Decoding Design

How will Apple's patent win affect the future of design?

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Apple's recent court victory against Samsung could be seen as promoting creativity and raising the value of design -- or stifling competition, depending on your point of view.

Last Friday, a jury awarded $1 billion to Apple in its patent lawsuit against Samsung. The decision could, some observers believe, promote more original design in the world of smart phones in years to come--rather than dozens of iPhone clones. Or could Apple's victory simply result in more sales for Apple, rather than a reason to encourage non-Apple designers to be more creative?

New York Times reporter Nick Wingfield talked with designers to get their opinions--and offered some valuable ones of his own. In his August 26 story, Wingfield began with a powerful example: phones with praised, non-Apple designs have gotten good design reviews, but were met with poor sales. Consider Nokia's Lumia 900, he wrote, which failed to lure consumers despite its beauty.

Here are some of the opinions he gathered, summarized here:

  • The ruling could increase the value of original user experiences, Chip Lutton, Jr., vice president and general counsel of Nest, the sleek thermostat, stated. (As Wingfield noted, Lutton used to be Apple's chief intellectual property officer, including during the Samsung patent fight.)
  • The decision could force tech companies to invest more in design, according to Bill Flora, creative director at design firm Tectonic.
  • Designers could also, conversely, feel they must perpetually second-guess their ideas, Flora added a negative consequence.
  • Greater and more dramatic design diversity could actually confuse consumers, who might be afraid to switch from one device brand to another. This could result in stifling competition, suggested Charlie Kindel, a former Microsoft executive who blogs on the mobile industry.
  • Some companies might simply become more aware of patent infringement and consequently design devices and interfaces that come as close as possible to Apple's while not quite copying them, Timothy Holbrook, an Emory University law professor, said.

To me, as a design reporter, the issues involved seem to echo those that other, older industries have faced for some time now: in fashion, for instance, there have been lengthy debates on what forms can't be legally mimicked, yet there are set rules on what forms can't logically be considered as "copied." For instance, we don't see fashion designers worrying about creating pants with two legs or stiletto-heeled pumps--these styles are understood as standard, functional. But very distinct variations on these themes can be subject to lawsuits. The high-end shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, for instance, has sued mass-market retailers for designs that are very similar to his elegant creations.

As some of Wingfield's New York Times interviewees suggested, the Apple verdict could be considered the equivalent of asking car designers to create square steering wheels for the sake of originality in the future. The pinching action used to zoom on an iPhone or iPad, as well as those two devices' rectangular-with-rounded-edges shapes were two details that the jury found Samsung guilty of copying, and Samsung--which leads Apple in smart phone sales-- is about to appeal the verdict. Could such functional designs in be considered new standard "forms" in the industry instead--the pants and stiletto pumps of smart devices? Or should Apple's unique, stylish takes on communication devices be protected fiercely in the name of promoting creativity?  Just as in fashion, it will be fascinating to see how the debate unfolds. It isn't over yet.

Image: Apple

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure