by Vincent Teh
“Good design is good business” said Thomas J. Watson, the former CEO of IBM. And he is right. From the time in the Pleistocene when our evolutionary ancestor took a branch and fashioned it into a stick to fish for juicy termites, to the time our ice-age forefather hunted mammoths with his intricately crafted flint-tipped spear; and from the time in 1925 when 10,000 Ford engineered Model Ts rolled off the assembly line every day, to the time when Steve Jobs stood on a stage in his black turtleneck sweater with the world’s first iPhone in hand, design has been good for business.
So why is design good for business? For thousands of years design fulfilled a utilitarian role. Designs were solely dictated by function. The stick has to be straight and thin to reach into the termite hills, the spear has to be sharpened and aerodynamic to increase its velocity, accuracy and penetration when it hits the target. For centuries, this was enough for us. We chose our tools based mainly on how functional they were and not how good they looked. In 1909, Henry Ford told his management team that “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black”. So between 1914 and 1926 all Ford T models were painted black due to the cheap cost and durability of black paint. And yet, in 1918 half of the cars in the US were Model Ts.
However, advancements in the manufacturing process and its proliferation throughout the centuries, coupled with the advent of the global market means that a lot of people are making a lot of things that are relatively similar in function. Now, it is unthinkable for a car manufacturer to only produce cars in black. This rings true especially in consumer goods. Consumers are now spoilt for choice. Manufacturers and companies have to work harder to whet the appetite of their potential buyers. And so they turn to the other aspect of design, its aesthetic appeal.
We humans are visual animals. In fact, the neurons which are devoted to visual processing take up about 30 percent of our cerebral cortex. We are excited, intrigued, frightened, shocked, impressed and turned-on mostly by what we see. And design largely works on this, the most developed of our senses to influence our thoughts and create an emotional connection. In the 50s and 60s, automobile designers utilized designs to communicate directly to the carnal side of men (as if there is any other side) to get them to buy their cars. They designed their cars to mimic the sensual and voluptuous curves of the ideal female body at that time (if cars were designed to mimic the ideal female form now, we’d all be riding bicycles instead). Car sales skyrocketed and by the end of the 50s one in six working Americans were employed either directly or indirectly in the automotive industry. Design has the ability to make us tick, which in turn, makes us reach for our wallets. And that is good for business.
The sudden rise in the demand for products that look as good as they work means that corporations are constantly involved in design one-upmanship with each other. The problem is, while the big boys are spending huge bucks to churn out ever new designs, the unscrupulous vultures circling overhead could replicate them for a fraction of the price in any Asian sweatshop. A remedy was needed to stem the massive design hemorrhage that the corporations were facing. This is where industrial design comes in.
I would like to explain a bit about what industrial design is before I go on to expound its virtues. Industrial design (ID) is an intellectual property right designed to protect designs (if you pardon the lame pun). As a champion of design rights, ID does not concern itself with the functional aspect of products. Consequently, a design that is solely dictated by its functions cannot be protected by ID. A design must also prove itself worthy of protection. It must be novel/new, a design that is not known or seen by others. And lastly, because ID is born out of the need of industries to protect themselves, a design can only be protected if it is capable of being mass produced in an industrial process.
Putting it all together, take the design of a straight cylindrical drinking straw for instance. The design cannot be protected because its design is purely dictated by its function. The straw in its most simple form would have to be a cylindrical tube for it to work. The design is also not new, the oldest being found in a Sumerian tomb carbon-dated to 3,000 B.C.E. However, if the straw is made with a heart shaped cross section or if it is bent into the shape of a star, and assuming that no one has ever made them in this way before, then the design can be protected.
Now that we know what ID is, we will want to know what protection it provides. Very briefly, ID registration gives you 15 to 25 years (depending on the country) of monopoly on your design. It means that another party may not make, produce, sell, import and/or export products that have the same or substantially similar design, regardless of whether the other party makes the product in a different size or with a different material. The protection is not just limited to 3D designs. 2D designs (i.e. patterns, wallpapers, fabrics, etc.) and also virtual designs like GUI (graphical user interface) on phones, tablets and webpages may be protected by ID as well.
A good example of the far reaching consequences of this monopoly can be found in the legal tussle between Apple Inc. and Samsung in the US courts. Apple has been attempting to obtain an injunction from the court to prevent Samsung from selling more than 20 of its product models in the US. Apple’s injunction applications were based on the grounds that Samsung had infringed its utility patents as well as design patents (which are actually industrial designs). If Samsung is indeed found to have infringed Apple’s design patent, the jury may also decide to smack a crippling amount of damages on the Korean tech giant (in 2012 a panel of jury awarded Apple USD1.049 billion in damages, which Samsung is still challenging). This goes to show that with the right registered design, you can potentially shut your competition out of a lucrative market or make it exceedingly difficult for them to gain a foothold.
As any economist worth his salt will tell you, with market dominance comes market control. And as anyone who has paid 6 bucks for a can of Coke on board a non-specific Malaysian budget airline will tell you, when you are the only seller in the market, you can dictate the price of your products to maximize your profit without having to worry about your customers leaving (at least not before you charge them for a life vest). At the end of the day, if you think about it, what’s the use of power when you don’t abuse it? So, while design has the ability to make us reach for our wallets, a registered design can make us reach just a tad deeper. And in that sense, industrial design is very good for business.
Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and need not reflect the views of KASS nor of its clients.