Samsung's 'Design Revolution' started in 1996 with Sony, not Apple

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1996: Samsung's Year of Design Revolution

The year is 1996: Apple just purchased NeXT from Steve Jobs and Sony was dominating all aspects of consumer electronics. For Samsung, it was rather a special year. As part of the "New Management" initiative, the company declared that 1996 was going to be the "Year of Design Revolution". It was time for Samsung to invest aggressively in design, especially in Korean designers.

Samsung's "New Management" initiative was announced in 1993, when Chairman Lee called for a change and set a goal of becoming a first-class company by 2000. In 1995, he met with his thirty top executives in Los Angeles and ordered for an acceleration in globalization, expecting his companies to be driving 30% of their sales from international markets by 2000.

Chairman Lee during the 1997 New Year's Address, said:

"...It's an era of individuality and creativity, where imitation can no longer be used"

vs. Sony

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source: Chang Sea-jin, 2008, Sony vs Samsung: The Inside Story of the Electronics Giants' Battle For Global Supremacy, Wiley.

During the early 1990s, Samsung was in the OEM business, supplying products to Sears, Walmart and Kmart. Meanwhile, its own Samsung-branded products struggled to escape from its cheap image. Samsung was no match for Sony. The graph above shows that it wasn't until 2002 when Samsung's market cap took over its rivals. This is significant considering in 2000, Sony's market cap was four times that of Samsung's. Despite this, in 2002, Sony's then-chairman Nobuyuki Idei said:

"Samsung found Sony a model or a benchmark for their brand image. The product design and the product planning--they have learned from us. So Sony is a very good target for them...We still believe that Samsung is basically a component company"

This indicates that Sony's top leadership underestimated the Samsung threat and therefore responded too slowly. Three years later, in 2005, Nobuyuki gets replaced by Howard Stringer due to poor financial performance.

Samsung's "Myungpoom plus one" TV set (1996)

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The Design Scrapbook

The design scrapbook, published by Samsung Economic Research Institute's "New Management" team in 1996, highlights case studies of great design, which Samsung felt they should learn a lesson or two from.

It was published for internal education and marked the beginning of Samsung's "Year of Design Revolution"

The book highlights Sony, Nike, and Ford for leading an outstanding design strategy, as well as Braun, the company that influenced Jony Ive's designs at Apple. It also breaks down examples of great individual design from:

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And interestingly enough, Apple's PowerBooks are mentioned under the Chapter: "Consumer Oriented Product Design". It says:

"...In the end, Apple Computer realised that their goal was not to design a "small computer", and learned a lot about portability and the value of the product during the design process of the PowerBook. Apple's belief that usability is the most important matter drove them to include two components inside the PowerBook. And this decision was later proved to be effective in attracting consumers towards the PowerBook. Disk Drive was one of them, and was wanted by most portable computer users. The other was a big trackball, for moving the cursor on the screen. However, there was a problem. These two components were affecting the computer's size and weight. But to protect the usability, their development team decided to take out other components instead, in order to meet their original goal of size and weight"

The scrapbook ends with "The ten commandments for strategic design management"

  1. Good Design Is CEO's Responsibility
  2. Appoint A Lead Designer
  3. Seek Help From Outside Experts
  4. Design By Objectives
  5. Make Use Of Design from Early Stages of Product Development
  6. Find The MAYA (Most Advance Yet Acceptable) Line
  7. Raise Design's Productivity (Quality)
  8. Raise Competent Designers
  9. Create an Imaginative Design Environment
  10. Don't Be Stingy When Investing In Design

It's now 2012

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This book clearly demonstrates that in 1996, Samsung Electronics made real efforts to learn and improve their product design by closely studying and examining others. Despite all its hard work and assertions that imitation should be avoided, the Korean chaebol finds itself in court with Apple, guilty of infringing the patents of a company it tried to learn from.