Why Do So Many Designs or Products Look The Same?

Ever wonder why so many products look the same? On the surface, it may appear designers have found the ideal form factor so there’s no need to change anything, but there’s more than meets the eye. The reasons are deeply rooted and the key to breaking the mold is to first understand why. Hit the jump!

Contributing Editor: Brian Ling

I’m surprised to see two similar designs have won the 2010 iF Concept Award. The Easy Needle (left) and the Ppin Needle (right) were both created by students from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China.

Here are another pair of ideas, the e-Cart on the left and the Saving Cart (which won an iF Award as well) on the right. Both concepts seem to revolve around the idea of converting kinetic energy into stored latent energy as the trolley gets pushed around by a shopper.

Time and time again we see it, and we often wonder why designers (assuming they work independently) seem to come up with similar design solutions? I thought it would be a good exercise for us to understand and be aware of the conditions that could lead to similar design solutions.

Working with Similar Design Briefs, or Briefs that Want the Same Thing.

One of the biggest reasons why we have similar products is that these designs come similar briefs. There is a good chance that the designs for the needles came from a studio project when the lecturer asked the students to design products along a similar theme. I noticed the students came from the same university.

Along these same cognitive lines, designers could be faced with briefs requesting an Mp3 player that is just another “iPod, but better”. Though such briefs are not as common as they were five years ago, designers need to ensure they create a better design brief by challenging assumptions and focus on identifying objectives or problems.

Overly Limiting Design Briefs

While I believe in the freedom of a tight brief, a limiting design brief is another condition to be watchful of. A good example is when you are developing tried and proven products and the client asks you to just “design something nice on the outside”. Sometimes it may be no fault of the client, especially when there is a huge mechanical component. They simply just do not understand and it is your job to use design to reconcile it.

Clients requesting or limiting design activity to things such as a design refresh, body or face-lift with little or no architectural change can result in similar looking products. While not something every designer cherishes, this is unfortunately the bulk of most design work in consumer electronics and probably why many products look very similar in that industry.

Often it is about managing expectations. Many clients may not be aware of the outcome, but are only limiting the design activity for purely financial reasons. They may also naively think that a design is about “skin deep” aesthetics and by just changing its look, will give them a new product.

Working with Similar Processes

Broadly put, working rigidly by using a similar design process or methodology could result in similar looking designs. A good example is in university design courses that have a more technical or mechanical approach to design refinement. Though not necessarily a bad thing, their graduates often run very similar looking portfolios with technical resolved solutions.

Another angle we can look at is in a studio environment lead by a strong individual that has a distinct way of working or visual style. Luminaries such as Karim Rashid, Marc Newson or Philip Starck have distinct visual styles you can spot instantly. This can also happen in smaller more traditional design consultancies that are lead by a strong creative director who encourages the team to approach problems in a certain way.

That is why it is always important to challenge, vary or tailor our design processes to fit a particular design problem.

Designing Lower Complexity Products

Lower complexity products, which some designers also call low or no tech products, may lead to design solutions that are quite simlar. The reality is that many of these products were invented years ago, and the functionality of such products are tied to its construction. Things like the needles (above), cutlery, plates, furniture, lamps toothbrushes are so straightforward and simple to make that it is challenging to do something different. I am constantly amazed by designers that can continue to create fresh designs from such simple products.

Sometimes the simpler a product, the more difficult is becomes to design. A small mistake can be amplified many more times than it normally would.

Working with Similar Visual Stimuli, or a Popular Visual Style

It is a dangerous mistake for new designers to look for inspiration like magazines. Looking at other products for a market competitive study is fine, but when it comes to inspiration, you will very likely reproduce designs that are similar.

I remember when Apple introduced the first iMac with their range of transparent bubble gum colors. Suddenly every product in the market was transparent bright blue or orange. Designers were just sick.

But designers were not cured. The same story followed with glossy white or black materials, and more recent geometric designs with the promise of simplicity stamped right on its metal body.

I’m glad to see that things are starting to change, however I still get nervous when I hear clients wanting to be the Apple of the “X” industry. More specifically, they want their products to reflect the same Apple look and feel rather than adopting the visionary and risk management style of the company.

—–

So there you go, four possible conditions that could lead to similar looking products or designs. Do you have any more to share? Have your say in the comments below. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I have writing it, and I’m looking forward to reading your comments.

Brian is a multidisciplinary industrial design leader that goes under the pseudonym of “The Design Translator”. Formally a Senior Design Manager at Philips Design, he currently runs a Strategic Design Consultancy and muses about the strategies for good (industrial) design over at Design Sojourn. He often laments the lack of good soy mochas and Italian pizzas (with Rocket and shredded Parma ham) in Asia.

26 Comments

  • niko says:

    Im Niko, Germany-based design student. I did a quick read on your article.
    i guess theres a lot of designer types out there, and i wouldnt take big names such kar…. rash… or mar.. new… as reference..as they are just a "popstar" type of designer. they need to make things look designed. they need attention. =)

    theres a personality and long history behind every object or idea.
    its not where or how they inspire themself or what kind of process they ve gone through. but their experience the intense conflict happened in their mind. and its all happen cos they were in the right environment to grow. environment with values which reflects on their works.

    to be honest i think its really useless to write list of advice or suggestion why people or in this case young designer tend to do same design.. i would instead recommend young fellow designer to put heart on everything they are doing. and see it as a journey.. dun kill mistake or kill idea too early.. and be yourself!

  • niko says:

    Im Niko, Germany-based design student. I did a quick read on your article.
    i guess theres a lot of designer types out there, and i wouldnt take big names such kar…. rash… or mar.. new… as reference..as they are just a “popstar” type of designer. they need to make things look designed. they need attention. =)

    theres a personality and long history behind every object or idea.
    its not where or how they inspire themself or what kind of process they ve gone through. but their experience the intense conflict happened in their mind. and its all happen cos they were in the right environment to grow. environment with values which reflects on their works.

    to be honest i think its really useless to write list of advice or suggestion why people or in this case young designer tend to do same design.. i would instead recommend young fellow designer to put heart on everything they are doing. and see it as a journey.. dun kill mistake or kill idea too early.. and be yourself!

  • Once again DT your experience is telling. Once the ideology of a youthful and hopeful student designer has passed through years of working in the design 'business', you become aware of the dangers to your creativity. It can be difficult to stay fresh after ten, twenty or thirty years or more.

    I would make my own addition if I may; success. It can be very tempting to do again that which you know has worked well. Clients often want more of the same. Of course it's true that it's beneficial to have a brand language, and then it's OK to carry over some cues. The difficulty comes when a client likes a product from your portfolio and wants some of the action

  • Once again DT your experience is telling. Once the ideology of a youthful and hopeful student designer has passed through years of working in the design 'business', you become aware of the dangers to your creativity. It can be difficult to stay fresh after ten, twenty or thirty years or more.

    I would make my own addition if I may; success. It can be very tempting to do again that which you know has worked well. Clients often want more of the same. Of course it's true that it's beneficial to have a brand language, and then it's OK to carry over some cues. The difficulty comes when a client likes a product from your portfolio and wants some of the action

  • Hello Brian. I'm not going to comment on the article itself, what is confusing me is the examples from the beginning. What I see in both of them, are completely different solutions for the same problem. What is the point here? Designers shouldn't try to solve the same problem? Should we accept that a design problem must be solved only by the first person that thought of it? What if that person was creative enough to spot the problem, but wasn't to solve it? should we just leave it like that? I don't understand…

  • Hello Brian. I'm not going to comment on the article itself, what is confusing me is the examples from the beginning. What I see in both of them, are completely different solutions for the same problem. What is the point here? Designers shouldn't try to solve the same problem? Should we accept that a design problem must be solved only by the first person that thought of it? What if that person was creative enough to spot the problem, but wasn't to solve it? should we just leave it like that? I don't understand…

  • nico1111 says:

    I am a designer in china. What you comment were very usual in these days. I always think this a lot, but still no conclusion. Maybe the world was pinch, and our idea was pinch, and maybe we were too lazy for good life…

    I don’t want to be like this any more.

  • nico1111 says:

    I am a designer in china. What you comment were very usual in these days. I always think this a lot, but still no conclusion. Maybe the world was pinch, and our idea was pinch, and maybe we were too lazy for good life…
    I don’t want to be like this any more.

  • Brian says:

    @Lloyd: Thanks for your very insightful comments. You are correct, especially when designers are deep in the design grind. Under pressure and time constraints it is very tempting to go with the tried and proven.

    @Diogo: Thanks for your comment. I not sure how you define different and I believe we all define different including the iF judgets. But a notch in an eyelet of a needle in different directions is not different to me. Both are notches. The way the needle works is the same as well, you drag the thread until it hits the notch and gets inserted into the eyelet. My point of this article is not to discourage designers to tackle the same problem. Far from that. This post is only to highlight a list of circumstances to be aware of should you want to avoid designing something different or should you want the outcome to be different.

    @nico1111: Indeed this is a big problem in China, mainly because it is easier as well as financially lower risk especially if it is a market proven design. You can do it, I'm sure you can, good luck!

  • Brian says:

    @Lloyd: Thanks for your very insightful comments. You are correct, especially when designers are deep in the design grind. Under pressure and time constraints it is very tempting to go with the tried and proven.

    @Diogo: Thanks for your comment. I not sure how you define different and I believe we all define different including the iF judgets. But a notch in an eyelet of a needle in different directions is not different to me. Both are notches. The way the needle works is the same as well, you drag the thread until it hits the notch and gets inserted into the eyelet. My point of this article is not to discourage designers to tackle the same problem. Far from that. This post is only to highlight a list of circumstances to be aware of should you want to avoid designing something different or should you want the outcome to be different.

    @nico1111: Indeed this is a big problem in China, mainly because it is easier as well as financially lower risk especially if it is a market proven design. You can do it, I'm sure you can, good luck!

  • Vinu says:

    This topic on similarity, also clearly reflects the increasing lack of creativity in designs.

    Kinetic energy stored as latent energy… the shopping cart is not the only victim. We have seen this idea being blindly copy-pasted into a every product that has any possible physical motion associated to it.

    Of the several appearing on a very regular basis, how many concept braille phones are really different from each other?

    This issue is not about a few similar, but hundreds.

  • Vinu says:

    This topic on similarity, also clearly reflects the increasing lack of creativity in designs.

    Kinetic energy stored as latent energy… the shopping cart is not the only victim. We have seen this idea being blindly copy-pasted into a every product that has any possible physical motion associated to it.

    Of the several appearing on a very regular basis, how many concept braille phones are really different from each other?

    This issue is not about a few similar, but hundreds.

  • dustin says:

    A similar phenomenon occurs in nature (arguably the most powerful design force around) – it's called convergent evolution, and happens because of similar environemental pressures. I guess in this article it would fall under "similar briefs".

    It's not always a bad thing, in some ways it can be a sign that an object is far along on it's path of evolution (like the toothbrushes and cutlery mentioned above). It's not necessary to avoid it at all costs, just maybe appraoch it with a little thought.

    Unless of course the client just asks you to "make it look like an ~insert apple device here~"
    I'm pretty damn sick of hearing that.

  • dustin says:

    A similar phenomenon occurs in nature (arguably the most powerful design force around) – it's called convergent evolution, and happens because of similar environemental pressures. I guess in this article it would fall under “similar briefs”.

    It's not always a bad thing, in some ways it can be a sign that an object is far along on it's path of evolution (like the toothbrushes and cutlery mentioned above). It's not necessary to avoid it at all costs, just maybe appraoch it with a little thought.

    Unless of course the client just asks you to “make it look like an ~insert apple device here~”
    I'm pretty damn sick of hearing that.

  • decaPODA says:

    manufacturing technology,
    affordability,
    managements in rat race,
    afraid to take risk,
    too many reasons my friend, behind of launch of any product / design.

    its never been easy to launch a totally radical design in the market and bet on its success. it takes gut to be APPLE there :)

  • decaPODA says:

    manufacturing technology,
    affordability,
    managements in rat race,
    afraid to take risk,
    too many reasons my friend, behind of launch of any product / design.

    its never been easy to launch a totally radical design in the market and bet on its success. it takes gut to be APPLE there :)

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