iCopycats: Apple Does Not Equal Good Design

Now that I have your attention with that bit of blasphemy in the title, let me explain.

First of all, I love Apple. I am one of their loyal followers who buys way too much of their product regardless of the price or if I actually need it. I am the perfect customer. Obviously, Apple consistently turns out wonderful products of incredible caliber. The company uses design to its fullest potential and has in many ways become the benchmark. In fact, I was slammed for using them too many times in my book as a positive example.

But this post is not actually about Apple. It is about everybody else.

Telsta Columbo DECT phone
Not Apple enough? Telsta Columbo DECT phone

Here's the gist: Apple has been so successful in design, that to many people if something does not resemble an iPhone, iPod, MacBook, etc., it is not "good design." If it is not an uber-simple, highly-rationalized, single-buttoned, machined-from-a-solid-block-of aluminum thing, it can't be good, right? It's become a pretty common undertone in articles, reviews, blogs, and user commentary. Sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. But the overall message is there: If you don't do it like Apple, you are not practicing "good design."

This is, of course, understandable. The company is followed closely with fervor and their products are in fact, great. It's a high bar to be judged by. And this is a good thing. Aspiring to heights helps raise the level for everyone. But I think the definition of "good design" has become too narrow and defined mostly by the great work of one company.

MobiBLU Nanum
MobiBLU Nanum Cube to Cross MP3 player

I've observed two effects of this phenomenon. First, good work outside the Apple vernacular is routinely panned or criticized, especially if they are pushing the envelope and challenge. This creates a strange sort of conservatism. Companies are afraid to move too far beyond the ideal for fear of being trashed or not being accepted.

Second, people are trying to be Apple when they are not. It takes a special culture and commitment to pull that off. Not everyone can do it, nor should they do it. I like to tell people to "be yourself--"just be a good one." Don't try to be someone you're not. I see too many things out there that are trying too hard to be something that they are not. You can smell it a mile away.

Samsung-theater
Samsung HT-X710 Home Theater

What to do here? I'm not sure, but it's worth thinking about. Things are starting to feel monochromatic and narrow. Is there only room in the world for minimalist rectangles?

What are the best examples of non-Apple-inspired design and who are the worst offenders?

Read more of Robert Brunner's Design Matters blog

After graduating in industrial design from San Jose State University in 1981, Robert co-founded the design consultancy Lunar. Subsequently, he was hired as Director of Industrial Design for Apple Computer where he served for seven years. In 1996, he was appointed partner in the international firm Pentagram, helping lead the San Francisco office. In 2006, Brunner and entrepreneur Alex Siow launched the start-up Fuego, a new concept in outdoor grilling. In 2007, Robert founded Ammunition, focusing on the overlap between product design, brand and experience. He continues to lead Ammunition and Fuego concurrently.

In 2008, Robert co-authored the book Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company with Success Built to Last author Stewart Emery. He also teaches advanced product design at Stanford University.

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15 Comments

  • EDUARDO BUDAN

    Really I can´t understand why so many people praises so much Apple design.

    Let me be clear I am not neithe a "fanboy" nor a "hater" ...

    I own various Apple products. (a PowerBook G4 17 a MacBook Pro 17 both of the "pre unibody" era, and both are a work of art: thin bezels, sleek matte displays, soft corners,

    I also own an IPod Touch and a Mac Mini both great, minimalist examples.

    But Johnattan Ive current trend ruined ALL product lines...because this ugly "sales sucess = what people wants" logic means now EVERYTHING must look like an IPhone !!!!!!!! (WTF !!!!)

    All Apple new stuff has excessive rounded corners, all displays are now cover with a sheet of glass (my God !!!), ugly black "chiclet" keyboards that no blend with the cases, .... someone explain me why current designs are an "evolution" ???

    I also own several well designed DELL (yes DELL) products, the exquisite brushed aluminium monitor 3008WFP for example is FAR better that old and new Apple designs.

    Take a look at the XPS 730 , or the newest Latitude Z660, they are fantastic from design point of view. Tale also a look at the Sony Bravia ZX1 TV or the new Series "9" Samsung LED TV´s....sharp lines can also be pure beauty IF correctly executed !!!

    Beside that new Apple products are SO predictable, SO boring, for example the new announced ACD 27" is a copy of the ACD 24" only bigger its seems now SO easy to predict Ive steps....

    We need someone with FRESH ideas that really shakes current electronics design status quo !!!!

  • David Brett


    Apple phones are smart phones of the world which everyone would love to have. Phone display appears with 3.5 inches large size and with the resolution of 640 X 960 pixels. It works on existing 2G and 3G networks as well and also the 4G network which is yet to be put in use by any handset yet in the market. It has a TFT capcitative screen and comes with 16 million colors. The Apple phone has other functions as well such as the Active noise cancellation with dedicated microphone, digital compass, Google Maps, audio/video player, voice command/dial and TV-out as well which makes this particular handset a must buy.The Apple iPhone which was a very revolutionary new entry into the mobile market and more over the smart phone market has brought changes into the market which can never be changed back in what a customer wants and needs from their cell phones. envirofone

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Robert for bringing up examples like Colombo phone from Chauhan Studio. Their soft, approachable, clean forms are mesmorizing, especially Lili phone on their website.

  • couples couples

    whatever the market segment the products are in. It is a challenging task but I know quite few good designers are already started to do just that. May be this is the only solution left to rescue the current economical hard ship Couples Halloween Costumes

  • Kazamaki Yutaka

    This is very convincing argument Bob, especially when it comes from the creator of Apple Design. I have many clients want to make their products look like iPhone. And they are medical equipment manufacturers... Apple Design is very powerful and everybody wants that level of design on their products. Or they want to be seen like Apple of whatever the industry they are in. I think this is like the phase one, the reaction phase, of a true design movement. People were shocked first by what good design can do and they wanted to be like Apple, successful and admired by millions. The next phase, the second phase, will be, everybody have to seriously understand what is the real Industrial Design all about or why Apple Design is so successful. And actually produce some products that truly communicate the corporate philosophy through design.

    I think people need to see the good examples of "other design language can be successful." This is a very critical time for all the Industrial Designers and marketing people at the corporations to realize this and produce outstanding successful designs in whatever the market segment the products are in. It is a challenging task but I know quite few good designers are already started to do just that. May be this is the only solution left to rescue the current economical hard ship....

  • ALX C

    EVERYTHING STARTED WITH A SINGLE SKETCH / THE CREATOR MAKE THE SKETCH / THEN THE ENGINEERS DEVELOP THE IDEAS INTO REALITY

  • Eduardo Salazar

    Obviously Apple's design is based on a set of clearly defined values, (Don't ask me to cite them) but they are specific values that don't necessarily reflect my own (and lots of other folk's) personal design values. the growth of the popularity of the brand brings other previously design-oblivious folks to the "trend" as well. Eventually, everyone thinks it's the best. Designers appreciate Apple for their discipline, focus, elegance, and other qualities. There's not a lot to argue with, other than that there are other perspectives of good design. i think there's an important element of "aspiration" in the public's appreciation of Apple's aesthetic. If you take a MacBook Pro to a jungle, or desert island, does it still present itself as such great design? if we find out that Aluminum really does cause Alzheimer's disease, will it still be so great? Of course, its the shape and appearance more than the actual composition of the material. Fashion changes, and it will be interesting to see where it goes from here. it's hard to imagine a style zeitgeist to replace this current Apple aesthetic, but i guess it is inevitable. will it be a "barbaric" reaction to the new stable, intelligent, social and political order that hopefully is arriving? i bet it will.

  • Steve Portigal

    Related to this is the trend for business folks who don't have an industrial design vocabulary but set a business goal to make their product cool and becoming the "iPod of..." [binder clips, virtualization software, water bottles, insurance programs, etc.] Where emulating a business success is considered very very literally.

  • Thomas Nolfa

    The parameters for 'good design' are not cast in stone. The cultural conditions that exist today seem to be driving minimalism as the new standard, remember the Baroque period was in style. I remember in the early 1980's when Braun was on top of the consumer products in 'good design'. You couldn't find an 'on' or 'off' switch, it became a cicle or a dash. Design evolves and leads societies, it is a critical aspect of the sublime, it inspires and comforts and more importantly affects each of us differently

  • Kit Eaton

    Have to agree with the choice of a Samsung HT system in this design piece: I have a very similar one, and it looks fabulous in the lounge, and works fabulously too. Samsung's design team have really shifted up a gear over the last several years.

  • Jeremy Martin

    I think part of the problem in answering the final question (What are the best examples of non-Apple-inspired design and who are the worst offenders?) depends on how we want to look at this. Design wise, the Dell Hybrid PC looked pretty cool. . . but as someone already pointed out they have a problem committing to the product (of course, when the product you build looks cool but has underwhelming performance who can blame them...)

    The only product that comes to mind is the palm pilot (in all of the incarnations that exist)...In it's day it was THE PDA. Of course now PDA's are intertwined with Cell phones so that these things became obsolete. This is probably a great example of the opposite of what was said about not committing. Palm committed too long to the product, to the point that they eventually were behind the eight-ball. Maybe the PRE will be it's resurrection moment...

  • Nathaniel Salzman

    Not sure why Mr. Cotterman is credited for the comment I just left, but there he is. Perhaps you folks need to further investigate your Facebook integration.