Dieter Rams: 10 Principles for Good Design
Dieter Rams, born 1932 in Germany, is an industrial designer known for heading Braun’s design team for over 30 years. He founded the “10 Principles of Good Design” as a benchmark to test whether a design can be considered good, or not.
Rams was questioning the state of the world. The 70s were a very confusing time for design. Technological progress allowed design to steer out of control as technical limitations receded. Rams’ response to this situation was to set a standard that would introduce the world to functional industrial design.
What is functional design?
Functional design dictated that the purpose of a product guided and influenced the design process. A product’s form needed to allow it to perform its function in the best way possible.
In other words:
Form follows function.
These principles were a methodology Rams used to organise his thinking, but they very quickly became popular. Rams’ principles have influenced generations of designers and continue to do so to this day.
These principles still stand true today, perhaps even more than when Rams’ initially wrote them. These are valuable guidelines for anyone working in any design field.
The 10 Principles
- 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.
1. Good Design is Innovative
Good design develops in conjunction with technological innovation.
We will (hopefully) never reach a stage where the possibilities for innovation will be exhausted. Technology is always developing to offer new opportunities for innovative design.
Each iteration of an object should advance our understanding of it. Most importantly, we must always strive to enhance how our design improves the object’s function.
If we don’t push for progress, we risk the object degrading into less functional, and redundant forms.
2. Good Design Makes a Product Useful
Good design will highlight the usefulness of a product and removes anything that takes away from its functionality.
Products have a functional role and a psychological one. The products we buy play a role in shaping our identities, psychology, and how we view ourselves.
Look at designers for example, most designers use a MacBook but do they need a mac to do their jobs? Not really. A MacBook might not be the most functional device (thanks to Apple removing some much-needed USB ports), but it has a strong appeal. The appeal of a Mac is that it’s clean, beautifully designed, and most importantly, it creates a strong identity. Creatives love MacBooks for the promise they hold.
Products have an identity designed into them, and a MacBook delivers a clear message: Think Different, think Apple.
Good design is more than the product itself.
3. Good Design is Aesthetic
We use products daily, and their aesthetics affect how we feel about using them. If you have the most perfectly functional product out there, you’ll be hardpressed to use it if it’s an eyesore.
Don’t mistake aesthetics with ornamentation. Design for design’s sake is not aesthetic and it detracts from the object’s function. Rams’ believed that aesthetic design should be a pure expression of the object’s function.
In other words, the design should be able to explain everything you need to know about the product. Aesthetic design is intuitive design.
4. Good Design Makes a Product Understandable
Building upon the previous point, good design is self-explanatory.
The simpler an object is, the better it can explain its functions without using signifiers. When an object grows in complexity, the more you’ll need to add signifiers to explain how the product works.
Think of a traditional phone vs a smartphone.
Old house phones were simple to use. You just knew that the phone handle goes to your ear, and you used the keypad to dial, and if you put the right number combination, someone will talk to you on the other side of the line.
Smartphones are more complex. You need to know how to turn on a smartphone, unlock the phone screen, find the phone icon, and dial a number. If you did not have a visual cue at any of those steps, you might think a smartphone was far too complicated to use.
5. Good design is unobtrusive
Products are not decorative objects, nor are they art pieces to be displayed as a centrepiece.
To quote Donald Norman, who I like to call the godfather of user experience:
“Good design is a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible,”
Let’s add a quote by Joe Sparano as well, an American graphic designer and teacher.
“Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent”
In industrial design, good design is restrained and neutral. When you place a product in a room, it should appear as if it belongs to the room and blends in just fine.
The same principles apply in UI/UX design. The interface and flow should be so seamless and intuitive that you never have to pay attention to the interface. The interface should be so intuitive that a user doesn’t need to spend time to understand how to use it.
Again, the same principles also apply to architecture. A well-designed space will not force itself on you. You can flow through it so intuitively that you might second-guess whether or not you’ve been in the building before.
6. Good Design is Honest
Honest design tells you the truth.
It tells you how useful or how valuable a product is. Honest design does not try to trick you into believing a product is more precious or more innovative than it truly is.
Good design does not sell you empty promises.
7. Good Design is Long-Lasting
Good design lasts a long time because it does not try to be fashionable or trendy, and because of that, it withstands time and lasts many years.
When you make a design fashionable or trendy, it will age instantly in today’s consumer/throwaway society.
8. Good Design is Thorough Down to the Last Detail
Nothing in your design should be random or an accident You must strive to design with purpose and accuracy.
Scale up your design and look at the minute details. It is these details that work together to create the whole.
Make every single detail purposeful out of respect for the design, and most importantly, for the user.
9. Good Design is Environmentally Friendly
Design with the environment in mind. Your final product should contribute to the preservation of our environment and the conservation of resources to help reduce pollution throughout its lifecycle. Good design ensures that the least amount of resources, both material and human, are wasted in the creation of it.
Environmentally friendly design does not only apply to the physical world’s environment but also the digital environment. Your application should not waste precious resources within the device using it because these will also have real-world ramifications, and consequences on device health and performance.
Design should solve meaningful problems, and what is more important than protecting both our physical and digital environments?
10. Good Design Is as Little Design as Possible
Concentrate only on the important aspects of a product so that they are not burdened or overshadowed by the non-essential parts.
Over-designing an object takes away from an object’s purpose and leads to confusing user experiences. Keep designing with deletion in mind and keep asking yourself “What purpose is this design serving? Does the user need it to understand the function? No? Then it should not be there”.
Good design is pure and simple.
Rams described the designer’s role as that of a gestaltingenieur or creative engineer. A designer’s work should be rational and based his/her design decisions on a thorough understanding of the purpose of the object.
Designers have a responsibility to design efficient, effective, and aesthetic solutions that will contribute to improving the world and the life of its users. Our goals as designers should be to identify real-world problems and implications as we solve our user’s needs.
*Design Principles: Visual Perception And The Principles Of Gestalt. (2014, March 29). Smashing Magazine. https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2014/03/design-principles-visual-perception-and-the-principles-of-gestalt/
‘Ten Commandments’ from ‘Dieter Rams: Ten Principles For Good Design’ by Shuffle. (n.d.). Dieter Rams: Ten Principles For Good Design. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://readymag.com/shuffle/dieter-rams/ten-commandments/
Walls, A. (2018, April 16). Dieter Rams 10 Principles of Good Design. Hacker Noon. https://hackernoon.com/dieter-rams-10-principles-of-good-design-e7790cc983e9
Domingo, M. (2020, June 28). Dieter Rams: 10 Timeless Commandments for Good Design. The Interaction Design Foundation. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/dieter-rams-10-timeless-commandments-for-good-design