The Purpose of Design Patents

by Ben Bajarin   |   September 10th, 2012

Much of the initial reaction to the Apple v. Samsung trial was based more on emotion than critical thought in my opinion. The discussion over whether it is good or bad for consumers was interesting but again I felt mostly emotional. In all reality how is a challenge to uniquely innovate bad for anyone? As interesting as that element of the discussion was I thought the debate around design patents was a bit more interesting.

As a part of our market analysis I keep a keen eye on what specific companies do to differentiate themselves in what I like to call the sea of sameness. To get a more holistic understanding on how differentiation may happen in the sea of sameness, I like to study how its done in other industries. Particularly ones that have been around for longer than the computer industry and also ones that are highly saturated and mature. We can make some interesting observation from industries like automotive and consumer packaged goods. It is observations from those industries that help us understand the importance of design patents and more importantly design consistency.

You Can’t Patent Rounded Corners

One of the least thought through elements of the whole trial was the part about rounded corners on specific products. In a post trial statement representatives from Samsung stated:

“It is unfortunate that patent law can be manipulated to give one company a monopoly over rectangles with rounded corners,”

It seems as though there is a fundamental lack of understanding of the purpose of design patents. To explore this thought I think it would be helpful to look at a company with an interesting iconic design in Coca-Cola.

It is not just Coke’s logo which stands out but also the design of both their glass and plastic bottles. Coke owned a patent on the design of their glass bottle design in 1915 and the designs of their bottles have evolved but remained consistent in overall look and feel. It is this specific and unique design of the Coca-Cola bottle that helps it stand out in the sea of sameness.

If you went into a grocery store and looked at a wall of beverage containers, all without the labels, you can easily pick out the one which is a Coke bottle and that is the point. It is iconic, consistent, and easily identifiable.

Round Corners As a Design Philosophy

Now perhaps those engaging in the you can’t patent round corners debate have either no appreciation for consistent design philosophy or never taken a step back and looked at all of Apple’s products. Because when one does take a look at all of Apple’s products you will see that every piece of hardware follows the four perfectly asymmetrical rounded corners design.

This design philosophy has been in place for quite some time. One could argue that the rounded corners on a screen started with the first colored iMac’s. From that point on the four asymmetrical rounded corners began to become a consistent theme of all Apple hardware.

Image Credit TechChunks

The goal again of these “rounded corners” is to maintain a unique, consistent, iconic, and easily identifiable Apple product. To carry on my point about the Coke Bottle, if you were to look at a table full of notebooks, all without logos, Picking out the one that is Apple’s would be easy. This is not something I can confidently say with regards to any other PC OEM with the exception of Lenovo.

Most other vendors who make hardware change their design theme from year to year based on what the trends are. Because of that often they change so drastically from year to year that is it clear no overall design theme is being employed. In fact I would contend that for the average consumer no designed personal computer hardware is more easily identified than Apple’s.

This is true in the smart phone and tablet space as well. That I feel is what Apple was trying to protect with their claims that Samsung’s 10.1 tablet had corners that were rounded identically to the corners on all other Apple products. Apple is deploying a design philosophy that is consistent and intentional. Samsung, with regards to tablets, is not, and that was the point.

Understanding the design philosophy from Apple becomes interesting as we think about future products. The only reason you would defend a design philosophy or design patent for that matter, is if you intend to stick to it for the foreseeable future.

This is clearly one way Apple intends to help its products stand out in the sea of sameness–at least from a design perspective. Sticking to this design philosophy and maintaining the consistency of size, shape, and colors, will continue to make Apple’s products not only be objects of desire but also easily recognized year after year by consumers. Which is all part of the strategy.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Full Bio
  • Phil

    A perfect summation of Apple’s design ethos. Samsung are being disingenuous by quoting “rounded corners” out of context. The iPhone design patent covers many more aspects of the look and feel of both hardware and software than that.

  • jfutral

    The rounded corners theme goes back even further in the UI to the button that appears on the screen, such as when asked to save or open a document, (never mind the early Apple mouse and Mac Plus case corners as you look at it from the front). Apple (specifically Jobs since he was the one “credited” with this choice) used to get UI design grief for choosing and insisting on rounded corner buttons, especially back in the B&W monitor days. Windows went the way of squared corner buttons.

    The only “natural evolution” that can really be claimed from these design choices is how each is part of their respective company’s over all design theme or philosophy, and the effect that has on them today.

    Joe

    • benbajarin

      I agree, I think you can make the claim back to the first Macintosh when looking at the screen dead on, but its the most clear as a driving design from hardware after his return to Apple. Notice on that chart though how they left for a little while during the Sculley era.

      • jfutral

        Looking at those old Mac and Mac Plus pics reminded me that even the image had rounded corners in the upper left and right at the menu bar. Not sure when that stopped as I think about it.

        Joe

  • Greg Lomow

    It is a shame that the article doesn’t address the purpose of design patents as the title suggests, particularly when readers are trying to distinguish design patents, utility patents and trade dress.

    • benbajarin

      My point was more directed at how design patents lead to design philosophy which is to create iconic, and easily identifiable products around a brand.

      Some get it, and some do not.

  • Ron

    Obviously you think Apple invented design. Sorry to burst your Apple bubble but there is nothing novel or distinct about rounded corners. If you want a recent example then you need look no further than the 1960′s to find examples of the motif. Additionally I have a clip art book of icons from the same period that show the same phone icon that Apple ‘invented’ used in railway stations, airports and the various Olympics. Everything in design is a regurgitation of previous designs. Some just do it better than others. No creditable designer will say otherwise.

    • benbajarin

      Obviously this is the first column you have read of mine.

      Every smart company has a design philosophy. Of course Apple didn’t invent. Hence the reason I pointed out why I study parallel industries.

      I think you entirely missed the point of my column, which is unfortunate.

      • jfutral

        To extend the Coca-Cola comparison (as someone who lives in Coca-Cola’s home city) MANY companies tried to siphon off the iconic bottle’s design and I am sure if someone were to investigate the resulting pr and court proceedings, they would probably find a lot of the same arguments being espoused by Apple’s competition (and Apple hate…, uh, cynics).

        We see how far that got them, too.

        Joe

      • mhikl

        It is impossible for some to grasp any understanding of design.
        Some read carefully to further clarity, others skip meaning and argue dogma. The topic of rounded corners is understandable to those who can think honestly but this topic will never interest the convinced.
        For Ron and his stamp, nuance and most important skills, if not learned early are never mastered. Polemics seems to rule discussion today.

      • rpj22

        I still don’t get it. I have no opinion on something like rounded corners on a graphic icon, since that is purely visual and non-functional, but for the physical device itself handheld consumer devices have mostly always had rounded corners. Cameras, calculators, TV remotes. The one exception I can think of is portable radios, which have always seemed to have fairly squared corners. So what exactly is Apple able to claim exclusivity on? A particular curve radius? A particular curve radius when used on a phone? The ratio of the curve radius to the sides? If I design a phone with the identical shape of some calculator from the 1970s am I guaranteed safe, or do I have to check and make sure that it isn’t too close to some shape that Apple later claimed for phones? These things just don’t seem to me to have the uniqueness, originality, or functionality of the Coke bottle shape.

        • benbajarin

          That is true many things do, but if you carefully look at all of Apple’s hardware the rounded corners are exactly the same. It is a design identity. So even though many of the examples you state are true, they are not true of computers or other personal electronics where brands do not employ a design identity.

          Rounded corners are unique as a consistent design in the products where Apple competes. And their competitors are all over the place with design and this is the point of the rounded corners for Apple as a design philosophy.

    • jfutral

      “Everything in design is a regurgitation of previous designs. Some just do it better than others. No creditable designer will say otherwise.”

      There is a huge difference in a “thing’s” design and a design philosophy, approach, and aesthetic. No credible designer would say otherwise.

      And I would challenge you to find a credible designer that seriously thinks his designs are “regurgitations”. Influence and homage is not “regurgitation”.

      Joe

    • Phil

      “there is nothing novel or distinct about rounded corners”

      I get tired reading posts like this. You missed the point of the article, probably on purpose. A classic “Straw Man” tactic is to misrepresent someone’s argument in order to discredit it.

      “I have a clip art book of icons…”

      Do you work for Samsung’s Design department?

    • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/his-divine-shadow His Shadow

      Is it hard to be this utterly impervious to the point of an article? You make it look so easy…

  • Brian Powers

    How could you tell someone that they can’t simply round the corners of their phone because someone patented it? Design patents in general are terrible and keep competition from creating better products.