August 22, 2016 - No Comments!

The Intersection of Product Design and Business

Prepared by product design greats for the Supreme Court, this is the definitive guide to using product design to build a brand, market, and sell great products, backed up with design history and cognitive science.

We’re about to get schooled by the product design greats.

Here’s the quick backstory, with all the curious information you might need to know. IDSA — the Industrial Designers Society of America — submitted an amicus curiae — an unsolicited brief submitted to a court by an uninvolved third-party to assist with a case — to the United States Supreme Court for the ongoing legal battle between Apple and Samsung.

It was signed by 113 design greats including the infamous Dieter Rams, and the heads of design at Microsoft, Bentley, Nissan, Lego, Louis Vuitton, Motorola, Calvin Klein, Herman Miller, and professors of design at Savannah College of Art and Design, and Harvard, among others (as a Hokie, I’m also proud that two Virginia Tech professors are among the 113 signatories).

This crash course in design theory for the justices distilled from modern product design a few fundamental rules, drawing on cognitive science, design history, marketing theory, and consumer technology.

Can it get cooler than this?

Here’s the cliffnotes on what was submitted:

1. Design drives sales of products

In the early days of American invention, we manufactured products strictly out of functional necessity, as we tamed the American wilderness.

By the early 1900s, the United States became the top country for sales of manufactured goods, but “an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and even embarrassment was emerging about the lack of genuine aesthetic quality in American manufactures.” As mass-produced print advertising was becoming popular, people started to realize that products needed to look good too.

Products in these early days started to see designs that helped them sell.

For an example, look no further than the auto industry: initial American cars looked like carriages missing their horses. Ford’s black Model T, though successful, was stark and mechanic, lacking design. General Motors put together an Art & Colours department to “study the question of art and color combinations” in their vehicles. It led GM to surpass Ford in annual sales. Ford has never caught up since.

1*yqqzFLMPOR2THpIMAtic4A

Left: Ford’s Model T. Right: The first vehicle to be designed by GM’s Art & Colours Department, the 1926 Chevrolet.

Without changing the underlying technology, engineering or functionality, car manufacturers discovered that they could create many different makes and models simply by changing the automobile’s shape, style and appearance.

Dozens of different GM models were built on the same three body shells. Yet each model looked unique due to the addition of aesthetic features like fenders, headlights, taillights, and trim.

This led GM to come up with the yearly redesigns on car models that we are now familiar with. By changing the design of the vehicles, car manufacturers saw sales soar. Industrial design in the U.S. auto industry led to huge economic growth.

2. A product’s design is the product itself

Put most simply:

“It is the design of a successful product that embodies the consumer’s understanding of and desire to own and interact with it.”

Think about a Coke. Really envision it in your mind’s eye.

What did you just picture? If you’re like most Americans, you probably just pictured a countour-shaped bottle with Coke in it. But think about it — the bottle is not the product, the drink inside is. Yet the bottle itself is what we envision as the product.

Coca-cola was first only available in fountains, but two Chattanooga lawyers bought the license to bottle the popular drink. Sales soared, as did imitators. The bottle design was simple, so imitation was easy. (As a soon-to-be Chattanoogan, I’m proud that Chattanooga gets the claim to fame for being the first place a Coca-cola was bottled).

They held a design contest for a new bottle to make Coca-cola bottles uniquely distinguished, even if only felt in the dark, or seen after being broken. The winning designers used the shape of a cocoa pod as inspiration for the contoured, symbolic bottle. The design killed off imitators and was “the catalyst that [helped] Coca-Cola become the most widely distributed product on earth.”

1*4PKEBwybJ1rK5m0g6RFPVw

Left: The original Coke bottle. Middle: The contest-winning design based on the cocoa pod. Right: the design of the bottle was so iconic it was printed on cans of coke.

“In 1949, a study showed that more than 99% of Americans could identify a bottle of Coke by shape alone.”

“The impact of the contour bottle’s design on the company’s profits — and American culture — is difficult to overstate.”

But the contour bottle represents more than just marketing for the brand — it has become synonymous with the beverage itself. Customers routinely report that Coca-Cola tastes better when consumed from the contour bottle, though there is no difference in the formula.

Just like the car, where people were interested in buying new designs regardless of what was under the hood, the Coca-cola bottle design proved that a product’s design is the product itself in the eyes and minds of the consumer.

3. Design is a successful tech companies’ differentiator

Design delivers tangible business results. This explains the rise of the Chief Design Officer, and the fundamental three positions found in many of today’s startups: the business person, the engineer, and the designer.

America’s top fifteen “design conscious companies” outperform their peer group by 228% on a market asset value basis

4. Design is the bridge between complex technology and the consumer

Put most simply:

“Cognitive science explains why visual design is so important to complex technology.”

Sounds simple, but there’s a lot to it. This is the longest point made in the amicus curiae. Let’s dive in:

Design is particularly important for consumer products with complex technology. Cognitive science proves that a product’s visual design has powerful effects on the human mind and decision making processes, and eventually comes to signify to the consumer the underlying function, origin, and overall user experience of that product.

Sight is our strongest sense, making up 90% of information transmitted to the brain. This has fascinating consequences, which I broke down into 10 points:

1. First, we process visuals more quickly than words. It’s intuitive enough: text describing a product’s functionality “must be processed sequentially” while “cognitive processing of visual design occurs all at once.” It “can be so quick that we may not be aware of its effects.”

2. Second, since visuals designs are processed more quickly, “the connection between an image and its meaning is more direct than the connection between a word and its meaning.”

3. Third, the brain even retains memories attached to images — pictures, shapes, colors, products — for far longer than those attached to text.

This is the reason we can identify a product we have used before based on its visual appearance alone, but may not remember information we read about the product (such as technical specifications or instructions about product use). The powerful effect of visual design, which has been attributed to the mind’s “higher degree of discrimination of pictures compared with words,” is simply stronger and longer lasting than information gleaned from text.

Immediately upon seeing a product, the mind forms “beliefs about product attributes and performance.”

4. Fourth, research shows that “attractive products are perceived to be of higher quality and easier to use” and that “attractive things make people feel good.

In scientific terms, cognitive processing of images has “been found to be associated with increased affect,” as “high aesthetics activates the reward center of the brain.”

5. “Customers experiencing positive emotions may feel more predisposed to try new things and may perceive them as having higher value.”

6. Most interestingly, since more attractive products lead to higher emotion, this means that repeat business is heavily driven by design:

Thus, emotional responses and connections to products and brands are “among the biggest drivers of repeat business.”

7. Good design can even overcome other negatives about a product, and induces the consumer to make positive assumptions about what they don’t know about the product:

Consumer psychology has shown that, “a beautiful product can completely overpower negative functionality information.” Thus, when researchers presented subjects with reviews depicting a computer as poor in functionality, but then later showed an image of a very attractive computer, the subjects’ evaluations of the computer were just as favorable as those of subjects who had been shown favorable functionality reviews. Visual attractiveness can even exceed what is known about the product, “generating particularly rich and favorable inferences about missing product attributes.”

8. Because our brains to do not separate the physical appearance of a product from its functions, when we see, interact with, or even think about a product again, that experience is “cognitively mapped onto the product’s visual design such that the look of the product comes to represent the features, functions, and total user experience of the product itself.”

Thus, when a consumer encounters a known product (or an infringing copy), the consumer identifies the look of the product with the underlying functional features. Design “subsumes all the other factors.

“Judgments are often made on the elegance, functionality and social significance of products based largely on visual information.”

9. Today when we see products we might buy — in print, TV, social media, websites — it’s the visual design (not text) that dominates the ad. When we see someone else using the product — “a powerful factor in purchase decisions” — it’s only the visual design we have to go off of.

Thus, when a consumer encounters a product, the consumer identifies the look of the product with the underlying functional features and the visual design comes to represent the features, functions, and total user experience of the product. In this way, “[c]onsumer preferences and motivation are far less influenced by the functional attributes of products and services than the subconscious sensory and emotional elements” that are encompassed by the design and “derived by the total experience.”

“The symbolic meaning associated with products often has the potential to dominate the aesthetic and semantic aspects of cognitive response.”

Consider how well-regarded Beats headphones are socially held, when audiophiles have publicly lamented the poor audio quality of the product.

10. What’s most interesting is how important this is for complex technological products:

As products have become vastly more complex, consumers have limited under- standing of every underlying function and feature. Instead, they rely on the visual design of the product to define its category membership and underlying functionality. Thus, counterintuitively, when a single product performs many complex functions, and when functionality is generally equivalent across manufacturers, design becomes more important, not less.

As the home computer became more technologically complex, and as makers were putting out functionally similar options, it was the iMac G3 that propelled Apple into its current era of prosperity:

1*nJGDWyl23flX_Y74iRWYfw

It was all in the design for the iMac G3

Cognitive scientists have established that “as product quality parity has become the norm,” design is a key method for manufacturers to “differentiate their goods.” In other words, when consumers are cognitively overloaded with multiple functions and choices, and particularly where those functions are perceived as undifferentiated across products, “aesthetics is weighted more heavily in the choice decision,” and consumers are “more likely to select the better looking option, even when there is a price premium.”

Again, I’ll point to Beats: premium price, all for the design.

Finally, the amicus curiae leads into its final argument against the copying of seemingly “obiovus” designs by identifying the severity of the issue (emphasis mine):

By stealing designs, therefore, manufacturers steal not only the visual design of the product, but also the underlying attributes attached to the design of the product and embodied in the mind of the consumer by the product’s visual appearance. When a manufacturer copies the design of a successful product, it captures the consumer’s understanding of what the product does and what the product means.

Moreover, copying of a design also allows the copier to enter the marketplace on the back of the brand attributes built by the patent holder — who has expended vast sums and effort in design, development, quality standards, marketing, sales and product promotion. Immensely successful companies use visual design to build their brands, expending time and resources to implement “systematic planning of a consistent aesthetic style that is carried through in everything the company does.” Strong design can “enhance emotional contact with customers” and “create positive overall customer impressions that depict the multifaceted personality of the company or brand.” Consumers come to associate particular designs with specific attributes of companies and products. Design patent infringement therefore steals much more than the design itself — it robs innovative companies of the entire positive mental model that consumers have created for their brand.


The entire letter is a fascinating read from the minds of product design’s greats. It gives us a good insight into the intersection between product design and business; explaining the importance of product design for competing and selling in the competitive marketplace.

Summed up nicely:

Whether the relevant article of manufacture is an iconic soda bottle or an automobile, history teaches that visual design is the way to package, market and sell technological innovation, manufacturing knowhow, product reliability and performance expectations. Appearance becomes identified with the un- derlying functional features and with a particular level of product quality and safety.


Learn to make world-class products that sell themselves.

Get actionable insights on product design and product ideation each Thursday morning, so you can become a pro at creating products people will love.

Powered by ConvertKit

Get new articles before they're published.

Get actionable insights on product design and product ideation each Thursday morning, so you can become a pro at creating products people will love.

Powered by ConvertKit

Published by: Alex Obenauer in Product Design

Leave a Reply