Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles for Good Design

On Monday of this week I travelled from Berkeley across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco to have dinner with a friend who was staying at a hotel next to the Museum of Modern Art, so I decided to go a little early and enjoy the current exhibits. I’m glad I did, because the work of industrial designer Dieter Rams is currently on exhibit, along with his extraordinary principles for good design.

For several decades Rams designed products for Braun and Vitsoe, and has been a leading inspiration behind Apple’s approach to product design. The simple beauty of products such as the iPhone reflect Rams’ design aesthetic. According to the website of Vitsoe, “Back in the early 1980s, Dieter Rams was becoming increasingly concerned by the state of the world around him — ‘an impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises.’ Aware that he was a significant contributor to that world, he asked himself an important question: is my design good design?” In response to this question, he developed the following 10 principles of good design:

Good design is innovative.

The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

Good design makes a product useful.

A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasises the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

Good design is aesthetic.

The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

Good design makes a product understandable.

It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.

Good design is unobtrusive.

Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

Good design is honest.

It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

Good design is long-lasting.

It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years — even in today’s throwaway society.

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 consumer.

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.

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.

I hope you find these principles as sensible, insightful, and inspiring as I do.

Today, Rams looks at the world and sighs. Quoted in The Telegraph on June 4, 2011, he said:

I am troubled by the devaluing of the word “design”. I find myself now being somewhat embarrassed to be called a designer. In fact I prefer the German term, Gestalt-Ingenieur. Apple and Vitsoe are relatively lone voices treating the discipline of design seriously in all corners of their businesses. They understand that design is not simply an adjective to place in front of a product’s name to somehow artificially enhance its value. Ever fewer people appear to understand that design is a serious profession; and for our future welfare we need more companies to take that profession seriously.

What concerns Rams about the design of physical products today is perhaps even more evident in the design of software. Most software vendors bother little with design and fill their products with the kinds of contrivances that Rams has fought for years to discourage. “My goal is to omit everything superfluous so that the essential is shown to best possible advantage” (Rams, 1980). Business intelligence and so-called analytics vendors are notorious for their insatiable appetites for wasteful, ill conceived, and dysfunctionally designed features. With few exceptions, what they call innovation is anything but. “Things which are different in order simply to be different are seldom better, but that which is made to be better is almost always different” (Rams, 1993).

The best designers, whether of the industrial variety, such as Rams, or any other type, including those who apply their skills to data visualization, strive for a marriage of form and function, beauty and usability, which refuses to see these forces in necessary conflict. Thanks to designers like Rams who care, we might someday live in a world where bad design is the exception rather than the norm.

Take care,

6 Comments on “Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles for Good Design”

By Dick K. December 15th, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Steve — good post. I’ve read about Dieter and his ideas and learned quite a lot in the process. I’m not sure I understand his “…devaluing of the word ‘design'” comment. I suspect he’s reacting to the fact that so many seem to be jumping on the bandwagon of design too often with little idea of what that means. I can understand that, but on the other hand, anything that spreads the awareness of design concepts doesn’t seem, to me, to be all bad.

I can’t say I’m anything but an interested, amateur student, but without the popular ‘noise’ on the topic, I doubt I’d have even gotten that far or appreciated how it could apply to one of my interests–presentations.

In any case, keep up the great work.

By from Spain with love. December 16th, 2011 at 3:26 am

Unfortunately, Apple’s products are not always honest or long lasting, as was demonstrated by the battery issue of the first iPads (made on purpose not to last). There is a very interesting report in Youtube about how current designs conceive products to last for an increasingly shorter lifetime to promote consumption. Look for “Planned obsolescence” in Youtube!

The rest of the note is pure gold. Love it!

By David Gerbino aka @dmgerbino. December 16th, 2011 at 8:25 am

Awesome! I found those words inspiring.

By Andrew. December 16th, 2011 at 10:28 am

“You know you have achieved perfection in design, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Good article, Stephen.

By Ken Cherven. January 3rd, 2012 at 8:47 am

Enjoyed this post, and how you tied it to the excesses of many BI products, where even the simplest charts are of notoriously poor design. I do recall admiring Braun products for many years, without knowing who was behind them – nice to make the connection.

By Marty Gierke. January 11th, 2012 at 2:48 pm

As a designer myself for many years, I often thought of Dieter’s guiding principles, but reflected more so on those of the Shakers – whom I suspect may have influenced many designers.

Regularity is beautiful.
The highest beauty lies in harmony.
Beauty arises from practicality.
Order is the origin of beauty.
That which is most practical is also most beautiful.