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Dieter Rams | The Complete Works by Klaus Klemp

20 August, 2022 - 14 min read


I. Brief Summary

This book presents the product designs of an industrial designer Dieter Rams, organized in chronological order from 1947 to 2020. Dieter Rams is an industrial designer whose collaborations with Braun and Vitsoe have produced some of the most iconic consumer products of the 20th century. Rams is known for consumer products that has defined the most recent of our society—an electric razor, blow-drier, electric tooth brush, or a lighter. Rams is credited as the lead inventor of the patented F1 mactron pocket lighter design from 1971. His greatest economic success was for the American company—the Sensor razor which went on to sell 100 million units in 1989. His design philosophy is simple, yet hard—less, but better.

II. Big Ideas

  • Rams describes his thoughts on what design should be:

    • Rams has always based his design on functionality, intensive cooperation with engineers was an integral part of his practice and he was often involved in the technical development of products. He practiced what he preached—design is a process, and industrial design is teamwork with many people involved.
    • Design is not just about the formal design of things, it determines the life of every individual and how we all live with one another.
    • Design can promote social togetherness but it can also damage it.
    • Designers should not just accept the job of designing a product, but ask hard questions.

      • For example, whether the product we are designing is really necessary, or if something already exists that does the job well enough, if not better. Does it really help to enrich our lives or does it only appeal to ideas of status? Is it repairable? Is it durable? Easy to use and flexible in its use? Can I master it easily or does the new product dominate me?
      • The last question on dominance is more relevant than ever.
    • We should surround ourselves with fewer things, but better things. This is not a constraint, it is an advantage, which allows us more space for real life.
    • Strive to build better things that last longer than striving to build the next best thing. This is the necessary incentive for the design of our whole environment. This is the benchmark for the future.

      • Less, but better has to hold true for production, but also with respect to short-lived items as well. We have less and less resources, and our rubbish dumps are getting bigger and bigger - even in outer space and in our planet's oceans. We have to protect our climate and we have to design our cities in more intelligent and affordable ways. This is the great challenge of our age for our governments and for us in our behavior as citizens. Last, but not least, we need entrepreneurs and designers to develop intelligent alternatives.
      • The word function covers has expanded enormously and we have learned how complex and diverse the function of a product can be. Today we are well aware that the things we make need to have psychological, ecological and social utility as well. The functional, then, has very many facets. But, as far as I can see, there is no alternative.
      • Less, but better means we must distance ourselves from the unculture of excess-of waste. Away from cheapness in the literal, and also the figurative sense. It also means that we need more things that truly give the buyer and the user what they expect from them: the facilitation, enhancement and strengthening of their lives.
    • Less, but better, we need:

      • Less and less of the kind of products whose production and use squander resources and are a burden on the environment.
      • Less and less of the kind of products that stimulate the desire to buy, but are barely used, quickly set aside, thrown away and then replaced with new ones.
      • Less and less of the kind of products that are nothing more than fashion and become obsolete as soon as that fashion has passed.
      • Less and less of the kind of products that break quickly, wear out and age prematurely.
  • Work attitude:

    • Rams repeatedly emphasized on the importance of teamwork.
    • What is significant is that the designs themselves were not changed, or were only altered very slightly; at Braun, a design was only changed when actual innovations were achieved. This approach reflects a fundamental conviction of Rams and Braun that technical improvements do not automatically warrant a new design, and, as a result, many Braun appliances had an extraordinarily long design cycle. This is in stark contrast to the common business practice of introducing old or barely improved technology to the market packaged in a new look to stimulate consumption. The same rules were applied at Vitsoe, the original designs from 1960s virtually remains unchanged.
    • Three essential qualities of Rams from the days of working at Braun:

      • First, he was a designer who operated at the highest level of personal productivity.
      • Second, he was a team leader, without whose persistence and diplomacy the company's strong design mentality would not have developed so fully. This one should not be underestimated.
      • Third was his contemplative approach. He went from theorist to fighting against excessive mass consumption to protect the environment.
    • Japan's deep-rooted culture played a vital role in his style. This gave him new horizons and experiences. Kenji Ekuan, Japan's most important industrial designer at the time influence Rams.
    • Rams expressed his self-image after 25 years as an industrial designer: Designers, as I understand them, are critics of civilization, critics of technology, critics of society. But in contrast to the many critical minds that exist today, some with a calling, some without, they must not stop at criticism. They have to keep trying to create something new that emerges from the criticism and withstands criticism. A shaver or a chair, a film camera or a shelf should have the objective usefulness of tools in their construction and design. They should help people to solve small or large problems. They should help them to be creative themselves. They should live with them and enable them to become friends. [...] As a designer, if you don't close your eyes, you won't be able to stop brooding.
    • Rams also refers to the comprehensive approach to design, to the impact of spaces and things on people, to a nature destroyed by ever-increasing consumer waste and to the blatant injustice of superfluous things in rich countries and poverty in developing countries.
    • Rams expressed his thoughts on who ultimately decides on what is produced: Who decides about designs? [...] It is unrealistic to expect a company to leave the decision to the designer alone. … It would also be unfair to saddle the designer with a decision that affects the entire company. The company's management must be able to rely on the professional expertise of its employees - the engineers, the sales staff and the designers! It cannot reduce any of these three to mere lackeys. And yet they cannot allow the specialists to make the decisions alone. From my point of view, the reality is that the designers prepare the decision to a large extent, and greatly limit the possible leeway in the decision- making. [...] Management cannot go to the drawing board or create models themselves. They can only accept, influence and reject. I honestly have to say that many a good design has fallen by the wayside. But I also have to say that I basically do not consider any other solution to be sensible or realistic. It is good when decisions about design are made at the highest level in a qualified and competent manner-good for the company, good for the designers.
    • Over the years, Rams developed a strategy of presenting only fully developed prototypes to the decision-making committees. He deliberately refrained from giving interim presentations to avoid raising concern over half-finished products.
    • One of the underlying principle was when making continuous updates, the new modifications must be compatible with existing system.
    • His credo: less, but better, a motto for change, and potentially the key to a better existence for everyone and for the environment.
  • Design elements and characteristics:

    • Rams often worked with right angles, with cube and rectangular box shapes. A closer look, however, shows that these basic shapes have often been altered in detail: for example, in the slight curvature in the grille of the LE1loudspeaker, in the asymmetrically rounded edges of the domino table lighter, or in his use of color to add an element of contrast to his otherwise understated designs.
    • Another trait is that his objects are always designed from every angle, even the rear sides that might normally be concealed. He applied this principle as early as 1957, with the RZ 57 modular system, which could be assembled as a freestanding unit and placed anywhere in a room. This holistic approach permeates his entire design practice.
    • Another central element in Rams's design work is the principle of modularity, or in other words, connectivity. What makes the approach so successful is that the different components do not look like autonomous elements casually strung together; instead they produce a considered and harmonious overall form.
    • Color also played an important, albeit discreet, role for Rams. His electronic devices were not just black, white or grey, as some critics claimed during the post-modern era., Rams used colors as indicators of operability, but even more important was their ability to bring aesthetic value. He used color very sparingly, but it was precisely for this reason that it had such an impact. The complementary contrast between red and green played a role again and again, but often Rams opted for a simple red dot. There is virtually no Braun device that he was involved with that goes without this minimalist color scheme.
    • Similarly, his use of typography on the devices was very light and restrained, and this would become typical of the Braun style; even on his earliest designs, Rams kept the lettering and the logo very small. His consistent use of the Akzidenz-Grotesk font enhanced the longevity of Braun's corporate design.
    • The final characteristic that was central to Rams's approach, as well as to Braun's, was intuitive user interaction, and it can be traced back to Herbert Hirche's HF1 television set from 1958, which had only one visible power button. Subsequently, Braun devices came to be defined by the fact that they required no 4 operating instructions; in other words, they were self-explanatory. This was truly a great challenge and achievement, and has been an ell inspiration for Apple in particular since the early 2000s. For Rams, the objects of our everyday are, and have, always been, special; they are the things that deserve our attention, that are in need of improvement and, if possible, reduction. For him, design is not something to be exalted and distinguished, as we are led to believe in a world of consumerism. Back to purity, back to simplicity! is the last statement of his ten principles. A motto for new beginnings.
  • Design style and principles:

    • One question that cannot be answered with a simple yes' or 'no' is whether Rams has a definitive design style. In 1977, Rams described his approach to design as follows: First of all, we tried - and continue to do so - to understand anew and better what kind of devices people really need, and then what they should look like. And we constantly asked ourselves and others: does it have to be like this?
    • For him, having an attitude towards design has always been more important than a style, one that is user-oriented, sensible, ethical and aesthetic. He stated this in his 10 principles for good design:

      • Good design is innovative. The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.
      • 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 emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.
      • 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.
      • 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.
      • 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.
      • 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.
      • 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.
      • 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 user.
      • 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.
      • 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. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

III. Quotes

  • There have been so many inspiring conversations with so many people. I have always treasured the global nature of such encounters, because it is only through international dialogue and collaboration that we will be able to shape our world wisely for the future. Any form of nationalism has always been alien to me.
  • Design can promote social togetherness-but it can also damage it. This is why the responsibility carried by designers is so great.
  • Look at all the things we have designed in the last 150 years alone: telephones, cars, radios, televisions, computers and smartphones. Marshall McLuhan was right in saying that the medium is the message, in that it both extends and restricts our possibilities.
  • Free yourself from the ballast of too many things. A willingness for order-for simple, calm, restrained forms with longer, more aesthetic, useful lives-seems to me to be of far more importance than constantly trying to invent the next best thing. However, good design does not come through + the fulfillment of demands alone. Good everyday design should always be design that speaks for itself.
  • I have always been convinced that the good design is a matter for companies and not just individual designers. This conviction has become stronger over the years.
  • I am counting on the younger generation, who are hopefully well aware of all these problems and not just concerned with individual advantage and maximum profit. Changing the future was never easy and it has become a lot harder today.
  • I am convinced that there is an ethics of design-that there has to be one. It is time to realize that we have once again reached the end of a phase of disorientation and arbitrariness. Everything seemed possible-and we could do anything we wanted-and the me came before the we. But we have to change our course now-before catastrophe forces us to do so.
  • I believe that one of the most important responsibilities of design-perhaps the most important, in respect of society - is to help lighten the chaos that we are forced to live in today.
  • Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty: but it is well worth searching for truth: and we do this chiefly by searching for mistakes, so that we can correct them! — Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper
  • If Rams shows technology, it is technology that has been civilized by design.
  • But what is the use of all the work if it is not published?