Copying design: Form and function

Posted by: on Sep 1, 2012 | No Comments

It seems a lot of people conflate form and function. This is happening with recent Apple designs being ripped off by Samsung and other manufacturers.

People typically cite prior art such as previous generation laptops or phones and say Apple copied those.

You will find however that in most (but likely not all) cases this is a class error. Often they think that the functional elements of a design (flip open screen, integral keyboard, touch screen, or home button) represent the total design aesthetic.

Trade dress disputes are about form. People who say Apple just built on phones or laptops of the past are often missing the nuance of design. Angles. Texture. Finish. Materials. Weight. Volume. Proportions. These add up together to create an end result – the design. Apples trademark is minimalist and clean design, which naturally tends to feel like there is no design there. Trouble is, that’s the whole point, it is so by design. This is what the miscreants say is “obvious design”, that kind that was not obvious until Apple did it.

Think about a classic car. Any distinctive one, perhaps a Rolls Royce or a VW Beetle.

Tweak the design slightly: change the angle of a bumper, change the chassis dimensions by say 10% in any direction. Make the trim out of a different material.

Any sane person will look at it and say that you just ripped off the original. This is because the original design is so distinctive and sufficiently different from the designs that went before, bringing its own character. The original design defined an aesthetic epoch.

Now say you design a car that is just a perfect sphere with wheels. It is, geometrically speaking, really a major simplification of a car, removing angles and surfaces. This is really a very simple form, arguably obvious, yet this is a radically new design. It is extremely popular and considered the next big thing in cars.

Now a company, lets call them Shamsung, decide all their cars should be like this, but they change the trim and a few dimensions and materials.

It is clear they stole your design.

While all parties have clearly followed a wider functional design harking back to the Model T Ford, these designs exist in an aesthetic local minima of the current “consumer era”, a time window in which the current generations of consumers for that product live.

This is why it is a rip off and why you should lose a court case if you do this.

Still don’t believe me? Well whatever product you work on, I’m gonna take its whole visual appearance, tweak maybe 2% of the details and sell it cheaper than yours to profit off the back of your reputation.

What, you don’t like that? Better call your lawyer, ‘cos I’m loving the fact I can just tell my designers to look at your stuff and change it a bit.

Consumers want stuff that looks like what your guys painstakingly designed, so I am going to be making billions from it.