Dieter Rams (1932–Present) is a German industrial designer active since the 1950’s. He is well known in the design community for his “10 Principles of Good Design”, which some refer to as the “10 Commandments of Good Design”. But, taking the “10 Principles” as law overlooks the fundamental ethos of his design process:
Strict functionality has fallen into disrepute in recent years. Perhaps rightly so in a way, since the functions that a product had to fulfil were often too narrowly, too puritanically determined. Human needs are more diverse than many designers are sometimes ready to admit or, perhaps, capable of knowing. For me the territory that the term “function” covers is constant expanding. One is simply forced to keep learning how complex and manifold the functions of a product are.
Dieter Rams, ‘Die Rolle des Designers im Industrieunternehmen’.
Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design. Function-oriented design is the fruit of intense, comprehensive, patient and contemplative reflection on reality, on life, on the needs, desires and feelings of people.
Dieter Rams, ‘Functional design: A Challenge for the Future’, lecture (1987), Rams archive 184.108.40.206.
Instead of strictly following “laws” of design, Rams encourages us to deeply and compassionately think about those who will use and interact with our designs. His “10 Principles” (and other proposed axioms distilled from experience) can serve as tools that guide behavior and help us orient ourselves as we iterate upon designs. However, the presence of these principles and axioms does not mean the process of design has yet been reduced to algorithmically applying these ideas. Even with the wisdom of experts, to create good designs means we need to think.
15 Questions a Designer Should Ask of a Product
- The first question is not if one should be designing something but how.
- Is the product that we are designing really necessary? Are there not already other, similar, tried and tested appliances that people have got used to and are good and functional? Is innovation in this instance really necessary?
- Will it really enrich people’s lives or does it just appeal to their covetousness, possessiveness or ideas of status? Or does it wake desire because it is offering something new?
- Is it conceived for the short- or long-term, does it just help increase the speed of the cycle of throwaway goods or does it help slow it down?
- Can it be simply repaired or does it rely on an expensive customer service facility? Can it in fact be repaired at all or is the whole appliance rendered redundant when just one part of it breaks?
- Does it exhibit fashionable and therefore aesthetically short-lived design elements?
- Does it help people or incapacitate them? Does it make them more free or more dependent?
- Is it so accomplished and perfect that it perhaps incapacitates or humiliates you?
- Which previous human activity does it replace and can that really be called progress?
- What possibilities for change, what scope does the product offer people?
- Can the product be used in other, perhaps playful, ways?
- Does the product really offer convenience or does it encourage passivity?
- What does the expected improvement look like in a broader context?
- Does it make an action or activity on the whole more complicated or simpler; is it easy to operate or do you have to learn how to use it?
- Does it arouse curiosity and the imagination? Does it encourage desire to use it, understand it and even to change it?
Dieter Rams’, “Die Rolle des Designers im Unternehmen,” speech (January 18, 1980), Dieter Rams archive 220.127.116.11.
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 tandmen 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 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 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 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. Good 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 inessentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity!
Dieter Rams, Ten Principles of Good Design, June 1987/July 1991, amended March 2003, Dieter Rams archive.