18th August 2015

Design lessons from Dieter Rams

Laurence Veale

Principal UX Designer

The lack of historic interest in many contemporary designers is a weakness.

These (harsh, but all too true) words were spoken by one of the most prolific designers alive today — Dieter Rams. I’ve started a restoration project on one of his radiograms, the Braun SK 61 so I thought it a worthwhile to dig deeper on the design philosophies of Rams.

Interestingly, this “historical interest” is the same sentiment shared by Bill Buxton, who quotes Ralph Kaplan

Santayana taught us that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. That surely is true in design as in anything else, but in design there is a corollary: those who do know history are privileged to repeat it at a profit. Ralph Caplan (1982), By Design, pp. 88–89)

Or, as Henry Dreyfus, put it, “to look ahead one must learn to look back”.

Dieter Rams started his design career with Braun in 1955 where he worked for 40 years, designing over 500 products and collaborating on many more. And just as his work has stood the test of time, so too has his design philosophy, which has come to inspire the best of modern designers,

His products seem inevitable, challenging you to question whether there could possibly be a rationale alternative. It is this clarity and purity that leads to the sense of inevitability that characterises his work. No part appeared to be either hidden or celebrated, just perfectly considered and completely appropriate in the hierarchy of the product’s details and features. At a glance, you knew exactly what it was and exactly how to use it.  Johnny Ive

So, if we are to repeat history at a profit, what can we learn from Rams?

10 enduring principles for good design

Many designers, if not familiar with his work, may at least be familiar with his Ten Principles for Good Design which have been doing the rounds lately, and which, like his furniture and shelving designs have endured for decades.

On collaboration

The decisive factor in this kind of co-operation is always human consensus. This can only be arrived at if you understand the others’ work completely.

While much focus around Dieter Rams was on his genius and design philosophy, he was at pains to point out that design was very much a collaborative effort.

By far one of the most important aspects of this was in building bridges between the design and technical departments.

Every detail necessary and measured

Instead there is order and clarification. We measure every detail against the question of whether it serves function and facilitates handling.

Under Rams’s direction, Braun products (before being acquired by Gillette) were economical with form and colour, avoided unnecessary complexity and were without ornament. This echoed Erwin Braun’s philosophy that their electrical appliances should act as “humble servants, to be seen and heard as little as possible”.

Less, but better, for longer

By omitting the unnecessary the essential factors come to the fore: the products become quiet, pleasing, comprehensible and long-lasting

Less for the user means more work and expense for the designer. The flip side is that this focus creates longer lasting products and services.

The “functionalist” approach means focusing on the essentials. And it could only last longer and endure the fickle nature of fashion because of that singular focus on simplicity and restraint.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the Rams-designed modular furniture designed in the 1960's and still being made and sold by Vitsœ in London.

On product design

One must know the limitations of the technology and the production. One has to understand the the market…one needs to be able to move within a strictly defined framework — the framework of what is feasible

The usability of a product is a direct result of the designer’s ability to anticipate the needs of the user.

Again, this approach is reflected in many other’s work — the desirability, feasibility and viability in Ideo’s “three forces of innovation”.

On user-research

Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design. Function-orientated design is the fruit of intense, comprehensive, patient and contemplative reflection on reality, on life, on the needs, desires, and feelings of people

On design-led companies

Rams has some wisdom for the many companies that are struggling to bring design in-house, or those who talk of adding “just sprinkle of UX” to their products or services — good design doesn’t follow, it leads:

The decision to try to generate good design must be a company-wide decision. It cannot be a design department that imposes it and who are ultimately responsible. It has to be an integral part of the the fundamental objectives of the company and finally it must be underpinned by a specific organisation an decision-making structure.

Quotes and passages taken from Sophie Lovell’s “Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible”, published by Phaidon.