Dieter Rams studied architecture at the Werkkunstschule in Wiesbaden and then in the 1950s, after two years with the architectural firm of Otto Apel, he joined the electronic products company Braun and through his career of over 40 years with them he designed or oversaw the design of more than 500 products. Many of these were innovative and many, it is widely agreed, are iconic designs.
He also taught and has been interviewed in journals and regularly quoted in design books and magazines. He developed a list of his ten principles of good design, presumably in part as an aid in teaching but also, again I presume, as a relatively straightforward and useful way to help people to understand and appreciate his work. His Ten Principles are:
Good design is innovative
Good design makes a product useful
Good design is aesthetic
Good design makes a product understandable
Good design is unobtrusive
Good design is honest
Good design is long-lasting
Good design is thorough down to the last detail
Good design is environmentally friendly
Good design is as little design as possible
These principles are quoted regularly but because they are quoted regularly does not make them less important or less valid.
And they can and should be used as a starting point for assessing design more broadly so a starting point for judging the design of a building, the design of a piece of furniture or any industrial product. These are principles that hold good for assessing the design of the simplest drinking glass or a metro train or an airport terminal.
But for anyone not involved professionally in the design World but who wants to understand more about what makes one work a good design and another badly designed or poorly designed then these principles do need to be put into context.
They come from a very rational north-European design tradition and from a period when many believed that industrial design should probably be International rather than being obviously from a specific region or country. So some designers might argue that passion or a sense of local or historic traditions or even a sense of romance or nostalgia might have a role in design. I would agree that passion, in the sense of drive and determination tending towards obsession, is important but more than that, I can’t say. I’m from Northern Europe. And what you have to remember is that Dieter Rams was what was usually then called an industrial or product designer - although he did design chairs with Vitsoe as well as the record players and kitchen electronics for Braun - so the principles are as much about industrial production values and about engineering as about design.
And possibly there should be one other principle and that would be that good design understands and is appropriate for the material used although, of course, that is implied in the other principles.
Rams himself qualified the list of ten points:
“Very good design … does not evolve only by ticking those 10 boxes. From a good ordinary design there should always be the possibility for an outstanding, self-explanatory design to arise … such outstanding products and their aura of being close to perfection are an essential stimulus to encourage how we design our environment. They are the benchmark for the future.”
It was others who reduced the final principle - that good design is as little design as possible - to the even shorter Less is More, and many see that, for good or ill. as being perhaps the single most powerful guiding tenet of good design in the second half of the 20th century.
There are also more complex ideas behind the principles of the designs from the Rams studio.
To quote from the catalogue for the exhibition of designs from Braun that was held in Osaka and Tokyo in 2009 and through into 2010 in London and Frankfurt:
“The Braun design process is the process of pursuing an ideal relationship, a resonance between the internal and the external. It was because of this that it achieved innovation and progress … “
Less and More - The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams, edited by Keiko Ueki-Polet and Klaus Klemp, Die Gestalten Verlag GmbH & Co Berlin 2009
Ostensibly, this indicates that however complicated the interior workings of the equipment, one crucial role for the designer is to make the interface for the user, buttons, knobs and so on, as simple or at least as friendly as possible.
The catalogue also makes another important point … that the carefully controlled simplicity of these designs from Braun was not just about aesthetics or style - so simply visual - but it was also about the “essential relationship between the given function and the form resulting from that which is both essential and reduced to the minimal.” Although it is interesting that Rams himself, in the interview above, does distance himself from the idea that form follows function - a maxim often attributed to him.
This is an important consideration when assessing a design - perhaps the ultimate way of judging if a design is good is to see how people interact with the product or the building - so, basically, to see how easy and how satisfying the product is to use.
Is that also a way of defining the difference between good art and good design? A simple if glib definition? With good or great art, it holds your attention and you are inspired when you stand and look at the work, and with good design it might be the appearance that draws your attention but it is how easy or how pleasing it is to use that inspires you and makes it good or great design.