Less but Better: Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles

Wednesday, July 1, 2020
Nick Williams

“Everything interacts and is dependent on other things. We must think more thoroughly about what we are doing, how we are doing it, and why we are doing it.”

— Dieter Rams in Rams, 2018

Dieter Rams is a man who not only reveres the simple things in life but has also sought to distill simplicity into everyday objects. 

While Rams will certainly be remembered for the hundreds of iconic and innovative products he designed while working for Braun and Vitsoe, his impact as a modern visionary ripples much further than the discipline through which he made his living. 

Through his many essays, most notably his treatise entitled “10 Principles for Good Design,” Dieter Rams trailblazed a path for design to become more than just the beautification of consumer products for the purposes of marketing.  

Design, according to Rams, is innately human and serves as one of the foundational underpinnings of society as a whole.  

In Gary Hustwit’s recent documentary on the influential designer, Rams observes: 

“You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people.” 

Therefore, design should involve a moral and ethical responsibility and designers should understand and consider the societal implications of their work, using design as a force for positive change and human preservation. 

Ultimately, Rams’ ideas culminate in his most famous quote, 

Less but better” 

Dieter Rams in post-war Germany

Dieter Rams’ career with Braun started in the 1950s, a time when the Western consumer market was really starting to develop into the behemoth we know today. Following World War II and the world economic crisis, families were finally able to afford household appliances and technologies.  

Television and home audio equipment became hot tickets. I mean, what sane person WOULDN’T want to watch I Love Lucy or Leave it to Beaver?  

Subsequently, marketing and advertising firms had new, widely adopted platforms to show off their wares, and the making of the modern teenager, with a desire for all the newest fashions and gadgets, began to take shape. 

It was a fertile time for burgeoning companies to take advantage of new, untapped markets. Still, certain luminaries, such as Rams, decided to swim against the current of consumer exploitation by forgoing mass-production and the homogenization of design for mass audiences in favor of practical, minimalist functionalism.

After all, there’s not really any room for extravagance or superficiality in a country recovering from the brink of total destruction.

At the time, Germany was still recovering from the devastating physical and economic aftermath of the post-war period. Many brilliant young Germans, Rams included, seeking to help rebuild their country, pursued education and careers in fields like architecture and design which, in a literal sense, could help expedite Germany’s rebirth.

Dieter Rams graduated from the Wiesbaden School of Art and worked as an architect for two years before being recruited by consumer electronics manufacturer Braun in 1955, initially as an architect and interior designer.

By 1961, Rams became head of the design department at Braun, where he remained until 1995. 

Before long, through the innovative approaches of Rams and his peers, Braun branched out from audio equipment to become one of the world’s leading manufacturers in everything from televisions to shaving equipment. But instead of pumping out an endless variety of cheap, flashy products like their competitors, Braun sought to create sturdy and timeless items that would remain useful and modern for the long haul.  

Rams’ staggering 30+ years of loyalty ended with retirement—a decision which coincided with the increasingly shifting philosophies imposed by The Gillette Company, which had acquired a majority share of Braun in 1967 and took full control over operations in 1982. 

Though, throughout his decades as head of design at Braun, Rams developed and established a personal ethos for design that would disrupt and influence the discipline, fundamentally changing the home product market forever. 

His philosophy has been transmitted through countless interviews, documents, and essays, but is distilled most succinctly in his landmark manifesto, “The 10 Principles of Design.”  

Rams’ 10 commandments

For Rams, “the usage is the starting point of any design.” 

More than just an act, design is a part of life, permeating every human action and decision. Anything that involves brainstorming, problem-solving or human action is inherently design.

While Rams claims he intended his principles to be altered as needed over time, the awesome thing about the principles is that they are timeless. Whether they are applied to the blueprint of a novel home coffee maker from the 1960s or the design of a new project management platform, the principles can be considered and implemented to ensure a product’s absolute functional value.

The principles almost have a premonitory quality to them: in a world where rampant waste and consumerism dominates more than ever, a return to minimalism and ethical design seems almost obligatory.

So, according to Rams:

1. Good design is innovative

Good design must be on the same level as innovative technology. 

Design and technology have a symbiotic partnership with one another—as technology inevitably advances, so do consumer demands the opportunities to create and produce new, cutting edge work in design.  

Simply reiterating old products is not good enough. According to Rams, it should be the responsibility of designers to use their craft to help push human innovation as a whole forward. 

Good design constantly seeks to chart unexplored waters.  

2. Good design makes a product useful

For Rams, it is essential that each and every aspect of a design be reduced down to its most essential qualities—fairly self-explanatory, but surprisingly, many modern designers miss the mark here. What does that button/widget/handle/overlay actually DO? Does it achieve an actual useful purpose for the consumer, or is it superfluous?

Modern design often prioritizes flashiness over meat-and-potatoes utility, but this approach ignores the fact that, if you create a product that does its job, and does it well, customers will keep coming back. 

3. Good design is aesthetic

Rams reminds us that the objects we use daily have the power to impact our general sense of well-being. Thus, his design aesthetic is fundamentally attached to the human experience: the objects in a consumers life inevitably shape their personal surroundings and affect their happiness—these interactions need to be considered while creating a product.   

Any happiness derived from pure ‘ornamentation’ is, at best, fleeting. An object can’t look good just for the sake of looking good—rather, a product’s beauty should be derived from its functionality and simplicity. 

4. Good design makes a product understandable

The structure of a product should speak for itself, “better still, it can make the product talk.” 

Good design tells its own story. Can you tell by looking at the nearest chair or table, how its pieces fit together? How each product is capable of fulfilling its function of support?

A user should be able to understand the construction of a product—its design narrative—without having to open the book (or user manual) themselves. 

5. Good design is unobtrusive

“Simplicity is not the absence of clutter…simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product.”

— Apple Designer, Jony Ive

A properly designed product should speak for itself, and it should allow consumers to interact with its functionality on their own terms, rather than the terms of the designer or producer.  

Ultimately, a product is simply a tool—nothing more, nothing less. It can be an exciting, useful, dynamic, disruptive tool, but a consumer still needs to be able to use it effortlessly, without feeling bogged down by the designer’s vision.

6. Good design is honest

A well-designed product should speak confidently for itself, without the need to try and convince the potential customer of its usefulness. 

If your product is straightforward with its features, there will be no hurt feelings or disappointed consumers, which usually translates to good reviews and positive feedback.  

Unfortunately, this seems to be the principle most often ignored by modern designers—think, for example, of the millions of crappy apps in the Google Play Store with a laundry list of questionably accurate stats and features listed to entice potential downloads.  

7. Good design is long-lasting

“The task of design has an ethical dimension. Good design is value. The better world we have to build must be done with moral values in mind. This attitude is very different from the widespread approach which treats design as entertainment...Whatever gets a good reaction is judged to be good.”

-Dieter Rams, “Waste Not, Want Not” 

For Rams, a good product should transcend fads and fashions—you shouldn’t feel the need to buy a new razor every year if it works as well as the day you bought it.  

This principle speaks to the sustainable nature of Rams’ work—it is essential to design products not just for today, but for tomorrow, and for years into the future.

8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail

Designers must take care to consider literally every detail and feature of their final product. Your product might be mostly amazing, but its that one crappy feature that people will inevitably remember.  

Once again, reducing extraneous features and embellishments ensures that only the best and most important elements of a product make it to its final release.

9. Good design is environmentally friendly

“It is difficult to improve morals but it would be a tremendous achievement if we could improve thinking—and design is in the front line of the thinking process.”

— Dieter Rams, “Waste Not, Want Not” 

Environmental considerations are extremely important for Dieter Rams—but that extends much further than just our physical impact on the Earth.  

Rams considers a designer’s impact on sustainability, and on our social environment, to be a fundamental obligation. Since designers are at the forefront of the creation of consumer goods, their design footprint should be carefully considered.  

Designers also have the power and agency to actually contribute solutions and ideas to help solve the multitude of problems faced by modern society. For Rams, design, ethics, and the world are all intrinsically tied together and exist in the same ecosystem. 

Designers have the ability to influence the mainstream perception of the world’s issues through their work: so, if your product simply exists to make a quick buck, then you aren’t living up to your potential as an agent of change.

10. Good design is as little design as possible

“Complicated, unnecessary forms are nothing more than designers’ escapades that function as self-expression instead of expressing the products’ functions. The reason is often that design is used to gain a superficial redundancy.”

— Dieter Rams 

The final principle on good design encapsulates Rams’ perspective as a whole. 

“Back to simplicity. Back to purity. Less, but better.”

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

Although Rams’ theories were created with physical consumer products in mind, they remain relevant today, even in a market dominated by technology and software development. 

The ideas Rams outlined in his principles, and implemented throughout his illustrious career at Braun, reverberate throughout history. Aftershocks are still being felt in many of the designs consumers know and love today—most notably, his influence on the fundamental DNA of Apple products like the original iPod. 

In an interview conducted for Fast Company, documentarist Gary Hustwit asks Rams: “If you were to design a computer today, what would it look like?” 

Rams’ response?

“It would look like one of Apple’s products...I think their designs are brilliant. I don’t consider [them] an imitation. I take it as a compliment.”

In terms of tangible connections between Apple and Braun products, the similarities are pretty obvious, especially if you compare, for example, the design of the original iPod to Braun’s 1958 T3 Radio. Or, the calculator application found on iPhones, which directly mimics Braun’s iconic ET 66 Calculator.

Apple’s chief design officer, Jony Ive— who has recently announced he will be leaving Apple later this year to start his own design company— is a fan of Rams too, believing the designer’s products for Braun go “beyond improvement” for modern design. Talk about one of the most influential bromances in the history of the design world. 

Rams’ influence extends further than the tech or production world, with many noted artists or architects also citing his impact on their works.

Designing signposts for future generations

Despite his influence, Rams remains humble. He doesn’t consider himself an icon or a superstar designer. When approached by Gary Hustwit to create a documentary about his career, Rams initially declined. It took months for the filmmaker to convince him. 

Rams’ initial hesitation on his involvement in the project could have something to do with his belief that his designs played a role in pushing society towards materialism and away from sustainability

Hustwit’s documentary, which was released in 2018, does not validate this opinion however and instead highlights how Rams has been concerned over the environmental impact of design since before sustainability became fashionable. 

If one examines how quickly consumer markets have developed since Rams began his career in the 1950s—the fact that his principles are still so fundamentally important speaks directly to their timelessness and prescience.  

And while Rams may not consider himself an icon, he certainly does consider the powerful role design plays within society as a whole: After all, he states in Omit the Unimportant:

The design process and its results can be examples for other sorely needed developments. This is where I see the importance of design. Objects you can see, touch, and experience usually have more direct and stronger effect than words, for instance. Objects can become orientation marks, or signposts. The duty of design in times of change is to create characteristics, which can function as “pathfinders” for us all.”