Why Do So Many Designs or Products Look The Same?

This article was originally published on Yanko Design and is reproduced here for reference as well as for Design Sojourn readers that do not frequent that site.

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 technically 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.
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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.

4 Comments
  • brian t

    December 11, 2010 at 9:24 pm Reply

    I saw those e-cart things on Yanko a while ago: the designer had clearly never spoken to an actual engineer (or student), and seemed to be completely oblivious to the TANSTAAFL principle (there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch). How can you talk about saving energy if you can’t quantify how much energy is involved? If you “harvest” energy from the person pushing the cart, what will the person feel? It would be like pushing the cart up a hill: just how steep it felt would depend on how much energy you “harvest”. What could a little old lady handle?
    Some ballpark figures: say you need to apply 10N force (equiv. to picking up 1kg) to move the cart at a certain speed, and you push it for 100m around a store: assuming perfect efficiency (unlikely!), you harvest 1000 joules of energy. That will power a 100W light bulb for 10 seconds, or a 10W fluorescent for 100 seconds. But that’s nothing compared to the power consumption of the fridges or A/C units in a store. This is a lot of gadgetry and expense for a paltry amount of energy, when there are far greater efficiencies to seek out!

  • Ajay

    December 11, 2010 at 11:29 pm Reply

    While a lot of blame for copying Apple’s themes should go to clients, many designers incapable of original ideas are also at fault

  • Fiona

    December 13, 2010 at 10:25 am Reply

    I believe that no designs in the world are created or original but all are just being transformed. What defines its uniqueness is the new concept that is being input into the design.

  • Eugenia Rodriguez

    December 17, 2010 at 5:32 am Reply

    This remember me some of the rules from Bruce Mau incomplete manifesto.
    Specially, “Make your own tools”
    and in my case “Avoid the software”, once a time that i used to develop and finish the desgin esthetic on 3d software, maybe isn`t so wrong but software allow you kind of surfaces that
    now i see in a lot of products today, and yes they look all very similar.
    Another fact i think its the google era, with just a click, easy and fast you can looking for inspiration in another products, a lot of “designers” i know, when they are gonna develop something, they started looking on google for inspiration, and worst, in products, isn`t so bad but isn`t the powerful way.
    You can`t really feel the essence of the product you wanna do, so you cant be able to communicate too.
    And you have a product similar to another product.

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