German wolf in designer's clothing

For the group of young designers in their early 20s, Hartmut Esslinger is the creative and rebellious "pirate chieftain" who guides them to find the treasure of product designing.

Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts / Ti Gong

Hartmut Esslinger (center) and his Chinese students take a picture together in a memory of the graduation.

"When I was a freshman, I asked my teacher why there was a Jolly Roger hanging in the faculty room. I was told pirates were a group of people living beyond norms but also having a strict system within them. Now we as young ‘pirates’ are starting off,” said 22-year-old Cai Weiwen, a graduate from Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts DeTao Class on her graduation day.

For the group of young designers in their early 20s, Hartmut Esslinger is the creative and rebellious “pirate chieftain” who guides them to find the treasure of product designing over the past four years.

Ti Gong

Hartmut Esslinger

Born in Beuren, a remote town in Germany’s Black Forest, in 1944, Esslinger’s childhood was haunted by the turmoil of the World War II. But there was also beauty in his life.

After the war, when Germany began to reconstruct its infrastructure, his parents started a textile company. On his 10th birthday, the family moved to Altensteig and opened a fashion boutique.

Esslinger was surrounded by dazzling dresses, fashion magazines and models on the catwalk.

His creative impulse emerged when he was a senior high school student and he finally chose a career path of becoming a creative professional.

In 1982 when Steve Jobs was selecting a designer for his Apple products, he chose Esslinger who already had his own company called Frog Design.

“At our first meeting in January 1982, Steve said ‘I want Apple’s design not just to be the best in the computer industry, but the best of the entire world.’ That agreed upon, we went to work, and he let me work and do what was needed to achieve this. Together we succeeded,” Esslinger recalled.

However, for Esslinger, there is “an uneven fight” between creative professionals and rational people as the latter are the majority and also have the power.

“In the Yellowstone Park area there used to be a surfeit of deer. Then 50 wolves were introduced to the region to create an ecological balance. We are the wolves,” said Esslinger.

“Creative professionals, a one eighth minority, are being pushed down all over the world by the rational professionals who think they own the power and the money. But like the deer in the famous Yellowstone example, those rational people are wasting resources and opportunities by copying what others have done before. We creative professionals must be ‘wolves’ and fight for innovation and originality,” said Esslinger.

Yang Yang / SHINE

Hartmut Esslinger is present on the graduation day of his students at Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts. 

To end “wasting resources” is also the biggest motivation behind Esslinger’s China tours.

“China is becoming the producer of most of the world’s sci-tech goods. Later most of the cars will be produced in China. But the problem is those goods were mostly designed in the US or in EU where lowering the cost, instead of achieving sustainability, guided the designing process. So we need to educate a new generation of outstanding designers in China who will end a waste of resources,” Esslinger wrote in his book “Forward Designing.”


Ti Gong

A series of home appliances produced by Japanese Waga company are designed by Hartmut Esslinger, the professor at Songjiang’s Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts, in 1973.

A collection of design models by graduates, including Cai, in the Strategic Design and Innovation major corresponds well to Esslingen’s sustainability concept. He has been a teacher in the major since 2013.

“Hartmut is very strict with us concerning our academic work. He would really fail students if they didn’t work hard. But in the daily life, he is like an elder member of a family, always caring about us. When we made our study tour in the US, he would personally be our guide and introduce us to his friends as ‘my boys and girls,’” said Zhu Enyang, a 22-year-old graduate who is to further his study at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in the UK.

“I tell my students everybody has a different talent. One person is more technical. One person cares for people. One person has visual talent. And students are really encouraged to do things here,” said Esslinger in Songjiang campus.



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