On Samsung and Design

Mark Wilson has a long feature in Fast Company with the provocative headline, “Why Samsung Design Stinks”. It starts:

Kevin Lee calls it “Steve Jobs Syndrome.” As the former head of product strategy and user experience design at Samsung Design America, Lee watched as the $100 billion Korean tech giant wrote check after check to countless Western design firms to develop future products for the Korean company. The designers would dig in their heels, refusing to budge on their grand idea or see how it might fit into Samsung’s vast production line. And Samsung management would either discard the idea entirely, or water it down so much that the product became another meaningless SKU in the hundreds of products Samsung sells today.

I think the whole piece is misguided. Wilson is correct that Samsung’s design stinks, but completely lost regarding why. His whole piece is about Samsung and other Asian companies contracting with U.S. design shops to do design for upcoming products.

I don’t know how you can call this “Steve Jobs Syndrome” when Apple (in the modern post-NeXT reunification era) never contracted design to outside firms. The problem isn’t whether Samsung listens to these outside designers, or how much authority they cede to them — the problem is that they’re going outside in the first place. Think about the astoundingly detailed description regarding how Jony Ive’s design team at Apple works, from this week’s epic New Yorker feature profile by Ian Parker.

Look at the sources for Wilson’s Fast Company piece, and you’ll see that it isn’t describing “Why Samsung design stinks”, but rather “Why contract industrial design shops in the U.S. think Samsung design stinks”.

The truth you’re not going to hear from those sources is that Samsung design stinks because they contract out design in the first place — and that Samsung (including its U.S. subsidiary) is a horrid place to work.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015