Something borrowed: Fab's new iOS app looks a lot like Zappos'

By Michael Carney , written on January 8, 2014

From The News Desk

(This post has been updated to include comment from Fab.)

Great men throughout history have uttered versions of the line, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” But does that make borrowing a little inspiration from your fellow creative ok? Judging by the latest iOS app redesign from ecommerce giant Fab, it seems the company's mobile design team would answer yes.

Fab didn’t borrow from an unknown brand or even from a company in another category. Instead it helped itself to a bit of the interface design from one of the largest of its ecommerce competitors: Zappos.

Both apps reflect the the flat design language introduced with Apple’s iOS 7 operating system. Fab’s, which was updated on December 20, features an array of six rectangular buttons at the bottom of the home screen that’s nearly identical to the design that Zappos has utilized since May of this year (it completed a cosmetic redesign in November). Each button represents a shopping category within the respective ecommerce marketplaces. Within both apps, each button is filled with a different color and at the center has a minimalist white icon corresponding to the button name, which is written below in white block lettering. The only difference between the two is that Zappos’ buttons have a slightly faded appearance, while Fab’s are more sharp. Each app’s home screen also features a large banner image at the top of the screen, below which is a horizontal frame advertising the company’s offer of free shipping.

The similarity between the home screen designs of the Fab and Zappos iOS apps was cocktail conversation in one downtown Vegas bar last night. The rejuvenated area of Sin City is now home to Zappos HQ, and its CEO Tony Hsieh’s wildly ambitious gentrification project, the aptly named Downtown Project. So it’s no surprise which company's employees were raising these concerns and on which side of the ethical debate their opinions landed. The Zappos employees in question, who were members of the mobile design team, declined to speak on the record. But, make no mistake about it: Fab’s user-interface Xerox didn’t go unnoticed here in Vegas.

It would probably be a step too far to say the Zappos mobile team is upset. Judging from last night’s  casual conversations, it may be more accurate to say they’re amused, flattered even, but generally unimpressed by the lack of creativity. But that’s just this reporter’s opinion formed over a few drinks and some good-natured trash talking.

Nonchalance seems like a reasonable response from the company known for “Delivering Happiness.” Outright hostility would be completely against brand. And with the design similarities extending only as far as the home screen of the two apps, there’s not much to make a big deal out of. But nonetheless, it’s not the classiest of moves. It’s not like the Zappos design is particularly innovative either or has clear advantages that Fab couldn’t have accomplished in a more original way.

Copying happens across the user interface design landscape. From that perspective this incident shouldn’t be too surprising. But in most cases, large and well known companies go to a bit more trouble to mask their borrowed inspiration than Fab did in this case. As a supposed category leader and one known for its design prowess at that, this is a particularly surprising, but nonetheless trivial, offense. Fab CEO Jason Goldberg even penned a blog post once titled Knock-Offs Are Bad Design aimed at the European Fab clone bamarang that he believed had copied Fab's website design. Hypocracy FTW!

Perhaps this indiscretion is a result of the overall turmoil that seems to have engulfed the company of late. Perhaps its due to the loss of its “special sauce,” Chief Creative Officer Bradford Shellhammer. Perhaps it was just laziness. Whatever the reason, it’s not a good look, and it’s certainly not “fabulis.

(Disclosure: Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is an investor in PandoDaily.)

Update: Fab provided an official comment following the publishing of this post, published below, unedited:

As a design and retail company Fab works with thousands of designers and we fully respect the creative effort of others. The Fab mobile app was designed completely independently of any influence and we believe the similarity between our app and Zappos is pure coincidence. We admire Zappos greatly and while we would normally love to be compared to them, we want to assure them and our customers that this homage was completely unintentional.

Fab has always used icons and color to communicate our products and brand aesthetic. Our decision to place all six icons 'above the fold' in the app was one we made at the very end of the design process. We only become aware of the similarity between our app design and that of Zappos after we released ours.

We already have a new mobile app design in the works - that is markedly different from the one we have now - that we will be releasing in the coming weeks.