Dieter Rams’ Design Principles in Steve Jobs’ Products

“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains of the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” — Steve Jobs

With Steve Jobs stepping down as CEO of Apple, every Apple fanboy across the globe is distraught with worry about the future of Apple and it’s beautifully designed product line-up. While everyone of us whether or not we are Apple users have appreciated and indulged in the beauty of an ‘iProduct’ not many of us know another early product designer whose minimal and functional yet aesthetic design even today inspires the likes of Jonathan Ive, the senior vice president of Industrial Design at Apple and the man responsible for leading a design team widely regarded as one of the world’s best. I’m talking about Dieter Rams whose old designs for Braun during the ’50s and ’60s hold the clues not only for past and present Apple products, but their future as well!

Back in the early 1980s, Dieter Rams, becoming increasingly concerned by the state of the world around him – “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colors and noises.” asked himself an important question: is my design good design? That profound question led to the beginning of a spectacularly simple thesis on the Principle of Good Design. As good design cannot be measured in a finite way he set about expressing the ten most important principles for what he considered was good design; the core of which revolve around his passion for “simplicity” and “honest design”

1. Good design is innovative

The possibilities for innovation are limitless and not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is continuously evolving and always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But then again, innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself. Which is why Apple has tightly held on to the reins of control while designing new products insisted on designing both the hardware and the software.

2. Good design makes a product useful

A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not just functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it. Thus a product must not only evoke joy, delight and wonder from its user but also do exactly what it was intended to do with minimal fuss and maximum efficiency.

3. Good design is aesthetic

The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful. When Jobs says “iPad is our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price.” he covers all aspects of the product’s design while the aesthetic beauty is experienced and affirmed only when one uses the iPad. This is the reason no other tablet has come anywhere close to matching the iOS experience let alone surpass it.

4. Good design makes a product understandable

It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory. When you pick up a camera you expect to be able to take photographs, a GPS unit pinpoints your location on the map but with multi-function devices like today’s smartphones, the lines are blurred and functions many. Thus the need for simple design that simplifies function and reduces choice can often yield better usability than a product that offers more choice and thus complicates usability.

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. It is true that art is an expression of the artist’s self and similarly it is true that good design allows for the user to express oneself without the designer’s thoughts dominating. So paradoxically while Steve or Ive hold such dominating control over the design of Apple products, the end user is actually left with an interface that doesn’t clutter his brain with unnecessary information allowing him to function better and easier.

6. Good design is honest

It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept. Honest design is about keeping design minimal not just in terms of color and other variables, but in terms of functionality and style. Michelangelo said “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” The term used is ‘discover’ not embellish and enhance, but hack away the unessential to reveal what already lies within.

7. Good design is long-lasting

It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society. Every one of Dieter Rams‘ products from the 80s look uber-fashionable even today and will fit right at home years into the future. In fact, many of Jonathan Ive‘s designs are inspired from Rams’ designs and they don’t look date do they? Every one of Apple’s products can pass off as products from the 25th Century, wouldn’t you say? Why, because it’s not about style, but about sincere and long-lasting design from the aesthetics to the materials involved.

8. Good design is thorough, down to the last detail

Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer. If any of you have owned a MacBook Pro like I do, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The magnetic power cord for starters attached with a soft click and detaches when accidentally tugged by a tripping foot so as to not send your machine flying through the air! If that isn’t detail, try the back-lit keyboard with adjustable luminescence so you can work in the dark with out assistance and hassle. I’ve used computers from many different manufacturers over the years and even today, you’d be hard pressed to find a product that offers such fine detailed design sense.

9. Good design is environmentally-friendly

Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product. Apple reports environmental impact comprehensively by focusing on their product cycle – what happens when they design them, what happens when they make them, and what happens when a consumer takes them home and uses them. Their newest products are designed with 50 percent less material and generates 35 percent fewer carbon emissions when compared to their own products from yesteryear.

10. Good design is as little design as possible

Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. “The best of artists has no conception that the marble alone does not contain within itself.” Michelangelo‘s famous parable about the statue within the marble is well known but perhaps less well understood.

Like the Enigma songs rambles on about a Return to Innocence, let us go back to purity, back to simplicity. Drop frivolous style and find the essence of true aesthetic beauty.


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Ritesh Reddy

Dr. Ritesh Reddy, PhD aka Reddy2Go is a Creative Generalist, who uses the magic of the written word and the allure of the visual medium in conjunction with bleeding edge technology to creating communication collateral for the New Media. He believes in the power of the individual & inspires independence through the Freelance Firestarter. In the spirit of selflessly sharing knowledge with the community for the betterment of society, he does not charge any fee for the same.