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.