Nearly all of us have heard the dictum "Less, but better," and nearly all of us have used Braun products. But how many of us know that both of those owe their considerable popularity to the same man? After studying architecture, interior decoration, and carpentry, the German industrial designer Dieter Rams spent 40 years at Braun, most of them as the company's chief design officer. There he created such hits as the 606 universal shelving system, the SK61 record player, and the ET66 calculator. That last provided the model for the calculator application interface in Apple's iOS 3, among other homages Apple has paid to Rams.
Rams, in turn, has been complimentary to Apple, calling it one of the few companies in existence that designs products according to his principles. Anyone can sense the affinity between the most enduring Apple products and Rams-designed Braun products, but what are those principles?
You can hear them laid out by the man himself himself in the trailer above for Rams, last year's documentary by Gary Hustwit, he of Helvetica (the documentary about the font) and Objectified (the documentary about industrial design that featured Rams as an interviewee). The list is as follows:
- Good design is innovative. "Design always comes about in connection with innovative technology. How can design be good if the technology is not on the same level?"
- Good design makes a product useful. "Good design optimizes usefulness and ignores anything that doesn't serve the purpose or works against it."
- Good design is aesthetic. "Objects you use daily significantly shape your surroundings and your sense of well-being. Only something that is well-made can be beautiful."
- Good design makes a product understandable. "It makes it easy to understand the structure of the product. Even more, it can make the product 'talk.' Ideally, it explains itself best."
- Good design is unobtrusive. "Products that serve a purpose have the characteristics of a tool. Their design should be neutral and leave room for the user's self-expression."
- Good design is honest. "Honest means not trying to make a product look more innovative, powerful, or valuable than it really is."
- Good design is long-lasting. "In contrast to fashionable design, it lasts many years even in our current throwaway society."
- Good design is thorough down to the last detail. "Nothing should be arbitrary or left to chance. Thoroughness and precision are expressions of respect for the user."
- Good design is environmentally friendly. "Design makes an important contribution to preserving the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution."
- Good design is as little design as possible. "Back to simplicity. Back to purity. Less, but better."
The trailer illustrates each of these principles with one of Rams' designs, developed at Braun or elsewhere: the T 1000 CD radio, the MPZ 21 citrus juicer, the 740 stool, the 620 chair. Though designed forty, fifty, even sixty years ago, these gadgets and pieces of furniture have stood the test of time. Some have even made a return to the market in recent years of our both aesthetically and environmentally conscious age. You can watch Rams on Vimeo on Demand, and if you do, you'll not only get to enjoy its Brian Eno-composed score, you'll learn much more about how Rams designed his most beloved products — and about where he still sees ways to improve them. That holds true even for his design principles themselves: "I always emphasized that they weren't meant to last forever," he says. "They should be updated."
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.