Understanding Design & Protecting It

I’m not an Apple Fanboy. I have not watched a dozen leaked iPhone 5 videos, I do not follow Mac Rumors and I do not have a vinyl apple on the bumper of my Volkswagen. Altogether, however, my household employs nine Apple products. My wife and I each have three devices, there is a household iMac and there are two Apple TVs (first and second generation). The casual observer may find a discrepancy between these statements, but there is a simple explanation as to why we have so many Apple products.

Apple products are quite simply the best-designed personal computing products for my family and me.

Let’s unpack that statement. I didn’t say best featured, most affordable, most beautiful or most technologically advanced products. I said best designed.

A recent article on Forbes.com by Haydn Shaughnessy attacked the verdict and the $1.05 billion award made in Apple’s favor in Apple v. Samsung, saying that the author was amazed that such an award could be made for copying rounded corners – something, incidentally, he believes is a design flaw anyway.

To summarize the design and patent infringement described in this case – and note, like the rest of the public, all I have available to me is what the media covered – as being solely about rounded corners and the color black belies society’s complete misunderstanding of the practice of Design.

Design as an area of culture and as a practice goes well beyond the aesthetic matters – such as rounded corners and color – on which the Forbes focuses, though to be sure such matters are a part of Design.

Design in all its forms – graphic, interaction, product/industrial, environmental, motion, etc. – is about understanding human behavior and rituals and creating products that make certain behaviors better, more enjoyable, more efficient, more valuable, or, in some cases, unnecessary altogether.

Designers use a lengthy creative process that draws on anthropology, sociology, R&D, psychology, art, engineering and countless other disciplines to first understand a behavior, and then design and create products around it. It is this process that lead Apple designers and engineers to create the iPhone itself to begin with, which, if you remember, was born from the need to combine the 4 or 5 devices people were carrying around in their pockets (MP3 player, Cell phone, PDA, camera, pager, PSP, calculator, etc.). Designers and engineers conceived and then created one beautiful and functional device that performed amazingly, and in so doing created a new mass category. Yes, other such devices preceded the iPhone, but it was the full suite of Design skills – from engineering to aesthetics – that made this particular product viable on a mass scale.

So yes, the look and feel of both the iPhone’s form factor and interface have been meticulously pored over, with great attention to every detail paid. And yes, the particular radius of the rounded corners and the industrial design of the antennae were carefully considered. It is as aesthetically pleasing as it is category-defining. But the designers at Apple were not concerned only with this aspect of the device’s design. If they were, they’d be called art directors. The suit goes on to talk about specific interface behaviors and interactions that Apple invented through design and subsequently patented.

And to say that if Apple was really in the design business they would be flattered by infringement truly exposes society’s lack of appreciation of Design; this statement implies that the Design business is tantamount to a charity, working to create some kind of betterment in the aesthetic life of all humans that anyone should be able to draw upon, but that doesn’t require remuneration. Well, Apple is not a charity. Neither is my company or any other company that sells Design as a product.

In fact, Apple has proven the opposite: people will pay a premium for great design.

Again, I know only what the public knows about this case, but my hunch is that Apple’s legal team went after rounded corners and the color black as poster-boys for infringement not because they were the paramount innovations in their device, but because they were the design elements that the jury – people most-likely unaware of the true nature and value of Design – could grasp easily. It was a quick get, while in reality there were much bigger principles at stake.

Put briefly, to say that copying someone else’s product’s rounded corners does not deserve a $1.05 billon penalty, as Forbes does, may or may not be an accurate statement. But that statement misses the point completely. Design isn’t free, and it isn’t up for grabs.