Brand Dilution

Dustin Curtis points out the similarities between the design of Samsung’s new Chromebox computer and Apple’s Mac mini. Of course this is nothing new. Samsung, and other manufacturers, take each other’s designs (mostly Apple’s) when they think there’s a particularly good design pattern, as was the case recently with the iPhone and all the clones that it generated.

What is interesting is our reaction to it. Are we supposed to criticize Samsung for their lack of originality? They’re not outright copying the lines and the proportions, but the inspiration in some products is evident. Are heavily inspired goods somehow inferior, and the act of implementing such designs unethical, or simply in bad taste? Nobody criticizes pencil manufacturers for their lack of originality, just as nobody criticizes manufacturers of any other everyday good, from furniture to kitchenware, for being unoriginal. Products at the edge of technological innovation are different. These things are new, and their design is part of their novelty, just as the underlying technology is. We notice it, just as we notice it when competitors “borrow” a successful design.

Are these unoriginal designs bad, or perhaps the act of heavily borrowing features of a successful design unethical? I cannot imagine how that can be because nobody really loses out when a successful design spreads. The only danger here is copying a product so much that your design introduces confusion to the marketplace. In all other cases, if a good design spreads then more people will get to enjoy a superior product. Again, we’re not talking about plagiarism where a product is outright copied line for line, but cases where a successful design pattern is identified and implemented by the competitor, whether that is an elegant shape for a computer case or a design for a smartphone.

Take Apple’s iPhone for example. The original design is revolutionary, and the company has received all their due success for being the first to introduce it to market. Competition followed with their own implementations of the touch screen phone, which has now led to a healthy competitive marketplace with plenty of great products for the consumer to pick from. Apple were the first to come up with the iPhone style design, but we’re no worse for having others follow it. Indeed, we’d be worse off if the rest kept their old, clunky designs.

Should designers be recognized for their innovations? Absolutely. Not only that, they should be rewarded for them, and, because they are the first to bring their designs to market, they are. But design innovations shouldn’t stop there, they should keep spreading. Those that follow on to implement a proven design won’t get the applause for coming up with something original, and nor should they, but they should not be shamed or prevented from learning from and implementing a successful design. Being unoriginal is not a crime, nor is it unethical, nor bad in any way. Look around you at all the furniture, all the kitchenware, all the architecture and cars and all the other goods that surround you – they all follow the same patterns and share styles that have evolved over centuries. These things aren’t original. In technology though we tend to be extra critical of unoriginality. We’re obsessed with original products and we mock and shame companies that dare to borrow a proven design.

The reason why we care so much goes deeper than just our heightened sensitivity to design. Just like many other consumer goods, technology products use planned obsolescence to shift produce off the shelves. Planned obsolescence is a strategy used by manufacturers to get people to buy new models of their products by constantly iterating their design and in this way pushing old models out of fashion. It’s what helps drive demand in our consumer society. In this environment, the design of the product isn’t purely functional or aesthetic, it’s tied to the brand. That design of a computer case is not merely a shell for a computer, it’s a shell for an Apple computer. It’s one of the things that defines the brand. Seeing competitors come out with similar designs is something that we really notice because it’s no longer just about a successful design or a style that spreads, it’s about brand dilution. People don’t see that Mac mini design as an elegant computer shell, they see it as a Mac mini, so when Samsung releases their Chromebox that looks a lot like the former, people again see the Mac mini. The “theft” is no longer just about a good design, it becomes personal, it becomes a theft of brand identity.

And that’s why people care. In the 21st century people define themselves with the brands that they buy and consume. The brand is not just something that helps people pick out a product, it’s something that they have a relationship with, it’s something that’s part of who they are. For a lot of brands, design is an integral element – it’s an inseparable part of the brand. When an especially creative iteration comes along, it becomes a signature style for the brand, so it is no surprise that when a competitor “borrows” that same style – which may happen to be a very good solution to the underlying problem, as was the case with the iPhone – people feel that something has been stolen. The brand gets diluted and confused, which naturally generates a strong emotional response.

June 2012