Apple Lays Claim To Good Industrial Design
By James Grahame
Apple sued Samsung this week for slavishly copying "several elements of the Apple Product Configuration Trade Dress." It's a bold and chilling claim for several reasons.
The first and perhaps not so obvious reason is that industrial design in the high technology field is always held hostage by technological progress. Designers can sketch fantastic products with curved, millimeter thin holographic displays, but until the physical components can be mass produced the entire exercise is merely an artistic exercise.
Apple didn't invent the system on a chip. They didn't invent ultra-thin battery packs. They didn't invent slimline capacitive touchscreens. They didn't invent flash memory. However, they did have the R&D budget to integrate them into a very successful lineup of portable computing devices.
And now Apple is turning their legal guns on Samsung, arguing that because they were the first to succeed in packaging a computer in a shiny tapered wrapper that other companies should be prevented from packaging technology in similar form factors.
The second reason that Apple's claim against Samsung is worrying is that industrial design doesn't take place in a vacuum. It's no secret that famed Braun designer Dieter Rams provided the inspiration for many of Apple products. In fact, legions of Apple fans noted that the look and feel of the original iPhone calculator app paid undeniable homage to the Braun ET 66 designed by Rams and Dietrich Lubs.
Apple is, out of necessity, a copycat. Industrial design relies on a shared cultural aesthetic and a willingless to push the boundaries of technical possibility. But let's not forget that there is a logical reason for metal smartphones to have distinctively rounded corners -- they'd draw blood in your pocket otherwise.
Computer technology and industrial material design has advanced to the point where it's possible to make digital devices that resemble fine jewelry. But that doesn't mean that only the first or biggest should be allowed to manufacture shiny, impractical electronic baubles with curved corners and slippery rectangular touchscreen faces.
As Mr Rams so eloquently outlines in his 10 design principles, "Good design is as little design as possible." And Apple should not be allowed to own simplicity.
But, thankfully, I'm not a lawyer and can accept the bloody obvious at face value. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to design something rectangular with a glass top, rounded corners and beveled edges. A coffee table, perhaps.