After 19 years at Frog—eight of which he was the chief creative officer—Mark Rolston has left the illustrious design firm to start a new, self-funded firm of his own called argodesign. The new company will focus on groundbreaking UX.
"I want to offer perspective on design that’s not all about the visible artifact," Rolston tells Co.Design. "It’s moving into behavior, the interaction between a human and a machine when the machine isn’t immediately evident, but is instead more of an entity like HAL. And that design... we’ve barely scratched the surface of what that means."
Rolston notably transitioned Frog from a pure industrial design firm to one that could also specialize in software—his work designing the beloved Windows XP and Media Center experience may be his most recognizable, and along the way he designed early touch-screen interfaces for Microsoft and Citibank, while standardizing GE's global UX. More recently, he's been involved with half-physical, half-analog projects like Disney's Magicbands.
He's bringing along some high-profile friends from his old company, too, including Frog’s former chief development officer, Mark Gauger, and principal technologist, Jared Ficklin.
Argodesign will, at its most basic layer, be a design consultancy. But what’s so appealing to Rolston, and what ultimately drove him to leave Frog after two decades, was the possibility to incubate homegrown products and experiences, as well, either offering them to clients to bring to market, or even releasing the products themselves.
In this sense, argodesign’s approach is very much on trend with what we’ve been hearing from leading design firms. While one-off consultations may bring the large paychecks that have helped companies like Frog grow so big, they’re single-time payments. Owning a piece of those designs has more satisfying returns, both financially and creatively.
The difference with argodesign? "All of the guys who’ve tried this [ownership model] today have done it from a hardware position, using design to give them an edge," Rolston explains, citing Ammunition’s success with the Beats brand as the earliest and most notable example. "[But] what it means to create a great product is changing. It’s not necessarily a product, but it might be made of unseen elements. This is making up a sort of modern challenge of a designer."
While Rolston’s perspective may sound heady, or even contradictory, it makes a lot of sense. As computing disappears into the cloud, physical devices can become less important, and often even invisible. What’s left as The Product in these cases? It’s the UX—or user experience—that defines what something is. Rolston isn’t alone in this philosophy, either. Innovation by Design nominee Lapka recently released what they’re calling a post-Apple product, a breathalyzer made to disappear into someone’s hand. What defines that product? Not the anodized aluminum body, but the gesture of blowing—an interaction that could become a brand unto itself.
No doubt, Rolston’s team will push the boundaries of UX further. And as ephemeral as that may sound, Rolston recognizes a very real opportunity brewing—from the HALs of the future to the Internet of things, and everything in between.
"There’s a risk of being a perpetual laboratory," Rolston admits. "[But] I live in Austin, not San Francisco, and there’s a practical lens I have in whether something is worth doing. I’m not going to waste my time on a fairy tale."
An earlier version of this article stated that Rolston had been "heavily" involved with Disney Magicbands. He oversaw, critiqued, and offered input on the project as CCO, though wasn't part of the core design team.