Co.Design

In Apple V. Samsung, A Win For Apple And Its Marketers

Apple set a new standard for what people expect from their smartphones and became a marketing triumph, which bolstered its legal argument, writes Gadi Amit, founder of NewDealDesign.

Last week, a jury awarded more than $1 billion to Apple in its patent lawsuit against Samsung, much of which revolved around smartphone design. Arguably, it was the biggest design trial ever—and its ramifications will be felt in the world of technology design for quite some time.

I never bought into Steve Jobs’s “reality distortion field,” so I never bought into Apple’s implicit claim on its look: the rounded corners, as Samsung’s lawyers pointed out, had been around for quite a while. However, cosmetics are only a small part of design nowadays, and that’s the big lesson of this trial.

Many, including Samsung, tried to mimic Apple’s phenomenal market success by copying its iPhone design, which seamlessly integrated beautiful form and details with amazing manufacturing and never-before-seen interactive details. (It should be said that true originality is a flexible standard when you consider IBM’s Simon, the PalmPilot, and other touchscreen originals.) But the real ramification doesn’t rest just on the dry legalese of design patents but also on the entire iPhone. That holistic value is the true value of the iPhone design. In this case, the combination of Samsung’s touchscreen, all-too-similar OS, iconic design, forms, details and above all, public perception made it easy for a jury to side with Apple. Samsung phones not only looked like the iPhone, they felt like the iPhone. And they were probably developed to be similar. Samsung argued that that look and feel were what the people want. Samsung is both right and wrong: People want that kind of design only because Apple made them want it.

So does the Apple win complicate the future of design and innovation, as this New York Times article asserts?

One can argue that the Apple win validates the efforts of companies that invest in innovation. One could say that it underscores the importance of public perception, which provided the Apple brand with the credibility to counter any claim against its design details’ originality. That is the core conclusion here—a company that leads by design and innovation should also be smart enough to exercise careful control over its brand experience, so that the public is aware of its true value. If it does that, it will also be granted the protection of design patent laws. But if it fails to tell the story, defending its technical design patents isn’t going to be an easy or a sure win.

Apple’s victory also highlights this ageless dilemma: Do you follow what people like, or suggest to them what they ought to like? The risks of asking Joe Q. Public too many questions in hopes of guidance are now clearer. Apple showed us that excellent design can, in fact, shape people’s future expectations. When the iPhone was first introduced, it was radically different from what came before that, even while critics attacked some of obvious drawbacks (the awkward keypad, the faulty reception), everyone quickly adjusted to its limitations. Assisted by a $1 billion-plus marketing campaign, Apple managed to change the world’s perception of what a smartphone could be. In doing so, it inoculated itself from copycats, because the holistic value of its design became far more valuable than the sum of its features and function.

Many companies believe that following the leader or catering to the current public taste is an essential path. Such mainstream thinking is felt by any designer working in this field and is a dominant factor when executives are making big decisions. Ideas slightly to the right or left of center are deemed risky. Daringly beautiful designs are toned down and “refined” to be easier on the eye, so consumers will accept them faster. Such practice has obvious merits—but they may also now come with a major pitfall—which involves more than a potential legal trial but the loss of public respect. Samsung didn’t get that, and many more still won’t: You simply can’t design too close to an original without suffering consequences. That’s Apple’s true victory.

[Image: ivgroznii/Shutterstock]

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8 Comments

  • Tommy Armstrong

    "Samsung argued that that look and feel were what the people want. Samsung is both right and wrong: People want that kind of design only because Apple made them want it". Exactly. That is what great designs do. In this incredibly technical age, engineers are what get things built, but designers are what imagine what to build. Marketers figure out how to sell those imaginations. The strength of Apple is that they , and I will have to give Jobs credit, understood the entire triumvirate. Those are the kinds of ideas that really change the world.

    I kind of remember the first day of design school class 45 years ago when the professor got up and scared hell out of all the students when he stated -at least the way I remember it many years in the future

    There are three types of designers in this world
    Type 1: has great ideas but does nothing about them--he is irrelevant
    Type 2:  has bad ideas but creates them nonetheless--he is dangerous and makes a lot of $
    Type 3:  has great ideas and brings them into fruition--he is the one that advances humanity
                 and is a great designer-he may or may not make $

    I of course ended up being a Type 1, but do have the ability to recognize all three types.

    Lots and lots of type 1's-the vast majority for all humans have the innate ability to come up with good ideas. 

    Much fewer Type 2's but only takes a few to cause real harm--they are usually the ones that control things and stifle Type 3's

    Very few Type 3's but they are the ones that make the lives of the many more bearable or enjoyable (depending on whether you are a negativist or a positivist). They are a rare breed and should be cherished. 

  • Shawn Blanchette

    Apple has been stealing ideas almost since its inception. Apple's own OSx is based from the free and widely available BSD operating system, developed by Berkeley (it actually stands for Berkeley Standard Development). Their computers are mostly PC-based parts, simply encoded with Apple's serial code. Perhaps the PC makers should sue Apple for having a monitor attached to a computer box...It could be difficult to differentiate between an Apple computer and a traditional PC. They already charge roughly double what you can get from a traditional PC (with various Linux installs) for the same, and even more options. My Linux computer can do way more than any Mac box.

    Their choosing litigation rather than true development and innovation.

  • ID

    Sharing ideas only propels new ideas, and it is those that don't desire to share whom have fear. In this respect, Apple surely doesn't get it.

  • Ank Jones

    Exactly. Apple is so hung up on Apple it fails to recognize while they do have brilliant engineers and marketers, other companies produce brilliant ideas as well.  Apple's innovations in the last 5 years (since the original iPhone) have been less than stellar, and they have been at the heart of an increasing number of patent battles. With that said,I have no doubt that Apple will continue to produce some cool gadgets and will make technologies that will have a good user interface, but they aren't the little guy anymore vying to sell the consumer a better future, they are trying to impose their reality on them/us.

  • Ank Jones

    This may be a victory for Apple, but based on the manner this article is written you seemed a bit too enthused in this fact. This has the very real potential to lead to Anti-trust issues and a "loss" for the consumer, because it will only lead to Apple patenting even more frivolous items. When I say frivolous I mean items/concepts like "rubber banding" and beveled corners, not significant device features (Gesture system, file/app navigation). Apple has already sued HTC in the past and they don't resemble the iPhone or its OS. Look at the car industry then look at the smartphone industry and you will see a major distinction in this slippery slope; imagine if Apple had made the first car. No one would be able to put a steering wheel in the passenger seat or have 4 wheels or an engine. So when you think that Apple is right consider that. It creates a system where there are no standards, because everyone has to create completely different items that don't lend themselves to any sort of intuition. Because if you think that Apple hasn't "borrowed" innovations from Google's Android you are delusional; Just to name one off the top of my head, "Apple"'s notification bar in iOS5 was copied verbatim from Android 2.2. And while Google didn't make the kind of stink that Apple has over its IP; and that distinction being, Google is more concerned with giving people choice and the future while Apple will nickel and dime them the whole way to their patented Apple iRocketcar.

  • Yman17

    Because Google's not a whiny little bitch like Apple. Ah another Apple touting article by fanboy fastco, same ol deal. These lawsuits just leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth, makes me reminisce when they were the small company back in the day that everyone loved. It's not a design company anymore , it's become a litigation bully. I won't be purchasing any more of their products and hope one day they get a taste of their own medicine

  • Tom

    I think its obvious to say that this decision will simplify true innovation and discourage unscroupulous copy cat mimicking.  Rather that trying to "be like" your competitors product, a company should strive to be better, not copy while changing a few minute details.  

  • blkrbt

    Would you recommend Apple redesign their notification system implemented in iOS 5 since it's an obvious copy-cat mimicry of an existing system and a great example of copying while changing a few minute details?