Forget about Jonathan Ives and Philippe Starck. Dieter Rams is THE father of modern design. The German-born designer studied architecture at Werkkunstschule Wiesbaden and, after a short stint as an architect, joined Braun in 1955. Six years later, he became Braun’s chief of design and for the next 34 years (!!), almost single-handedly, changed the history of product design. He has had a profound impact on the way his company, and the world, think about designing great products.
There’s no chance that you’ll walk around the MoMA and not see a at least one product that Rams designed as many of his seminal works are featured in top museums around the world. As a big advocate of user experience and simplicity, he designed hundreds of products, from cameras to projectors to shelving systems. His motto was “Weniger, aber besser” which translates to “Less, but better”. Sounds familiar? Yes, he has inspired many of Apple’s products. Actually, Gizmodo once featured a comparison of Apple’s products with some of the most famous products that Rams ever designed. Looking at these pictures, it’s clear that Apple was inspired by Rams.
The Ten Principles of Good Design
However, Rams was not only a designer but also a design philosopher. He cared a lot about design and constantly strived to improve it and push it forward. It was around the eighties when Rams noticed that the design world is losing direction. He was very concerned about that. He took some time to reflect on his own work, thinking whether his design is good and if so, what is it that made it good. This thinking process led him to craft the ten principles for good design. Some designers refer to them as the “ten commandments”. Here they are:
GOOD DESIGN IS INNOVATIVE
There are endless ways to innovate and new technologies are offering exciting opportunities to do so.
GOOD DESIGN MAKES A PRODUCT USEFUL
A product is meant to be used. It must satisfy certain needs, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic . Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product and removes anything that can detract from it.
GOOD DESIGN IS AESTHETIC
Products we use every day affect our personality and our well-being. Hence, their aesthetics are critical. However, and this is very important, only well-executed designs can be beautiful.
GOOD DESIGN MAKES A PRODUCT UNDERSTANDABLE
Gone are the days of RTFM. You didn’t need a manual to operate the iPhone, did you? Rams used to say that good design can make the product talk and be self-explanatory.
GOOD DESIGN IS UNOBTRUSIVE
Products are neither decorative objects nor works of art. It’s important for the design of products to leave room for the user’s self-expression.
GOOD DESIGN IS HONEST
Our favorite! Good design does not make a product more valuable or innovative than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with false promises.
GOOD DESIGN IS LONG-LASTING
Do you know the IBM logo? Did you know it was designed 43 years ago? 43 years and it was never redesigned. Like Paul Rand (the designer of the IBM logo), Rams believes that good design avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears old fashioned. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years.
GOOD DESIGN IS THOROUGH, DOWN TO THE LAST DETAIL
Think that Steve Jobs was a details lunatic? Well, he had a great teacher. In good design, nothing is arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in designing a product show respect towards the user.
GOOD DESIGN IS ENVIRONMENTALLY-FRIENDLY
Good design conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.
GOOD DESIGN IS AS LITTLE DESIGN AS POSSIBLE
Less, but better. Good design concentrates on the essential. Everything else is left out. In Rams’ words: “Back to purity, back to simplicity”.
Why does it matter to you?
While Rams wrote these principals thinking about the design of physical products, they certainly apply to planning and designing digital products. The design of a product or a feature involves three steps (at least this is how we do it for Base):
VISION AND PLANNING
Look around at the latest technological developments and use them as a ground for innovation. Think how can you leverage these changes and create something that is useful for your users. Do you really understand their needs? Go out and speak with them. The more you do so, the more useful your first product iteration will be.
PROTOTYPING AND DESIGNING
How can you create something that needs none or minimal training? Dropbox works because you simply save files to a folder. It couldn’t get much simpler than that. Create many prototypes. Play with them. Experiment. Try to put yourself in your customer’s shoes.
REFINING AND POLISHING
“The details are details. They make the product.” said Charles Eames. At this stage, you take a close look at the smallest details of the product. You make sure that every pixel on the screen is there because it needs to be there (we call that pixel-proofing). Every single pixel must have a reason to exist. It can be there because it is an essential part of the feature, it can give a visual feedback to the users or just be there for an aesthetic reason. However, be careful to distinguish aesthetics from mere styling.
An important part of refining the product is removing unnecessary parts. Dave McClure calls that “killing a feature” and he suggests doing that on a weekly basis.