It’s a bit ironic to say “Don’t design like Apple” when we, at Nonfiction, are huge fans of their products. In fact, our industrial design and branding studio leans heavily towards Apple computers and accessories. We love the modern aesthetic, with clean lines and luxurious materials, and buy into the connected ecosystem, reveling in the secure confidence most other open platforms wish they had. We drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak. So why would we offer this advice?

It all began when a number of companies asked us to emulate the design of Apple products. And by emulate, I mean copy their designs to recreate market successes. Love it! Who wouldn’t? But before jumping in feet first, we recognized that there were a few functional, as well as aesthetic, things to consider before positioning yourself alongside this iconic brand.

TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

What could be so difficult about a single piece of billet aluminum or an all white product? Apple has been doing it for decades. Surely, contract manufacturers have mastered their techniques by now. You could simply reverse engineer their technology and create your own products. Pretty straight forward, right? Think again.

Apple Headphones 1000X700 Mardis Bagley

Several years ago, I was in a Chinese factory working with manufacturing partners to develop in-ear headphones. I tore apart, and essentially reverse engineered, a pair of Apple earbuds to better understand the construction techniques – a common approach in industrial design and engineering.

I designed the volume controller on the headphone wire with mechanical tolerances similar to the original Apple product. I quickly came to realize that the products Apple designed, some of which launched nearly a decade ago, were still out of reach for most manufacturers. The plastic walls were too thin, their assembly was too difficult, and, in some cases, refining the plastic mix to be UV stable or have the subtle injection of blue pellets to make it look pure “Apple white” was a real challenge. As a result, there would be a high loss rate because of defects.

You see, Apple and other leading corporations are pouring an extremely high volume of resources into their unique manufacturing techniques. They build large, customized assembly lines, develop their own chipsets, source or even create their own materials, and design their own processes to create the best possible products. So, unless you have an endless source of funds and resources to draw from, you need to reevaluate your approach.

WHAT’S THE POINT OF MINIMALISM?

Being an iconic, trendsetting brand is tough, but copying one to reap the same benefits is just, quite frankly, a bad idea. Don’t design like Apple. Build your own personality using similar techniques.

Steve Jobs stood on the shoulders of greatness when he built Apple. He drew from the iconic principles of designer Dieter Rams, where his 10 Principles of Design focuses on smart, minimalistic products that represent materials and function in a honest, understandable manner. You, too, can copy time-tested principles of design, but don’t copy the design itself. Doing so shows your consumers that you lack vision and didn’t take into consideration their unique qualities.

Dieter Rams 10 Principles R1A 01 Mardis Bagley

Minimalism sounds easy, but it can be a challenge to get right. Clean finished surfaces, balanced part lines, and intuitive interfaces are difficult. Remember, when you only have a few surfaces that interact with the consumer, they are all important. The best objects have an easy-to-understand, singular expression. Think of a silhouette. It’s black and white with a crisp outline that makes the shape an instant read. If the consumer gets it immediately, you’re doing it right. If you can surprise and delight through interaction or symbolism, you are doing it even better. Aligning minimalism with beauty, brand, and usability makes for a winning combination.

COMPANION PRODUCTS

Companion products are one way to capitalize on an industry leader’s success. We’ve been working for a company, Henge Docks, who has been in the Apple ecosystem for years. Henge Docks is a San Francisco-based startup that designs and develops devices to compliment Apple products. They don’t copy Apple, rather they create companion products that pay tribute to Apple’s design aesthetic. They give Apple fans exactly what they are looking for - a well-designed, well-built consumer product that feels like it is part of the Apple family.

This works well for Henge because they are not trying to replace or compete with Apple products. They are creating amazing accessories for Apple products. Consumers notice, and so does Apple. As a result, Henge has received multiple awards for their designs. And, long after the docking and accessory trend has waned, Henge remains an industry leader.

15 Inch Blackmoor R1A W Monitor 1000X700 Mardis Bagley

A DIFFERENT PATH ALTOGETHER

At Nonfiction, we respect the minimalistic Apple-esque design when appropriate, but it’s not our default. We prefer another route. We like to help you tell your own story. Be individual. Be the new Apple. After all, that’s the basis of Apple’s brand. While the language has evolved over the years, the message has stayed the same: think different. Don’t fall into a dystopian future (remember the 1984 ad introducing Apple Macintosh). Apple has done it so successfully that their customer base is no longer the outlier. Ironically, so many people want to think differently that they automatically become part of the like-minded majority. As a result, they miss that special something that makes them unique.

For example, look at the work we did with the House of Marley (HoM). The brand is defined by its iconic namesake, Bob Marley. Bob was all about one love, giving back to the community, and treating people with respect. These tenants follow through the entire brand thinking. All of the products were created with recycled materials (aluminum, wood, recycled plastics), considerate materials (low VOC compounds, soy inks), and “designed for disassembly.” The brand exudes fun, while maintaining excellent audio quality, and a low carbon footprint. And HoM is reaping the rewards of their uniqueness, being sold in major retailers all over the world. Did they take a chance? Yes, a calculated chance, and it paid off. As they say, no risk, no reward.

As a hardware developer, you cannot be a leader in a category if you are following someone else. I encourage you to challenge the status quo. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Create your own brand and mark on the industry. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with aligning your brand with Apple – if it makes sense! But don’t forget to explore your own identity and take a chance on your own success.

About The Author

Mardis Bagley

Mardis Bagley

Senior Industrial Designer

Mardis Bagley is a co-founder of the design studio Nonfiction, based in San Francisco. He works closely with companies to design and develop a wide array of products from consumer electronics and audio to luxury, soft goods, housewares and more.

Share Article:

Sign up to the Hardware Massive newsletter

Related Guest Articles