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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 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.