Are Dieter Rams’s 10 Principles for Good Design still working today?

Dieter Rams is an eternal critic of himself. Always looking to answer questions about what good design is he nevertheless arrived at a set of 10 principles with which product designers can play to in order to create solutions that are useful and beautiful. The past couple of decades has seen these principles transcend physical products by finding a new home in UX design and digital products.

Line up of various Dieter Rams products

The Dieter Rams 10 Principles of Good Design are:

  1. Good design is innovative
  2. Good design makes a product useful
  3. Good design is aesthetic
  4. Good design makes a product understandable
  5. Good design is unobtrusive
  6. Good design is honest
  7. Good design is long-lasting
  8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail
  9. Good design is environmentally-friendly
  10. Good design is as little design as possible

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Rams is a graduate of architecture with honours (1953) from Wiesbaden School of Art and briefly worked in architecture before being recruited to Braun, a place where he made his mark with signature pieces. His approach to design stemmed from his early years working with his grandfather, a carpenter where the idea of “Less, but better” was ever-present.

Many product designs today both physical but especially digital seem to misappropriate the principles focusing purely on principles #3: Good design is aesthetic and #10: Good design is as little design as possible, often at the expense of #2: Good design makes a product useful, and #4: Good design makes a product understandable.

We are seeing this play out in modern vehicle interior design with large flat screens replacing dials and switches as the main interaction between human and vehicle. Although largely driven by the automotive industry’s desperate need to appeal to an increasingly apathetic younger buyer, the excuse for the removal of switches and dials is often wrapped up in an aesthetic rationale. Clean lines feels modern, unobtrusive, innovative, so therefore it must be good design, right?

This is always at the expense of human factors and as talented as we become with touchscreen technology, our bodies have motor skills which intuitively understand touch, feel, and response evolved over tens of thousands of years that simply outperform digital alternatives.

However it’s far too easy to be dismissive of touchscreens altogether. There are certain features and functions in a car which are better off with a touchscreen, especially given the connectivity demanded by consumers. There needs to be a balance.

And this is the reason why Dieter Rams’s designs work so well, because they balance form and function so delicately, one never dominating the other.

Braun T3 transistor radio next to an early Apple iPod

It’s been well documented the influence Rams has had on modern day designers such as Jonny Ive, his original iPod influenced by Rams’s Braun T3 pocket radio although Fast Company have refuted that common perception.

Design as a saviour of the planet?

Rams is very much of the philosophy that good design can somehow save the planet, that by purchasing products that are designed well and built to last we reduce energy in production, waste and landfill. 

Smashed apple iPhone

While I wholeheartedly agree with that philosophy, this is greatly at odds with the technology sector, which is built upon and thrives on, planned obsolescence and iteration after iteration of tech products which promise features and functions which barely make any positive impact on improving the lives of humans. Model cycles are ever shorter and niche upon niche is filled as large tech companies strive to outdo each other and satisfy shareholder demands. And as technology is finding its way into every product for better or worse, it’s something that needs to be considered.

Dieter Rams’s philosophy only works however if the consumer mindset changes, forcing product companies to change their model. But we are human, and slaves to our own desires, attracted forever to new shiny things, a way of living embedded in our psyche and cultures for centuries. Change is a constant but human behaviours and endeavours are less susceptible to change.

Man taking a selfie with his phone giving a thumbs up

Photo: Oleg Magni 

The pop culture trend of flaunting wealth driven largely by media, reality TV, and social media continues to drug the minds of many desperate to feel validated in an increasingly superficial world. 

Good product design is never going to alter the trajectory of over-consumption on its own. It’s going to take popular culture and social media to help change the mindset of the poor unsuspecting generations who have grown up with an abundance of everything, and unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

Regardless, good design still plays a part. Products that are designed well and built to last should hopefully be cherished and outlast the constant desire for the latest version/edition/release. Design well, use sustainable materials, make it modular, make it repairable. That’s all eco-conscious industrial designers could hope for and perhaps digital designers can remember we are still human after all.

Rams’s principles are a wonderful set of guidelines for any designer but unless used in the way they were intended, at times they can have the opposite effect. 

Have you used the 10 Principles of Good Design in your work?

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