Good design - less is more

24 November 2010

In today’s throwaway world where we keep accumulating more and more stuff and in turn disposing of it, Tanya Weaver considers what ‘good design’ is really all about

Tis (almost) the season to be jolly but in some ways Christmas makes me uncomfortable. Firstly, there is the fact that it’s creeping earlier and earlier into the year - I saw Christmas cards on sale in September and a
gingerbread latte just doesn’t taste right at the end of October!

Secondly, with our ritual of giving and receiving presents we seem to be adding more and more stuff to our ever-increasing piles of stuff.

Dieter Rams

In 1963 Dieter Rams designed the T100 World Receiver as the first ‘all wave’ portable radio with unlimited reception

Not a Christmas goes by when we don’t receive tat in some form (remember that Bart Simpson keyring or aromatherapy foot spa) that soon goes into the back of the cupboard and doesn’t re-emerge again until we have a clean out or move house. I was aghast to discover that some people are even swapping their unwanted Christmas presents online or selling them off on ebay as soon as Boxing Day arrives.

The words ‘less is more’ ring true in this instance - maybe if our loved ones all chipped in and bought us one present that we really wanted. A well-designed product that we will get much enjoyment out of for years to come. It made me think of arguably the most influential industrial designer of the late 20th century Dieter Rams whose design philosophy is ‘Less, but better’.

You can see this philosophy evident in all his products, and having been at Braun for 40 years from 1955 to 1995 there are a lot of them - from coff ee makers, alarm clocks, hairdryers, calculators, radios, audio/visual equipment, electric shavers to cigarette lighters. I went to the major retrospective of his work earlier this year at the Design Museum called ‘Less and More’ that featured his designs for both Braun and Vitsoe. I was astounded by how contemporary many of them still look despite being 40 years old.

For instance, his T100 World Receiver, the fi rst ‘all wave’ portable radio, which dates back to 1963, with its aluminium casing, rounded corners and minimal styling wouldn’t look out of place in your home today.

In order to create such products that could be classified as ‘good design’ he came up with his ‘Ten Principles of Good Design’ (see below). Considering the great success both Braun and Rams have enjoyed
over the years you would think that more designers should use these principles as a checklist as they are certainly as relevant today as they were then.

That’s what particularly bothers me today - the arbitrariness and thoughtlessness with which many things are produced and brought to market…We have too many unnecessary things everywhere

As Rams said in ’Objectified’, a feature-length documentary by Gary Hustwit about our complex relationship with manufactured objects, released in 2009: “People react positively when things are clear and understandable.

That’s what particularly bothers me today - the arbitrariness and thoughtlessness with which many things are produced and brought to market…We have too many unnecessary things everywhere.”

But there are some designers today who have been influenced by Rams, and his design philosophy is apparent in their work. Most notable is Jasper Morrison who brought us the Rowenta coffee maker, Naoto Fukasawa who brought us MUJI’s iconic wall-mounted CD player and Jonathan Ive, whose products you may have heard of.

In fact, in the ‘Objectified’ documentary Rams goes on to say that Apple is the only company designing products according to his principles.

Whatever you may think of Apple (I for one am I fan) they seem to be getting it right with consumers, many of who desire to own at least one (in Martyn Day’s case, all) of their products.

In fact, it’s not just adults, as I recently discovered that Apple’s products have made it to the top of children’s Christmas wish lists this year too.

According to the Duracell Toy Report, which questioned 2,138 children and parents online, the products that dominated the top three positions are the iPhone 4, iPod touch and iPad. Of the 5 to 16 year olds quizzed 39% of them desired Apple products this year, with 17% of 5 to 8 year olds, 50% of 9 to 12 year olds and 66% of 13 to 16 years olds all putting Apple products at the top of their lists.

So, although not every designer will be the next Dieter Rams or Jonathan Ives you can certainly apply the ten principles and then hopefully we will see less tat and more good designs.

Tanya Weaver is the special projects editor at Develop3D. She is living in hope that she will find a white iPhone 4 under the Christmas tree this year.

Dieter Rams’ ten principles of good design

• Good design is innovative
• Good design makes a product useful
• Good design is aesthetic
• Good design makes a product understandable
• Good design is unobtrusive
• Good design is honest
• Good design is long-lasting
• Good design is thorough down to the last detail
• Good design is environmentally friendly
• Good design is as little design as possible

Comments on this article:

Did Dieter Rams not over design his design philosophy? If then “less is better” why ten principles? How about one principle… ‘Good design is considered’. This is arguably what Tim Brown [IDEO] meant when he used the term ‘design thinking’. Considered design encompasses all that which Rams admonished and more, and yet more simply. Then again Albert Einstein said “make things as simple as possible, but not simpler”.

Let’s take Rams principle of ‘good design is environmentally friendly’ a notion that is on the agenda of most companies whatever their motivations, but let’s assume in the name of the environment we move to chose to use a biopolymer. Considered design or design thinking may conclude this is an erroneous decision. How? Well, if all moved to use biopolymers, then we could of course reduce our dependency on petroleum based polymers and reduce our carbon foot print a little also, but what of the crop needed to produce the biopolymer? Where will the land come from? Who will farm it? What will happen to land prices? What will happen to food prices or to the housing market? What will be the long term effects of the decisions we make today?

In a time gone by, my grandmother would wash by hand with wooden tools to make her life a little easier (I’m not suggesting by the way that washing should be a woman’s work and I’ve been known myself to take a bar of soap to a shirt collar). Those tools where derived from a sustainable source, the energy provided came from the calorific value of the food she ate which my grandfather grew in his back yard.

Today we strive to automate every finite action with technology to free up our time and to pay for that technology we work more hours than we should, away from our families and away from the things we have striven to acquire.

Please don’t think of me as some sort of Luddite, I am myself an industrial designer, contributing to the proliferation of ‘tat’ sat under our Christmas trees come the 25th of December. I as any other, need to feed my family of eight and put a roof over our heads and so I prostitute my craft and my ideology in exchange for cash. The whole world propagates the design, manufacture and consumption of such tat in order to keep the economic machine moving.
A shift toward long life products, durable, reliable, serviceable and repairable is perhaps needed, but designers are always looking to complicate matters by designing something ‘simpler’. More functional, more automated, more user-centred and probably more unnecessary.

Such advancements we are told make our lives easier, free up our time, these innovations are no longer wanted, they are needed. Who of us could conduct our daily lives without even the simplest mobile phone, let alone an iPhone4 and yet just a little less than 3 decades ago we all did perfectly fine without them.
Good design isn’t just simple, nor is it just simply considered. The world is so vastly complex that we need to better understand it, and that is no simple matter.

Posted by Lloyd Pennington on Wednesday 24 2010 at 08:00 PM

I agree with all nine statements until I came to the last one, I think consumer products these days are a little bland. I don’t think I’d say it’s “bad” but I don’t see why almost no products anymore have lavish details as seen before the 50s. With complex reliefs and details, playing on the aesthetic and emotional.

I buy a desk from ikea and it’s just a desk, I go to my grandfathers and his desk has a little depiction of an entire VILLAGE carved out of the wood on the side panels.

I don’t know which is better or not? but just that it’s very different indeed!

Posted by Kevin De Smet on Wednesday 05 2011 at 10:14 AM

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