Dieter Rams

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Good design is making something intelligible and memorable. Great design is making something memorable and meaningful. - Dieter Rams

No designer has had a stronger direct influence upon modern consumer industrial design than Dieter Rams. Whether it's an Apple iPhone, a Bowers & Wilkins speaker or a Plus Minus Zero CD player, the shadow of Dieter Rams' designs still loom across the landscape of today's best designs. Rams was the head of design at Braun, the German consumer manufacturer, in which he emerged as one of the most influentials industrial designers in the late 20th century. All the products were elegant, minimalistic, easy to use and at the same time, they conveyed a strong visual language.

We covered some of Dieter Rams' work here and here before, but this post is more about the man and his designs.

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In the early 1960s the Federal Republic of Germany gradually emerged from the isolation resulting from National Socialism and World War II. America was now no longer only a model to emulate, but also an export market, primarily for German cars made by Mercedes, Volkswagen or Porsche. And Electronics.

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Good Design in Ten Principles.
When he arrived at Braun, Rams applied his architectural skills to the design of exhibition sets and offices, but became increasingly interested in products. In 1956 he worked with the Ulm tutor, Hans Gugelot, on the development of the SK4 radio and record player. Abandoning the traditional wooden cabinet, they devised an unapologetically industrial metal case for the SK4 with two pale wooden sides. The operating panel was positioned on the top next to the turntable, rather than hidden away at the side. Originally the cover was to have been made of metal, but it vibrated too much in tests and was replaced with transparent plastic which exposed the mechanics of the record player. Rather than being repulsed by the sight of electrical apparatus, consumers considered it chic and transparent lids became an industry standard. The plastic lid also gave the SK4 its nickname – “Snow White’s Coffin”.

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Dieter Rams remained design director of Braun until 1995 when he was succeeded by Peter Schneider. During his forty years at Braun, he developed products to be manufactured at vast scale and used daily by millions of people, yet he remained as provocative and questioning as ever in his quest for “good design”.

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Modern products from the likes of Apple, Bowers & Wilkins and plusminuszero, all reveal the strong influence of Dieter Rams in their designs.

“I think that good designers must always be avant-gardists, always one step ahead of the times,” he said in a speech to the Braun supervisory board in 1980. “They should – and must – question everything generally thought to be obvious. They must have an intuition for people’s changing attitudes. For the reality in which they live, for their dreams, their desires, their worries, their needs, their living habits. They must also be able to assess realistically the opportunities and bounds of technology.”

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His design mantra could be translated in 10 principles:

• Good design is innovative.

• Good design makes a product useful.

• Good design is aesthetic.

• Good design helps us to understand a product.

• Good design is unobtrusive.

• Good design is honest.

• Good design is durable.

• Good design is consequent to the last detail.

• Good design is concerned with the environment.

• Good design is as little design as possible.

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This is exactly, his approach to "good design", and you can read it in his book Less and More. Very few companies these days adhere to these principles, one of them is Apple (as Rams himselfs mentions in the film Objectified). There's no denying you can clearly see the long shadow of influence of Dieter Ram's work in Apple's Senior Vice President of Industrial Design, Jonathan Ive's work for Apple.

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It's disappointing to note nowadays much of consumer electronics are seemingly designed to be disposable items, with a cheap look and feel, limited durability. Technological advances are made by leaps and bound each year, so what you are buying today will likely be considered obsolete next year, perhaps explaining why manufactures don't go the extra mile to infuse more "industrial design" into everyday products. We only hope more companies begin listening and following Dieter Ram's 10 principles of design, with the hopes 25 years from now, people will look back for inspiration from today's designs.

[Sources: Design Museum, Gizmodo and Gestalten]

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