What I would say to Dieter Rams if I had the chance to meet him

Last week I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the UK premier of Gary Hustwit’s film about Dieter Rams, the designer famous for the beautiful Braun consumer products of the ’60s, ’70s and ‘80s. It was an inspiring two hours. Dieter’s 10 principles of were particularly thought provoking — especially his second principle about how design makes a product useful.

Principle #2: 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.

But something didn’t sound quite right to me. I’m a product of a generation of designers where design solves real world problems. Usefulness is an outcome of understanding users, not trying to make a useless product useful.

Good design makes a useful product

That’s better. That’s what I believe.

But wait… Dieter couldn’t be wrong, could he? He is a good designer after all. Is that really what he meant?

I’d ask him: “What is design?”

What is design? Design is the process of creating something for someone. It’s a process, with a creator and a user.

Design without a user is just the process of creating something. We call this art. Dieter had his own feelings towards art:

Principle #5: 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.

But I’d say art is nearly always designed — an artist rarely creates something with no purpose in it for someone. A traditional portrait artist was always commissioned, and a modern conceptual artist is usually trying to get society to think.

It’s not always clear what we’re supposed to be thinking though. Photo by Brandi Ibrao on Unsplash.

Anyway, I’m sure we’d both agree that it’s the presence of the user that makes design, design. And so good design must therefore be design that creates a product that meets their needs — a useful product.

But useful’s not always useful

Useful means serving a purpose for someone.

A pedestrian crossing is useful. It gets pedestrians across a road safely. It solves a problem for an unimaginable number of people every day.

But as a driver, it pisses the hell out of me. (I’m imagining Dieter saying this — in the film he came across as a direct but pretty funny man).

If a product serves a purpose well for one person but frustrates another, then is that still good design?

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