Because of a zany series of precedents dating back over a century, Samsung was forced to pay Apple $548 million for lifting elements of the iPhone's design for their Galaxy smartphones and tablets. The case's payout is under appeal, having reached the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Apple filed an amicus brief in support of its design IP in hopes of swaying the judges. Prominent among the signees was Dieter Rams. Rams is the former design chief of Braun, the electronics company Apple closely emulated for some of its most successful products—shamelessly and super successfully.
That's right. Apple enlisted the man it ripped off to make a case for why companies shouldn't rip each other off.
The irony wasn't lost on Pentagram partner Michael Bierut, who said in a recent Design Observer podcast:
What’s on some level deeply ironic, perhaps, is that when the iPhone came out, it looked beautiful to me, but it didn’t look original. Because it reminded me of something. And I suspect I wasn’t the only one. It reminded me of the Braun ET66 calculator that had been designed decades before by Dieter Rams, and object almost the same proportion with, in fact, indeed, rounded corners. If you look at a picture of the original Braun calculator versus the original iPhone, it was so clear they were attempting to sort of channel that vision of modernism.
Apple, at minimum, borrowed from Braun. Now, in a fun bit of alternate history, Bierut wonders, what if Braun had acted toward Apple like Apple is acting toward Samsung now.
So in a way, if Braun had been on their game, they would have stood up and sued the hell out of Apple for stealing their rounded corners. Somehow they didn’t, and now we have the irony of the designer of their products [Dieter Rams] standing up for . . . the rights of the person who knocked him off first.
Apple had actually reached out to Bierut to sign his name to the amicus brief. He declined, even though his colleague Paula Scher did sign it. While he’s careful to say that this wasn’t some soul-searching decision that kept him up at night, Bierut does go on to make a compelling, nuanced argument against Apple’s court-verified ownership over ideas like rounded corners and app icons.
Maybe it’s because I’m a graphic designer, but if I have a bias, oddly, I think it’s less about protecting the uniqueness of each creation, and more about being able and open to the idea that influence . . . is part of the fuel that makes design go on. I believe that every single innovation actually is both a unique thing and the starting point for a whole series of subsequent innovations, some of which may start as imitations, but others may take inspiration from those things and take it to a new place.
For many, such comments about inspiration and copying would be empty platitudes. But Bierut has staked his own business on his own creativity, which is no stranger to copycats.
When people rip off my work . . . I actually usually find it more funny than irritating. "Oh you noticed, thank you for imitating something I did!" But if I look at almost anything I design, almost all of it has to traffic in some way on broadly understood convention that I’m either referring to or subverting or playing with, or else the work we do doesn’t communicate. But the fact that we’ve sort of all agreed on what a letter A looks like means that typography has inherent within it a certain amount of convention, and then all serif typography, and all sans serif typography, all have within it a sort of resemble in unto itself that isn’t just functional but has connotations.
If somehow, everyone just was able to build these absolute impermeable brick walls around everything they designed, you wonder how any progress would actually be possible.
Bierut’s argument might be oversimplified to the old mantra, "good artists copy, great artists steal." (Which, ironically, was something Steve Jobs himself delighted in repeating.) It also contains hints of Isaac Newton’s modest turn of phrase, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
Most modernist design movements were founded on the sharing of ideas and inspiration; the Bauhaus, arguably the most impactful of these movements, was born from the Bauhaus school, not a corporation protecting IP. Mentorship, democratic collaboration, and even imitation all played a crucial role.
It was the Bauhaus movement that determined that form should follow function—and that this ethos could democratize good designs so that the world could afford to have them. Whether it was articulated through the simplicity of a facade by Mies van der Rohe or the utterly intuitive interface of an iPod, the takeaway was the same: As Bierut’s late mentor Massimo Vignelli told him once, "What’s great about modernism is it’s replicable."
Apple espouses many of the same ideas as modernism, and it’s well recognized that its most successful products, from the iPod on, are based upon Braun’s Bauhaus-born icons from the 1960s, designed by Dieter Rams. Yet it has balked at the idea of a competitor borrowing similar ideas from its own products, claiming ownership to details that were actually passed down by Rams.
In this sense, Bierut is right: It’s more than a little ironic that Rams’s name is actually signed second on Apple’s amicus brief. Apple's products may look straight out of Bauhaus tradition, but in a twist of revisionist history, the company claims to have invented it.