Samsung announced today that its head of mobile design, Donghoon Chang, was asked to resign amidst criticism of the company’s latest flagship phone, the Galaxy S5.
Chang is the guy who was in charge of design for Samsung’s Galaxy-branded tablets and smartphones. He’s also the guy who received a good amount of criticism for copying Apple’s iPhone design.
As I wrote in my review of the Galaxy S5, Samsung made a good phone, but it doesn’t feel like the premium device it’s trying to be because of the plastic body. It’s slippery and cheap-feeling, and the dimpled back cover just looks tacky. (It also resembles a Band-Aid.) Compare that to the gorgeous phones Samsung’s rivals HTC and Apple continue to make, and it’s not difficult to see that Samsung is falling behind in terms of design.
Those criticisms aren’t new. For years, pundits like me have been pretty harsh on Samsung’s shabby design choices. But with Chang’s ouster today, it sounds like the company is making a serious attempt to change the conversation around how it designs its products.
So, why did Samsung continue on its design path despite all that criticism?
Last month, I spoke with Chang at Samsung’s main office in Seoul, South Korea and got some answers. Chang said a lot of Samsung’s design choices came from listening to customers. For example, Samsung doesn’t make phones with unibody designs because it thinks customers prefer to have the option to remove the battery and add more storage with a memory card.
“There is a philosophy in Samsung that we say we start from consumers and incorporate the future in it,” Chang said. “Ultimately, the goal of a product that goes to market is to offer value to consumers.”
And why all the plastic?
“We don’t start out by deciding whether to use metal or plastic first,” Chang said. “The material most suited to the message and design theme we try to deliver is what we select…For the Galaxy S5, we wanted to express fashion, style, and trend. The materials we selected reflected that.”
Of course, what constitutes “fashion” and “style” is purely subjective, but it’s clear that Samsung’s definition hasn’t resonated with critics and consumers.
Samsung’s design philosophy as described by Chang is almost the complete opposite of Apple’s. In a really neat video that Apple showed at last year’s WWDC event, Apple explained its design philosophy: “there are a thousand no’s for every yes,” the video said.
The video implied that instead of going to consumers first, Apple comes up with a zillion different options on its own and picks the best one of the bunch. It’s the complete opposite strategy Samsung employs. On one end of the spectrum you have Samsung, which thinks it should go with what users want. On the other, you have Apple, which thinks it can decide on its own what’s best for users.
Now that Chang is gone, it will be interesting to see which of these divergent philosophies Samsung’s gravitates towards.
Disclosure: Samsung paid for a portion of our trip to South Korea for this story, including the flight and some meals. Business Insider paid for lodging and all other expenses.
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