Are Designers "Capturing" more Credit than they Deserve?

It is not uncommon for designers of new products to claim full originality of their work, in particular for the “wow” feature of their design - the one feature that makes us say WOW!. Having both a product-design and patent background, I sometimes search patents to find out if these wow features of newly unveiled products are indeed new. I have several examples that show they are not. I offer two examples here for discussion ( I may offer some other examples later that are directed to the Dyson vacuum and some of the product ideas of MUJI’s three design competitions).

Example One:

The above clock was introduced by a Dutch designer - Sander Mulder back in July 2009 or so (ignore the chair). In blogs and in interviews, he effectively claims to have invented the concept of using the offset hand arrangement to tell time as an always-changing sculpture - clearly this is the main feature of his design and it is what gives the clock its “wow”.

However, the patent (below) shows the same concept to tell time and is dated 20 years earlier (1989). Yet this is not mentioned by the designer nor in any of the reviews of Mr. Mulder’s clock.

This is likely because no one knew of Scott Sullivan’s patent or the clocks of the same design he sold in the early 1990’s.

Example Two:

Here is another example, not to pick on Sander, but since I have his website open…

His other clock idea (shown below) is one that includes a conical housing having an internal clocking mechanism that is attached to a counterweight. As time passes, the internal weight effectively moves and causes the housing and the entire clock to roll along the surface. He also adds a cool way of telling time by providing fun vague wording along the periphery of the housing. In my view, there are two wow features here: 1) Clock rolls along surface to tell time, and 2) fun vague wording replaces numbers.

Unfortunately, as shown in the below patent issued to “Herron”, the concept of using the internal weight and clocking mechanism to roll the housing along a surface to tell time is old. But sadly Mr. Herron’s creative input remains submerged and the reviewers of Mr. Mulder’s clock essentially identified Sander as the “true” inventor of the concept. Even the cone shaped housing (albeit not “cuspy”) used by Mulder is shown in the Herron patent (on another page). The other wow feature of Sander’s clock, the wording used along the edge appears to be original.

“Improvement and Interpretation”: I DO understand that there is always room for improvement of an old idea and also that credit should be given to designers who offer a new interpretation of an otherwise old design or feature-concept, but I’m a bit bothered when the “wow” feature of new product is shown in the prior art and no mention of the earlier work is offered by either the designer or the reviewers of the new design. I’m further bothered when the designer boldly claims full novelty for his or her product and all its features, apparently without being aware of the creative work of the past.

Thoughts for Discussion

Shouldn’t we product designers follow the same path as do authors of books, dividing up credit with references linked to their work (when we know of past work)? Can you imagine what the literary world would do to an author who began his new work with: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”… and then when challenged just claimed that Dickens’ brilliant wording was just an inspiration and that his new work “should be taken as a whole”.

Should designers be more careful when they claim originality for a new design concept?

Should the reviewers of such new products be more careful when effectively crediting a designer as the inventor of the main feature of his or her new product?

Should we ignore the creative works of the past when assigning credit?

Welcome to Core77,

What your describing is called “due diligence” and is the responsibility of the designer, but ultimately the manufacturer.
something to keep in mind is that a manufacturers responsiblity is to create profit, and if patents are expired (17 years) they are no longer libel to pay royalties.
This notion of palagarism is not enforced within ID in the same way as literature. A major example is how often Apple design has their aesthetic applied to anything and everything. Everyone can easily identify the creative source and still Apple is credited for having influenced them.
Finally, the thing that facilitates knock offs like the one just mentioned is the fact that the vast majority of designers are completely anonymous. We generally recieve no “credit” whatsoever. Your justified in thinking we do based on the examples sighted, but big name designers are not representative of the profession, nor are the trendy lifestyle products that collect most press coverage.

It’s an interesting question and I hope you have many more.

Yea I’m a little skeptical if these were really copied, or they just happened to think of the same idea. Most designers don’t go through patents looking for things to copy.

And I agree with no_spec. If you identify the designer(s) for more than 5 of your products at home, I’ll be shocked (excluding designer objects).

But generally, the rockstar designers out there get a lot of credit. I don’t think anyone knows who, other than Jon Ive, worked on the ID for Apple. I’m sure Ive was the primary designer, but who were those other designers? Who knows?

I’ve thought about collecting a few of the ideas off the Coreblog and other blogs and just replacing the names and sending a few emails out a year later with the same concept.

The fact of the matter is that none of these copy cats are complicated. I’m sure that the ideas have been around for decades if not longer. However, they always seem novel and that’s what is getting the attention.

I always try to disassociate design from these novelty products. I think, as a profession, we should all do this.

Thanks for the replies so far.

To no_spec: Thanks! I did not mean to bring up the infringement angle of these patents - the ones I’m finding are expired and free to use by the public. I was more interested in the content of the patent specification - what is disclosed and why there seems to be a separation between patents and design when in fact the two worlds are amazingly similar. Most designers are inventors with a passion for the aesthetic. For example, if I were to introduce a clock that looked just like the one shown in Sullivan’s patent and Core77 showed its image, you better believe that many people would “jump” on me referencing Mulder’s clock image and shouting in his defense things like “You mean LIKE THIS!!!”, or “THIS is so LAST YEAR!!!” Why is it that originality matters amoung designers in the design world, but apparently not when crossing into other creative worlds (such as patents). To Mulder, his clock is “so 20 years ago”, but sadly no one cares about that old reference.

I agree that if the product is being produced, the manufacturer should perform a due diligence study, but I’m talking about the “day of unveiling” a design by designers (the ones we see all the time on the Internet from designers and from design competitions). That is apparently when the credit is generously offered.

Also,the term now is 20 years from the earliest effective filing date of the patent.

I will be showing the Dyson one soon!

To tarngerine: It should not matter if they are knowingly copied or not and you are right that most designers probably do not search patents for their inspiration. I’m curious, why not!

I agree that the “small” designer has trouble getting their fair recognition and that the more famous you are, the more credit you are going to get regardless of the novelty.

To Mr-914: That would be an interesting project! You should do that! Keep your readers on their toes!

I’m not sure what you mean by “complicated”. Are you separating “simple and complicated” designs in determining whether either are credit-worthy? Is a complicated iPad more or less design-worthy than a fork? Also, how does one decide what is a “novelty” and what is “design” in order to separate them? Just curious.

I would say that complicated = multi-person development group
simple = one person in a shop.

Anyone can make a clock, even with gearing to run the arms in a different pattern. I don’t think any individual can develop a mp3 player from scratch. Maybe there are 10,000 companies/groups that can develop and produce a mp3 player. There are 500 million people that could develop a prototype of the first clock you posted. Therefore, it’s 1000 times more likely to develop the same concept separately from one another.

To Mr. 914: You stated:

A) “I always try to disassociate design from these novelty products. I think, as a profession, we should all do this.”

B) “I would say that complicated = multi-person development group”
“simple = one person in a shop”.

Is this really what you believe!!!

If it is, I think you just insulted thousands of “novelty” designers who create products that only have few parts and therefore are not really “designing”. Unless I’m mistaken, according to you, to be a designer, you have to develop a complicated device, like an iPhone or an mp3 player and cannot do it alone.

I would like to think that people in the design business would especially appreciate the person that came up with the idea to begin with because without that individual, your “multi-person development group” may not know what to develop. I believe that the true “designer” is actually “the one person in the shop”.

IDEO’s Bill Moggridge is credited as having invented the laptop computer way back in 1982, but I don’t think he had to consult with a team of people just to come up with the concept involved - He probably just thought one day: “I wonder if we could put small computer components in a clamshell housing with a battery and a display to create a portable computer” - DONE! The “multi-person development group” you mentioned in your response are merely “make-it-so” people. Very creative and necessary, but not needed when an idea is born.

Yes, I agree that there may be 10,000 companies that can DEVELOP and PRODUCE an mp3-player, and maybe there are a few 1000 people that COULD have invented the concept, but apparently only ONE person did.

This is a very interesting question

I think the answer to a few of these questions is potentially one in the same, many designers take joy exploring potential answers to problems. When we come up with something we think is cool, unique, novel we find some satisfaction. Generally in this moment, our first instinct is NOT to say, “Wow I had a cool idea, now let’s go find out who already beat me to it.” However, most of us end up coming across some of these idea predecessors, particularly if we try to take that idea to production. I know this is often the point in a project when I lose a little bit of mojo, that is when I come to find a solution I have come up with (and am particularly proud of) already exists.

I also think that if Core77 had been around when the original clock was made, if it was remotely well known, one of us would have called Mulder out, but as it stands I never saw or heard of the original. I think this says as much about all the bloggers and people who cover these items as it does about the designer, everyone wants to be or know a hero and it’s an easier story to tell and understand.

Rarely is an idea a new idea, and similar ideas do happen simultaneously or across time/space. Aside from outright copying (which is obviously bad), designers are in principle to come up with new ideas and sometimes those ideas are not as new as they think.

That being said, most ID work is never patented, nor are patent searches conducted. The patent system doesn’t really have much bearing on our work. Patents (Design patents aside) are for the technical functionality of a device, and much of our work is more about the interactive functionality and user side of things. Just look at any patent drawing - it has nothing to do with all those things that are so important to us (fit, finish, appearance, etc.)…In broad strokes of course.

@Mr.914. I’m also in disagreement with your statements. I think some of these “novelty” products are the best examples of design. (Novelty as in quirky, fun things, not as in a mug with your face on it or USB key shaped like a dog humping it).

Also, many complex products are often shaped by single people. I do it every day in footwear. I don’t think simple=single person=bad, if that’s what you are saying. Just as an example, check out anything from Umbra.

There is also a difference between just an idea (or patent) and a good design, or successful product. You might have the best idea, but if you can’t market it, or it looks crappy, it can fail. I’m all for giving the designers who get all the factors right the credit and little to those who just come up with a technical function and leave it at that.


To Rkuchinsky: Great comments, but I disagree regarding your statement:

“The patent system doesn’t really have much bearing on our work. Patents (Design patents aside) are for the technical functionality of a device, and much of our work is more about the interactive functionality and user side of things. Just look at any patent drawing - it has nothing to do with all those things that are so important to us (fit, finish, appearance, etc.)…In broad strokes of course.”

I guess you have been looking at the wrong patents. Thousands of patents are dedicated to improving product features and thousands of these have to do with user functionality in mind. Yes, if you have designed a simple bowl, for example, that looks pretty, then yes, a utility patent may not help you, but most of what I see in cool products DO have at least one feature that IS patentable.

For example, what if that simple bowl includes a flat bottom that has an angled face so that the bowl can be positioned at an angle on a counter that allows for a more comfortable mixing of ingredients by THE USER. This could easily be a feature of a current design project. That feature could be patentable and all the designers of the world would see it and say “wow - Cool idea”… and what do you know, it was patented way back in 1938, as shown below:

I noticed that many of the responses have a negative and defensive tone against patents. I think that designers are foolish not to at least consider taking a look at them as they develop their projects. There are about 8 million published US patents that are amazingly available to the public. Perhaps about half of these are mechanical or design related and any of many of these can be inspirational to any designer. I have shown in several example how creative people used to be - we can learn from them.

For another example, look for my upcoming discussion about Dyson’s vacuum cleaner - The LEGOmatic 2000.

First to market and good design are better than a patent and poor design and marketing is my point. I think this is the way fir most ( not all) I’D.

Personally I know when someone comes to me with a patened or patent pending idea 99.9% are stupid and have the wrong focus on what it takes to bring a product to market. It’s a big red flag for me in my own experience.


To IDiot: In Sullivan’s defense, as you know, the Internet was quite a different beast in the early 1990’s and Core77 began in 1995 and took a while rev up. Sullivan had much fewer, less efficient and more expensive options to get his clock design out there. Besides, a US patent is a document that is issued in 180 countries. Just because designers don’t find a reference doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, especially when I found it in about 4 minutes using Google Patents (it was really hidden), and it shouldn’t cancel his creative work.

Post by rkuchinsky » 13 minutes ago
First to market and good design are better than a patent and poor design and marketing is my point. I think this is the way fir most ( not all) I’D.

Personally I know when someone comes to me with a patened or patent pending idea 99.9% are stupid and have the wrong focus on what it takes to bring a product to market. It’s a big red flag for me in my own experience.


To Rkuchinsky: Yes, I agree that most inventors are crazy and their inventions are usually ridiculous. Your 99.9 % stupid rate is because they are randomly showing you ideas trying to hit your target of approval and interest. You would find a much better rate if you went out there and reviewed a select group of patents in your exact category of interest.

That’s like saying my wife doesn’t know anything about movies because 99.9 % of the ones that she selects and shows me are stupid and have the wrong focus on what it takes to make a husband happy.

Your statement “First to market and good design…” reinforces my understanding of how competitive our design industry is and I’m therefore not surprised that designers appear to be unwilling to research their own idea to see if it had been done before, in a previous design, a cartoon, a short story, a movie or a patent, whatever.

I’ll expand. A design coming from a single designer can be really great, as in Richard’s shoe design example. However, the design is one part of a much broader development or industrial project. The kind of single designer project I’m degrading are the single person with a wood shop designs. Sometimes, these are inspired, well crafted, etc. However, most of these projects give me a fleeting moment of “a-ha”, which quickly disappears back into the ether. Whereas, I can pull, poke and prod an iPod for weeks and still be amazed (or a good shoe for that matter).

I’m reminded of a thread that LMO and I contributed to a few years ago where we started discussing wood joinery. I think what I might actually be getting at is craftsmanship. I see a lot of furniture pop up on blogs that may have a novel design, but are horribly made from a craft perspective. I can’t tell if these clocks are well crafted or not, but I have my doubts.

it sounds like one-off design is partly the issue. Certainly an individual wont have the resources to search design history/patents or perhaps the inclination either. Neither may they have the craftsmanship.

Ultimatley, a product makes it to mass production or not regardless of originality. and individual copycat designers find themselves out of work eventually.

There are a couple different points here, I am not saying the fact that his design is unknown should cancel his creative work, I am however saying that you should not judge me for not researching the patent history of someone else’s design that I saw in passing on a blog. It is the designer of that designs responsibility to look at prior art if he is seeking IP. I am also saying that maybe one thing to help this would be for the blogs that promote this work to take that step, but I believe they are placing that burden on the designer submitting their work ( part of the due diligence of their design) and the bloggers or others publicizing this have no real incentive for discrediting a potential news item at this point.

One reason designers tend not to look at patents early on is that having a solution or a few solutions in mind can tend to over focus energy in one direction that may not be the most ideal solution, and if it stems from an existing patent may present other challenges. Often times, I (and others I’m sure) like to do an initial exploration that very uninformed to bring about thinking that might not have come about with a lot of understanding of a particular topic/market/product etc. Then as I become more informed I may begin looking at more existing solutions, and this often includes existing patents.

Hey IDiot, I wasn’t judging or blaming you or any blogger or reviewer of products - I said: “Just because designers don’t find a reference…”

The designer should do his or her homework before making broad claims about the novelty or originality of their new work regardless if they are going to try to protect their IP. I think it is wrong for any designer to unveil their new work with a claim of originality for their work (e.g., “I’m the first one to think of arranging clock hands this way…”) without searching past designs and products, including those found in patents. Besides, what’s the big deal, searching patents is as easy as searching for a movie on Netflix ( and Google patents are easy and free to search).

If they don’t make the broad statement, then of course designers don’t have to search patents at all and I understand that doing so too early may disrupt or even derail the creative thinking process, but I’m a strong believer that a thorough understanding of what has been done should be learned at some point in the process because the truth will bubble to the surface eventually anyway. That means searching more than just the immediate product designs found on such websites as Core77.