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Less, But Better – an interview with design legend Dieter Rams

29th June 09

Posted by Ben Malbon

Posted in culture, design, process

“Good designers must always be avant-gardists, always one step ahead of the times. 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.”

(Dieter Rams, 1980 speech to Braun supervisory board, from his Design Museum profile)

There can’t be many more legendary & respected designers around today than Dieter Rams. For over 50 years Rams has been one of the most influential industrial designers around, producing elegant, stripped-down and flawlessly balanced everyday objects in such enduring forms that one is hard-pressed to identify a design of his that hasn’t stood the test of time.

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Electric shaver, 1970; Control ET44 calculator, 1978; LE1 loudspeaker, 1960. All Braun.

In fact, if you own an iPod, iPhone, or iMac you almost certainly owe thanks to Dieter Rams for some of the look, feel and simplicity of these products. His influence is explicit in the work of Jonathan Ive at Apple, most literally, perhaps, in the design of the calculator on the iPhone, but in fact across almost the entire range of Apple products.

The influence of Rams on Jonathan Ive at Apple is profound (image: Jesus Diaz)

The influence of Rams on Jonathan Ive at Apple is profound (image: Jesus Diaz)

(For more, including Q&A with Rams, click below)

For more on the strong influence of Rams’ work on Ives design thinking at Apple take a quick look at this, or see the excellent piece by Jesus Diaz in Gizmodo in January 2008):

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Today, the only products of Rams’ that are still produced are his furniture: the 606 Universal Shelving System and the truly magic 620 Chair Programme, both from Vitsoe (they are available from vitsoe.com).

One of the most frequently cited pieces of Rams’ thinking are his ‘Ten Principles of Good Design“, originally lezbiyen pornosu published in his 1995 book, “Weniger, aber besser” (“Less, but better”).

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Through these ten principles Dieter Rams defines what he means by “good design”. The most frequently cited summary list is below but for the fuller and more illuminating version head to the Vitsoe site.

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.
Back to purity, back to simplicity.

(Here is Rams, talking in more detail about his philosophy, in an interview produced for the V&A’s ‘Cold War Modern’ exhibition in 2008).

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We’ve been long-time fans of Rams’, his work, his ‘take no prisoners’ attitude towards innovation, and indeed, customers of his products (my Vitsoe 606 shelving system is currently stored in 10 bomb-proof boxes in a friend’s basement back in London; BBH London uses 606 in a number of places around the agency).

We’ve been thinking about what we can borrow from Rams’ approach in order to make our innovation efforts more radical, and more successful, more quickly, and finally managed to catch up with Rams in Tokyo last month, where we put some questions his way. In response came some typically forthright and uncompromising replies, most notably around the subject of crowdsourcing design (which, of course, is an area of interest for us in Labs) . . .

BBH Labs: The design process has changed out of all recognition in the last 20 years, thanks primarily to technology. Are we net better off, or worse off?

Rams: Technology is, of course, very important but so too are new materials. I see no change in the design process because it is always important that new technologies, new materials and new manufacturing processes are included within it.  It is even more important today that industrial designers should be trained more as design engineers. The computer helps the speed of the design process but you must still make sketches by hand.  After all, design is a thinking process that starts in the head and with sketches.  Thinking cannot be done by a computer. (Note: Rams, famously, does not own a computer).

BBH Labs: Your philosophy “Less, but better” / “Weniger, aber besser” is looking smarter and smarter with time. Do you think that will be manifested in the years ahead? What excites you about the future and what worries you?

Rams: I certainly hope that it will be manifested.  My worry is that the world is becoming more chaotic every day.  My excitement is that more people paying attention to ‘Less but better’ could help solve our growing problems.

BBH Labs: Is there an alternate design philosophy to your own that you appreciate or value? For example, is there any room for ‘maximalism’, layers, multiplicity, intricacy, confusion? Are there designers or artists you admire who occupy a very different space to you?

Rams: I have a strong dislike for those who make a monument to themselves.  I admire Ettore Sottsass and his Memphis movement but he told me that he never intended the items to be produced.

BBH Labs: There is lots of discussion in the design community at the moment about the promise (or evils – delete as appropriate) of crowdsourcing (see businesses such as Crowdspring). Many are excited about the democratization of design, proposing quality will always win through and crowdsourcing simply increases the chances of excellence whilst reducing costs. Others are dismayed about the erosion of both the principles and margins of the design profession. Where do you stand on using the ‘creativity of the crowd’?

Rams: Under no circumstances. No way.

BBH Labs: Thinking specifically about the interactive space what kind of work is catching your eye?

Rams: I am not working in this field so I cannot give a meaningful answer.

BBH Labs: Finally, who are the ‘ones to watch’? Who will extend your legacy?

Rams: I hate to give names.  But I am astonished that my design ethos and my 10 Commandments are being picked up by other designers.  I am hopeful that my ethos will be continued.

So there we go. Hardcore stuff. Uncompromising.

Rams was recently in Tokyo for the opening of his exhibition at the Fuchu Art Museum (the wonderful catalogue is available at the Cooper Hewitt online store, and the exhibition moves to London’s Design Museum in November 09). Whilst in Tokyo he met Jun Takahashi of Under Cover who was presenting a fashion collection at Pitti Uomo that was an homage to Dieter Rams.  The collection is called ‘Less but better’.  When Mark Adams, the MD of Vitsoe, asked Takahashi why he was paying homage to Rams he answered, “The world urgently needs reduction.  And the master of reduction is Dieter Rams.”

There’s a purity and almost obsessive drive to Rams that marks him out as a maverick and a pioneer. While he was happy (and successful) designing for the masses, he remains unswervingly focused on his own quest for good design. And for doing things his way.

We take three major lessons from Rams’ story that we believe are relevant to our own modest innovation efforts.

1. Question absolutely everything, especially the ‘most obvious’.

2. Strive to understand people, at every level.

3. Embrace technology, but do so with pragmatism not hype.

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For more on Rams, his background, inspirations and legacy see the excellent profile of him on the Design Museum’s site.

Many thanks to Mark Adams at Vitsoe for arranging the interview with Dieter.

2 comments on “Less, But Better – an interview with design legend Dieter Rams”

  1. [...] Dieter Rams’ interview, BBH Labs [...]

  2. [...] Dieter Rams is one of the most famous designers, well known for his minimalist and functional designs. His philosophy of design was that almost everything is noise and distraction, and the most important thing was to focus on the essential. He is the grandfather of: “Less, But Better“. [...]

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