market we had no preconceived notions about, just to get us thinking," Williams says. Meanwhile, another team was noodling such concepts as a knife that could check the safety of food, an eco-rating Web site, and solutions to the garbage-disposal problems unearthed by the Trash Talkers. Ultimately, the teams decided to collapse several of these ideas into an eco-phone that could do it all: sniff your poultry for bacteria (really!), let you scan a bar code and check the environmental impact of a potential purchase (with a Homeland Security--type color-coded rating system), and, of course, phone home. What's more, it would be made of environmentally friendly starch-based polymers and recycled aluminum, be easy to disassemble, be powered by high-performance, rechargeable nickel-zinc batteries, and have an incremental power system. "If the phone dies, you can use the hand wind-up system," says principal designer Chris Jones. "The crank tells users that they're cool in a different way."

Elsewhere in the Frog firmament, a separate group was busy pondering the problems inherent in compact fluorescent lightbulbs, which are vastly greener than incandescents but contain mercury and throw off a chilly glow. After exploring a solar-powered light (deemed cool, but impractical), the crew hit on a better idea: a bulb in the familiar, socket-compatible form but powered by a high-output LED. It would use half the power and last 10 times longer than a fluorescent, cast the warm light of an incandescent, and be made of unbreakable plastic. "Everybody's got a light socket," says senior industrial designer Michael Delpier. "This bulb is twice as efficient as a compact fluorescent and has a nicer light. Plus, you can adjust it up or down, from 10 watts to 200 watts. And because it uses LEDs, it doesn't create heat."

While it's unlikely you'll be able to buy either the phone or the lightbulb anytime soon, that wasn't really the point. The goal, says Lorenzo, was to provoke, engage, and demonstrate how companies can make a difference by creating sustainable designs. And for Frog, the exercise became much more than a one-time opportunity to dazzle peers at a conference. Green thinking is now central to every project--an objective Frog founder Hartmut Esslinger had been promoting long before green made the cover of Vanity Fair. "Five years ago, we talked about creating a green practice," Esslinger says. "Now, that's something our designers should be thinking about every day."

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