Common Design Problem

Here is a common design problem that I think a lot of designers/companies face: you’ve got an idea in their mind that you thought is ingenious, you go onto the internet to see if there is something similar on the market, and boom…there it is – looks like somebody have thought of the idea before you. You then go: “Hmm…bummer, now what?”

In some situations, you’ll go and think of some design workarounds that somehow make your idea look somewhat different and not look like you’re trying to rip off somebody else’s idea (and more importantly avoid potential design patent infringements). In other situations, you’ll trying to think of something entirely different (in which there is a chance that you may run into the same problem again).

Below are some examples of some “design workarounds”.

Garbino vs Some Acrylic Beverage Tub: If you think through the problem of how to apply a handle on a plastic tub, there’s only so many aesthetically pleasing and feasible ways. It’s a different category of product so they shouldn’t get into trouble even if the top half of the Garbino is design patented.

Philips SBD7000 vs iLuv App Station: Philips thought of an easy way to make an iPhone dock that works both vertically and horizontally. The iLuv designers probably scratched their heads on how to design around it when they thought of the idea. Wonder if they will still get into trouble.

iMac vs eOne: Those eMachine guys tried hard to make their eOne look like an ugly cousin of the iMac, but they got sued nonetheless and lost.

How do you deal with such situations?

I usually go back to the drawing board to think of other alternatives. If I must do it that way, I’ll think of a design workaround that keeps me and my company from trouble.

I think some of this has to do with the notion of “trade dress” and whether the new design is intended to confuse the consumer or imply that the new product is related the the one it looks similar to. This is when the two products are in the the same market, I’m not sure they would have gotten sued if the eOne was an iMac-shaped planter. So I’m not surprised that they got sued.

Then there’s the whole issue about obvious vs not-so-obvious logical progression of ideas from “any person skilled in the art”. Sometime you can improve on a patented idea, but that new idea might necessarily be patentable. And you would need to be careful that your new idea doesn’t still violate their patent.

I had a situation like yours not too long ago when I had a new client come to me with the idea for a dental product and they were convinced it was that million-dollar idea. They even had a patent attorney check it out. Of course, I did about 15 min of Google searches and found the exactly thing they were “inventing” and it was patented back in 2006. I hope he didn’t pay too much for that patent attorney…


The line between inspiration and infringement is pretty blurry. I am a firm believer that there are no truly unique ideas. Someone has thought of it before. Whether they had the gumption to schlep ( :smiley: ) the project through to something more than a concept is a whole other issue. The likelihood of someone else having a sketch or presentation that looks earily similar is pretty high.

Where the line isn’t blurry, is flat out copying. I am sorry, but I don’t believe for a second that the eWhatyoumacallit up there wasn’t “designed” by someone in marketing. Good grief, I can hear the meeting now:

“C’mon, Jon…design me something that looks like the iMac but isn’t the iMac.”, says the Product Manager.

“Uh, we should go through a full process and explore what is appropriate for our product”, whimpers Jon, the in-house industrial designer, knowing full well where this is going.

“Screw that, I have to make sure I hit the shelves for Christmas. I have BMW payments to make! Besides, immitation is the best form of flattery!”

Jon releases yet another sigh of resignation.

The Product Manager continues, “This isn’t a big deal. That iMac is nothing more than a blob with some pretty clear plastic on it. I mean, really, I could have designed that! Can you believe someone got paid to design that?”.

“Well, actually…”, Jon said. Stopping because he knew resistance was futile.

Grabbing another doughnut off the meeting room table, the Product Manager walks around the table and nudges Jon with the back of his hand holding the doughnut spilling powdered sugar on his new black turtleneck, “You know what would make this even better? It should be red! My daughter loves red. This iMac thingy looks like a toy anyway, right? So we can make it red. A 7 year old girl is never wrong about color”.

With the meeting over Jon schlepped his way back to his desk. Well, the meeting never really ended, it just kind of blended into another meeting. Another group of people fill Jon’s seat and the others around the table. The Product Manager starts chortling with another man who also looks as thought he’s had a few doughnuts too many.

Jon sits at his desk with the weight of a ten ton anvil. He double clicks the icon on his desktop that says “Alias” and gets to work on his next project.

IP: I think you should write a sitcom pilot!

Aren’t they always million dollar ideas!?

Of course they are.

Just like the toilet paper dispenser this guy came to me with. It was intended to foil his cat from free-spinning the roll onto the floor. It had springs and about 8 parts and was way too complicated, until I tool the roll of toilet paper in front of the client and squeezed it out of round so it wouldn’t fee-spin any more on the dispenser.

Boy was he mad.


Option 2: Put the toilet paper on the roll facing the other way…well…until the cat figures out how to roll the paper the other way…or is like my cat and gets pissed off when she finds out that the we reversed the roll…so she goes and unrolls the paper towel instead.

I love my life.

He had one of those gadgets for the paper towels too. I squeezed that one out of round as well… 'Course, I did all this in front of him after I had already designed is plastic parts. Should I have shown him that before?


I vote no. But You should NOT have shown him that before he paid you though :smiley:


Actually that is a very interesting question would be great to discuss, as Ive seen people pour their life savings into “million dollar” ideas that are not worth the 2cents. Is it our ethical duty to tell a potential client. Rather than hijack this thread I will make a new one, tonight, because i would love to see peoples experiences and what they think about it.


IP, I think you’ve found your calling.

This was many years ago, but I remembered how he was fairly determined to develop this thing–no matter how overly-complicated it was. I do remember asking him about competitive research and he had several competitive products (you’ve probably seen them), but he wasn’t easily deterred. But at the end of the day, he headed out with his prototype and engineering drawings… and the roll of toilet paper I squished… Yes, I got paid. No, I don’t believe he actually got it into production. I wasn’t the boss at the time, so I wasn’t in a position to talk the guy out of hiring us.

But it’s still a good discussion to have.


IP: the story continues right?

…Jon works for weeks on the new iMac looking widget. Marketing dude keeps tweaking and saying, “yeah, this is the right track”. Finally Jon has “designed” the most garish awkward widget ever. Now he gets an email for the meeting with the president to get the design signed off for production.

Jon wheels his model in, wishing he could leave the cover on it permanently. Marketing guy sits next to him and the president across the desk.

“well, let’s see what we’ve come up with here”-declares 3-piece suit guy.

Jon reluctantly removes the sheet.

The president’s jaw drops. “uh…what the hell is this piece of crap???”

Marketing guy decides to chime in, “I don’t know where it came from…this is the first I’ve seen of it!” all with shock written on his face.

Jon just keeps thinking, “serenity now…serenity now”

This guy here is a genius… He took a common everyday part of the male canine anatomy and totally ripped off design.

Let me present to you the [b]Neuticle[/b]

He won the IG Noble Prize for this design.


And the ref raises arm pointing at Ross McCoy. Go to the penalty box and feel shame.

There is something just wrong about that.

I wonder if Lance Armstrong knows about these?


Wow, I was surprised by where this topic has gone!

Let me refocus this topic a bit. Specifically, I want to focus on the Philips SBD7000 vs iLuv App Station case.

These two products are in the same category of product. They both share a similar form factor, colour, material, and finish. They both do essentially the same thing.

The point about “trade dress” was good. But I doubt that the iLuv guys’ intended to confuse the consumer or imply that they are related to the Philips product. Rather, I believe that the products look similar because they followed good design principles or the logical progression that warrenginn referred to.

If iLuv gets sued by Philips, that’ll be unfortunate for the design industry. Why should someone gets sued for doing good design? I know that the whole patent system is supposed to protect original inventors while not hinder innovation. Did iLuv do something original other than changing the form to a “squircle”? From a brief glance, it seems that way. Yes, they might have made a nice app to go with the dock, but I don’t think that can or should be patented if the industry wants to stand on innovation’s side.

Let’s assume Philips design patented their product (which is not hard or unlikely). Would iLuv still get sued?

Before you answer, look at commoditized electronics out there such as TVs, DVD players, and LCD picture frames. These products’ design can look very similar to competing products, yet they probably won’t get sued unless they are downright copying.