All of us, passionate about design, art or technology have probably heard of Dieter Rams at some point in our lives. In my case, it’s one of my highlights back when I was in university, I remember as it if was yesterday the moment I discovered Dieter Rams’ work just after getting introduced to the work of the Bauhaus, and since then that caused a major impact in both my perception of product design as well as my vision of my work as a designer.
For those who don’t know, Dieter Rams is an industrial designer who for years took the creative direction of the development of the German brand Braun, and leaded one of the most important movements of the industrial design known as functionalism for both product design and architecture.
As a matter of fact, Ram’s principles and techniques of design, even his own style was used as the main source of inspiration for some of the most famous Apple products, but that’s something that could be individually discussed in a longer post.
The transition between tangible and digital product design
As someone that comes from an industrial design background as myself, studying industrial design engineering I had to lecture about Dieter Rams and his work on the field of industrial design itself and also as part of the movement that would revolutionise the way we think about products, and in the same way how we think about design and problem-solving.
It’s important to keep in mind that for physical products and digital products the requirements will never be the same, nor the markets where it applies or the user that will make use of it, that’s why its own interpretation of those principles need to be specified in order to get the best approach.
While in physical products we need to take in consideration things like the ergonomics on the usability of a product when working on a digital product that would be replaced by the UX of the interface on itself. There are a set of rules that apply to tangible products that effect in a different way all things digital, an example being the rules of usability set by the Bauhaus school of design in contrast to the W3C web accessibility initiative for web and online products.
The principles of Good design adapted to UX design
But as Rams’ principles were mostly applied to physical products, they leave it to an interpretation that can be applied to creating a digital product, below you will find a list of the principles and its reflection from a UX design perspective.
1. Good design is innovative
As UX designers, our job is to solve problems and although there might be always an easy and already widely established way of how to solve that problem, however, the possibilities of how to approach that problem and coming up with a more refreshed solution to solve it.
Without having to reinvent the wheel, there’s always a new approach that from iteration will solve a problem from which its solution has always been the same.
A clear example of that is, as shown above, using voice recognition to perform a simple file search from identifying the important keywords of the query.
2. Good design makes a product useful
Products are made to be used and so are digital products, good design emphasizes in the fact that products solve a problem in a useful way, although sometimes the fact that there are more variables involved in the development of a product (marketing, engineering, corporate) make the equation more complicated.
3. Good design is aesthetic
There’s no useful product without its aesthetic consistency, and although this is more visible on tangible products, especially in digital products we can identify the visual pleasant element of the user interface (UI) of the user experience (UX) design.
While the conceptualisation of “beauty” is subjective, products that are aesthetic to the user solve the problem both in a useful and user friendly way.
When talking about something aesthetic it doesn’t refer strictly to the set of colors, typography, and sizes of the visual components but to the execution of the set of elements that define the product.
4. Good design makes a product understandable
There’s nothing better designed than a product that explains itself, and so it’s in a digital product.
Like the already famous phrase says “A user interface is like a joke, if you have to explain it isn’t that good”
Without getting into the deep meaning of it, it’s true, users make use of products to solve problems and therefore they should be able to use it without complicating things and understanding which problem are they going to solve by making use of it.
5. Good design is unobtrusive
Products are meant to be used, to cover a function, solve a problem and make people’s lives easier, therefore they need to be approachable, and so are interfaces and digital products.
Although we sometimes fall in love with its appearance, products are not contemplative pieces of art, they need to fulfil a purpose and facilitate being used.
Although this principle might be confused with the fourth one, they work hand on hand on stating the fact that product should facilitate the resolution of a problem for any user that interact with them.
6. Good design is honest
In a world where words like disruptive and innovative are used to sell new products, we shouldn’t forget that to fulfill the needs of users who will end up using our products those need to be in line with their expectations.
Digital products shouldn’t manipulate the way end users will interact with it to avoid generating unnecessary frustration.
Even if it looks obvious, sometimes we tend to ornament products to make them look more complex and resourceful than what they really are, and this combined with the fourth and fifth principles will make of our product a better end result.
7. Good design is long-lasting
Although we tend to adapt the design of products to the trends of the moment, products should be timeless, setting its own rules, so that the final product doesn’t become obsolete for being fashionable.
Designing products that last not only means that they don’t strictly follow the trends of the moment but also they set their own trends, having always the user in mind.
Come up with a timeless solution for a long-lasting problem should be the final goal of a designer, sometimes involving innovation and a different approach, which applies to other different principles, no better example of that than Google.
8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail
Designing good products means that nothing is left to free will, everything has been thought and need to be accurate, to ensure the more accurate success. Avoiding user frustration should be another goal when creating a product, and therefore making sure there are no spots uncovered it’s one of the points of interest to consider.
As the old idiom says “The devil is in the detail” and as designers we should try to see always the bigger picture to avoid all the small elements that seemed simple at first sight could become
9. Good design is environmentally friendly
While at first sight, this should be an obvious reference to the way we think and design physical products, there are ways to help our planet when designing digital products as well. Coming up with designs that consume less power, i.e. going with dark themes rather than light for mobile devices.
Designs should be accessible, inclusive and environmentally friendly, and to do so designers need to engineer a way of reflect that into the final products, either by thinking of the energy consumption of using the device they are making use the product or the obsolescence of the device itself, or even from greener initiatives by making use of the product, being Ecosia.org the best example of that, the greener digital product for excellence.
10. Good design is as little design as possible
If there’s something Dieter Rams is known for it’s because of his influence in the movement of minimalism on both architecture and product design, and what he intended with this was to simplify things to the deeper and more obvious solution.
As Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once adapted as his motto “Less is more”, phrase that would help build up the minimalism movement in architecture, it also set the lines to look for a way of reinvent the way we design products today.
Being his career the representative example of this principle, this last principle was the one that redefined the way we designers see the world, and design and come up with the solutions of today and tomorrow, not lacking on objectivity when figuring out how to better approach a problem.
How these 10 principles influenced the way I design
Although it’s obviously hard to follow each principle to the very detail in each product we design, either it’s something we are building from scratch or we plan or redefine, always having them in mind and trying to apply each principle in any product designed has helped me approach a problem from different fronts, building different solutions and iterating in a way that takes into account each of the problematics, in different levels where possible.
As an engineer, I was always taught to see the bigger picture, to try to dismember a problem, analyze how to approach it and find a solution that might satisfy the needs of the majority of the users. When designing a product, I got used to thinking on how the product would be manufactured, built and iterated and improved. As a digital designer, I’ve learned how to take those principles into account to build better products from beginning to end, taking into account the planning, development, launch, and improvement as well.
Not only by his principles, but Dieter Rams’ work has also inspired me in a way where adapting design styles, trends and approach could help build more complex products by defining simple design systems where minimalism is key.
Dieter Rams’ work and way of thinking inspired thousands of designers and give them a background and knowledge on how to create better products, and I’m pretty sure these principles and his way of thinking will keep helping designer solve problems in many years to come.