Deconstructing Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles For Good Design — Part 3

7 min read
Design Theory
A series of patterns using geometric shapes that capture some of the iconic features of Dieter Rams' products.

This is the final part in a series of three articles that critically examines Dieter Rams’ ten principles for good design. This article covers principles 8–10 and contains a conclusion. If you haven’t read the other articles, you can check out part one here, and check out part two here.

8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail

Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user.

This principle speaks to me as a designer the most out of all ten principles. However, when considering digital, I would probably phrase this as, “Exceptional design is thorough down to the last detail.” The reality is the vast majority of digital products we use have not been thorough down to the last detail. And many of those products I would still be comfortable calling “good design”. They have not necessarily been disrespectful towards the user. Rather, those details left unconsidered are usually the result of an iterative approach to building digital products.

Still, I find this principle inspiring and a compelling reminder of the mentality designers should approach their work with. The foundations of truly exceptional design is the culmination of countless carefully considered details and decisions. Even if those details are not consciously appreciated by the user, their collective impact leaves an unmistakable impression. Using a wonderfully designed product there is the ever present feeling that this is a work of high quality; it exudes the feeling that it has been crafted with skill and great care.

Caring about the details is often where you can delight users the most, as it’s in the details where your users are least expecting to be surprised. While your core features are your most important, and rightly deserve the most attention, it’s still the little touches in the unexpected places that will most likely make your product remembered and create talking points.

In digital product design we can often create these talking points and delight users when it comes to animations and interaction design. People are often not expecting to be given an experience when simply moving from one page or task to another.

Many details have been considered in this wonderful UI Interaction by Anton Skvortsov

9. Good design is environmentally-friendly

Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimises physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

As design is mostly employed as an instrument of business, its ethics are often lost in the concerns of finance, marketing and sales. But ethical design, in terms of being sustainable and environmentally friendly, is no longer bad business. We’re now at a point where being ethical can give you the competitive edge. But ultimately ethics must be divorced from business. We must do things because they are right, not because they make good business sense and just so happen to have the bonus of being ethical.

Dieter Rams became conscious of the materials his products were using towards the end of his career. Many of his products used plastics and materials that cannot be easily recycled, and will ultimately pollute the environment for many years to come. However, he was designing in a time where few people were questioning the life cycle and environmental impact of these relatively new man-made materials. To arrive where he did illustrates a progressive attitude; a desire to question and improve his practice throughout his career, which is something we should all aspire to do.

My only issue with this principle is that it does not go far enough, and it should be updated to address our current reality. I believe we must consider the design of physical products within the context of a circular economy, where all materials and processes are selected with an understanding of how they will be reused and the energy they will consume.

Design should not be left off the hook with just making “an important contribution”, but charged with leading the way in new sustainable methods of production. We can look to studios like The Agency of Design and their Design Out Waste project for inspiring examples of different strategies to create “circular material flows”.

The Optimist Toaster, designed to last for generations. With permission from The Agency of Design.

In the world of digital product design we are only just beginning the conversation around the physical impact of the products we design.

Digital is physical. Digital is not green. Digital costs the Earth. Those data centers are not in the Cloud. They’re on land in massive physical buildings packed full of computers hungry for energy.
~ World Wide Waste, Gerry McGovern

When it comes to digital, building performant products that use, collect and store as little data as possible should be a clear requirement for how we understand good design.

10. Good design is as little design as possible

Less, but better — because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

This principle aligns in many ways to the philosophical idea of via negativa. That is, in action it is much better to subtract than to add. From personal experience, simplicity within design often comes through iteration. We start by over designing and then through subtraction and simplification we gain a cleaner, more usable solution.

I tend to push for simplicity within my design work, but I’m always aware of its limitations. Like many overly-hyped design trends that are better understood as movements, simplicity and minimalist design is pursued as if there are no possible negative consequences; and that it can be continuously pushed further and applied regardless of context.

Rams’ final principle is inspired by minimalism, a design aesthetic that when seen at scale and followed to its extreme can be argued to result in monotonous, cold and same-ish designs that collectively appear as a failure of imagination. Braun was able to build a brand around minimalist simplicity at at a time when that approach was perceived as new and fresh. When minimalism is popular, this design and branding strategy proves less distinctive, striking and effective.

Yawn or Brawn? A collection of homepages from minimalist websites.

Describing simplicity as ‘pure’ is problematic on a number of levels. It suggests complexity is impure, but clearly it can be necessary, even desirable. Some complexity, designed and integrated with empathy for the user, can add depth and an extra level of value to a product, especially when we consider products aimed at professional use. Simplicity viewed as purity by deduction implies a value, even moralistic, judgment of decorative and eclectic design traditions.

Simpler is not necessarily better. As mentioned in part one of the series, under the third principle, “Good design is aesthetic”, there are many designers who reject the less is better ideal outright and advocate “more is more” — a maximalist approach to design.

Rams’ position is a distinctly modernist, western view and should be understood as a narrow definition of good design bound by a specific culture and time. Designers working in different contexts and cultures at different times, producing very different work, should not be held to the this subjective ideal of good design. As described in the exhibition, Less Is a Bore: Maximalist Art & Design:

Encouraged by the pluralism permeating many cultural spheres at the time, these artists [exhibiting work] accommodated new ideas, modes, and materials, challenging entrenched categories that marginalized non-Western art, fashion, interior design, and applied art.
~ Less Is a Bore: Maximalist Art & Design

Conclusion

Dieter Rams’ ten principles for good design should be understood, and appreciated, with an awareness of a number of factors.

Primo, Dieter Rams was an industrial designer working on products for the home. His principles would be better understood as “ten principles for good industrial design (of homeware)”. If you are not an industrial designer, you must consider the differences between this field and your own. We have seen Dieter Rams’ influence particularly in the graphic design world and follow through to digital design. Repeatedly through deconstructing the principles we’ve seen how many of the principles do not entirely hold up within the different requirements of these design fields.

Secundo, Rams’ principles must be understood as subjective. They are a product of a specific culture and time, and as soon as we start thinking about them as objective rules that we can follow at any time, in any place, we have become ignorant of another world of possibility and practice.

Tertio, there’s much wisdom and experience packed into Dieter Rams’ ten principles for good design, but beware of blindly following the ideas of others. By being aware of the weaknesses and inconsistencies of these ten principles, we’re actually in a better place to make use of all they have to teach of us. Like any rules or principles handed down to us from another time, we have to appreciate that they represent the collected experience and knowledge of that individual’s life work. You are living and working in a different time, with different clients, different products, different users, and faced with a different world. Take what speaks to you, understand its limitations and evolve the ideas to your practice. And then you will find what good design means for you.

Et voilà!  

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