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Every aspect of our world is designed in one way or another. From the appliances in our kitchens to the clothes on our backs, every switch and button has been meticulously considered and executed. Design — whether it be in buildings, laptops or can openers — weave through the fabric of our lives.
But things have changed. Today, we live in a throwaway society. We create and consume in abundance, forgoing detail for convenience. The mass production of virtually every product we use has fuelled a capitalist society that cares little for how things are made, only for how much revenue they garner. We gravitate towards products that give us more. The bigger, the better. The more functions, the better. The more we can afford to buy, the better. Gone are the days where good design, rather than cheap design, took centre stage in blueprints and on drawing boards.
In the world of design, there are few who have created as lasting an impact as Dieter Rams. Widely considered as one of the most influential designers of all time, and one of my personal idols, Rams is a visionary like no other. Nearly every product design created by him continues to be considered a classic today. In a society that is in a perpetual state of flux as a result of cultural and technological developments, that’s staying power.
From an early age, Rams was strongly influenced by his grandfather’s role as a carpenter. After training as an architect in Germany in the early 1950s, Rams was recruited by the German electrical products company, Braun, in 1955. Follow the death of Erwin and Artur Braun’s father, Rams was tasked with modernizing the interiors of a company that continued to launch revolutionary products for households across the globe.
Soon, Rams became a star student of the Ulm School of Design and quickly became involved in product design at Braun. Due to his incomparable talent and eye for innovation, he was appointed as the head of design of Braun from 1961 to 1995. Along with the rest of his design team, Dieter Rams became the man responsible for many of the greatest domestic electrical products of the twentieth century.
Braun asserted itself as a leading consumer products company under the expert guidance of Rams. However, in the late 1970s, the designer became increasingly perturbed by the state of the world around him. He began to see his surroundings as “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises.” Conscious that he was a prominent contributor to that world, he asked himself: is my design good design? He did not want to thoughtlessly feed into a world that was turning design into nothing more than dollar signs. To him, that was dishonest and irresponsible.
Rams wanted to advocate for a purist, almost imperceptible design; products that fit seamlessly into the lives of those who use it. As such, he came up with ten principles for good design. Often referred to as the “ten commandments of good design,” these principles remain as timeless fundaments of design theory and practice today: 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 durable. Good design is consistent to the last detail. Good design is environmentally friendly. Good design is as little design as possible.
If you have used one of Rams’ products, you would have likely been able to check off the boxes beside each of the aforementioned principles. Each and every one of his creations are aesthetically pleasing, user-friendly and exceptionally practical. They are beautiful without being fashionable, and therefore never appear antiquated. There is no use of big buttons or bold colours or abstract lines; nothing detracts from the product’s function, which is clear and self-explanatory. The inherent simplicity of the design makes the product smart as it is able to express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. Perhaps one of the most important principles of the ten is the one that considers the preservation of the environment. Rams made it his primary goal to offer products to consumers that conserved resources and minimized physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product. All ten principles boil down to one thing: less but better. Simplicity allows for products to be elegant, supremely versatile and free of the burden of non-essentials.
Although the current reality is that most companies do not consider good design when pushing out products to the public, there are some that do. Apple is a prime example. Both Steve Jobs, the late Apple co-founder, and Jony Ive, the company’s Senior Vice President of Industrial Design, were outspoken admirers of Rams’ work. If you compare some of Rams’ creations with Apple’s products, the similarities are astounding. It is fascinating to see the parallel between Braun’s speaker and Apple’s iMac. Thankfully, many newer start-ups and up-and-coming companies are now returning to the seeds that Rams had sowed. Unlike big, corporate giants, these new businesses recognize a gap in the market for carefully considered and expertly crafted products that reduce everything to the basics. Some examples that come to mind include Cereal Magazine, a store in Los Angeles called Formerly Yes and Vitsoe, a shelving company that Rams himself designed for. For these owners, Rams’ tenth principle — less but better — is their motto, and simplicity is their aim. They’ve adopted a new kind of social responsibility: to reduce products to their simplest form, thereby providing consumers with the best product possible.
Dieter Rams’ design ethos extends far beyond design — it is a philosophy that also applies to life. With so many new products being offered to us, it has become almost second nature to want more and to buy more. Abundance has become a sign of wealth; new versions of appliances, phones and clothes are readily available at a moment’s notice. We feed into this mindless cycle of producing more, buying more and, as a result, throwing away more. This produces both environmental noise and visual noise, exerting very real and tangible effects on our lives. Rarely does anything in our lives remain permanent anymore.
Consumers have been programmed to jump at the sight of a sale sign, and to scope out deals in order to buy as much as they can. It is therefore unsurprising to me that friends of mine would widen their eyes or even chastise me when I purchase an item of clothing that is more than what they would consider as “a steal.” Buying less clothes but buying better clothes is a way in which I’ve adopted Rams’ principles into my life. Instead of spending a certain amount of money on many articles of clothing, consider spending the same amount (or perhaps saving even more) to invest in one high-quality piece. This will not only ensure that you will love whatever it is you buy, it will also lead to less clutter in your closet and save you time in the mornings when getting ready, reducing the burden of choice.
Buying less and buying better should extend into every part of our lives as consumers. The next time you buy a top, cooking knives or perhaps even a couch, remember Dieter Rams’ ten principles. Good design should be so simple, fluid and considered that they almost camouflage into your surroundings. They should make you feel a deep, lasting satisfaction at the mere thought of owning them. It is not only our responsibility to ourselves, but also our responsibility to society to refrain from perpetuating a harmful consumer mindset that focuses on abundance. In truth, simplicity is something we should adopt into every facet of our busy lives. Less is more, and less is always better.
Photo Credit: Abisag Tüllman