Me Too Design

I had the good fortune of visiting Egypt last fall and loved every minute of it. The pyramids, temples, tombs and museums were as breathtaking as advertised, but I was particularly intrigued when I saw on the itinerary that we would be going to the world’s oldest and largest bazaar.

As I first entered the bazaar a chill of excitement shot down my spine. The narrow winding streets, the hustling crowd, the merchants beckoning me into their shops to show me their wares- silk scarves, carved stone relics, inlaid chess boxes; it was just as I envisioned it might have been two hundred years ago.

Walking into the main hall at CES is an oddly similar experience. It’s an enormous maze of every electronic gadget imaginable as far as the eye can see. Complete sensory overload with a dazzling array of blinking lights, bells and whistles, giant flat screen displays, and sharply (often provocatively) dressed booth babes beckoning you onto their swatch of carpet.

It is like Disneyland for an industrial designer. As I wandered between the booths checking out the latest and greatest gadgets I was extremely impressed with the high level of design in these products. And not just Sony and Panasonic; even the lesser know companies and small startups had some beautiful designs. As a designer I was both inspired and a little intimidated by what I was seeing.

Then about halfway through the first hall I began to get that feeling. It was the same sinking feeling I got in the bazaar in Cairo when I realized that all of the shops had the same scarves, the same carvings and the same chess sets, and that they were all probably made by the same factory in China. As I continued through the maze of CES looking at these beautiful objects it struck me that many of them were just… the same.

Industrial designers are taught to stay on top of design trends. When the first charcoal PC came out it didn’t take long for most computer makers to go from beige to black. But the practice of borrowing design cues seems to be increasing to the point where a careful observer could probably tell the year a product was introduced just by its design. This year especially it seems that companies have taken that idea to a whole new level. Not only are companies mimicking design cues, but some are stealing design language and even an entire brand.

Apple has spawned a whole industry of companies biting off their brand (sorry). Although Apple skips CES for their own show there was no shortage of iProducts at CES. I didn’t see iBite but I’m sure they’ll be at the dental convention. One storage device company, who ironically had a lower case “i” in front of their name before the iPod existed, had a drive that was a miniature replica of the G5 tower.

There are some advantages to “me too” design. For one, it’s easier. It’s faster. You know you’ll likely end up with a design that people like and accept. For accessory products it is desirable to mimic the design of the product you’re accessorizing.

The drawbacks of “me too” design for product companies and consulting firms are less obvious but arguably more substantial. One of the key benefits of design is differentiation. It is important for a product to look great, but it should also be unique to the point of establishing your brand. As I walked passed the twentieth booth showcasing the exact same GPS device my eyes glazed over (again). The only GPS companies I could name after the show were the ones that have spent a boatload on advertising. Keep in mind that if your company can copy a design, five OEMs in China probably already have.

Another problem with following the trends is that sometimes they’re just that- trends. With faster product cycles and more players in the market today’s hot new design trend may be outdated by the time you follow or you may just get lost in the crowd. Or worse, the trend may have sucked to begin with.

Perhaps the most insidious effect of “me too” design is that it breeds laziness and kills innovation. The ubiquitous consumption era in America is over. For an electronics company to succeed against growing global competition it must continuously innovate. Does anyone doubt that Apple will survive moving forward? How about each of the twenty companies that borrow their designs?