Innovators and Emulators: The Dilution of Product Design?

Innovators and Emulators: The Dilution of Product Design?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

I watched with interest in 2011 as Apple sued it’s main component supplier, and competitor, Samsung, for infringement of a range of design patents and intellectual property. The legal details of the patent infringements were complex (a good summary via the Verge and Vanity Fair), but there was no denying that Apple’s innovative iPhone and the later Samsung Galaxy S looked uncomfortably similar in shape, form, colour, user interface and even the box:

The on-going dispute was well documented, especially as later versions of the iPhone and the iPad from Apple inspired a rift of similar looking products from Samsung. Final settlement was reached in May this year, with Samsung ordered to pay Apple US $119.6m in damages. The victory was said to by “pyrrhic” however, with Apple winning little more than 10% of what it requested, the final amount probably not covering legal costs.

Apple has made it clear that it is not willing tolerate infringements of its patents, which translate into heavy investment in design and innovation. And this investment has resulted in a stratospheric rise in following and loyalty of the Apple brand. These leaked internal documents, purportedly from Samsung, detail how it analysed their competitor's iPhone in minute detail, and sought to incorporate features into their new line of Galaxy phones. It would appear Samsung saw the runaway success of the iPhone and wanted a ride on Apple's coattails on the good it did for the Apple brand.  

This tale grabbed my attention for just this reason - the similarity in design, look or feel of competing products within the same product category is not unique to the smartphone, or technology market. We live in an outstandingly exciting time for product design, with companies the likes of Apple making appreciation of good design accessible to the widest audience. But for times so advanced in design and manufacturing, why is it that some products often look very similar - the dilution of product design to remain competitive? Is it a way of ensuring competing products remain competitive in an over crowded market place? Here are some examples I found:

Competing Product Specification

Dyson’s ‘DC41 Animal’ upright vacuum cleaner has features specifically for pet owners, distinguished in its product range by having grey and blue detailing. The competing product from VAX, also for pet owners, features similar specification and lighter grey and blue styling. Pet owning consumers, in search of a new vacuum then, will be drawn both of these ‘blue’ products. 

Competing Products/Same Manufacturer

VW began taking over Skoda in 1991, having acquired 100% of the company by 2000. VW’s “Up!” has proved a successful city car, appealing to a city dwelling, fuel cost savvy market. This market presumably is so important that VW then market Skoda’s  “Citigo” – the later looking very similar to the Up! Of course in this modern, globalised age VW’s ownership of Skoda means that the near identical Citigo shares the same engine as the Up! – different badge, same engine. 

Competing Product Branding

Molton Brown and Baylis & Harding both have established English heritages rooted in the 1970’s. Both companies have capitalised on ever increasing popularity for luxury body products, their product package branding subliminally communicating sophistication – both using a silver colour on the pump mechanism with embossed logo however. 

These are just a few of the bountiful examples of like-for-like product design – seen in everything from cars to electronics to beauty products. This happens for varying reasons as seen here, from the same manufacturer operating different brands or simply to distinguish products of similar specification in the same category. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but I can't help wondering whether the desire to remain competitive has diluted product design into those companies which innovate, and those which emulate their competitors. 

What do you think? Have you noticed similarities in other competing products, or do you think they remain distinguished enough not to be an issue? Let me know in the comments below. 



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