Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles of Design — Are they relevant in 2021?

Design is all around us. You can never have ‘no’ design, it’s always either good or bad. But the question is who decides if our designs are good or bad?

Is there some great designer tree that you can take your designs to? While that would make our jobs much easier, reality doesn’t always make things that easy. While we don’t have metrics to measure good design, we do, however, through the works of great designers like Dieter Rams, have principles of design.

Principles of design refer to a pathway you can follow to come up with cool products on your own as well. However, I would add here that these principles are good to have, but not always necessary. After all, good design knows when to follow industry standards and when to become one itself.

Principle #1 Good design is innovative.

What is innovation?

In simple words, innovation is taking anything that exists in the world and improving it. That can include any product, process, service, and even a methodology.

Let me share an example, did you ever notice cold drinks always taste better in McDonald’s? That’s because the width of their straw is just a tad bit bigger than your average straw.

How does that help?

When you drink through it, it allows a higher amount of the drink to enter your mouth, making your brain think, it tastes better. There are other factors too like they have their own secret version of Coca-Cola.

Principle #2 Good design makes a product useful.

Useful for who?

Users that’s who! If your grandma, neighbor, and friends all love your product but your users don’t, chances are you either have a shitty product or a shitty design (or both).

Food hugging Lid — Dieter Ram’s design

Take this food-hugging lid for example. We often leave fruits, and vegetables half-eaten all the time (I know I do). This little guy helps you keep those half-eaten fruits and veggies fresh. It doesn’t include a fancy design, no over-the-counter aesthetics, it simply solves a problem by providing a useful product.

Now there are limitations to this design too (no design’s ever perfect). For example, what if you cut fruits in a non-linear way, what then?
So all in all it’s a great product, but it can still be improved.

Principle #3 Good design is aesthetic.

Does anyone really care about aesthetics?

Yes, aesthetics is in fact one of the most important design elements every designer needs. This phenomenon was studied by Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura from Hitachi Design Center in 1995 and is called the aesthetic-usability effect.

The aesthetic-usability effect refers to users’ tendency to perceive attractive products as more usable. People tend to believe that things that look better will work better, even if don’t.

This is one of Dieter Rams’ classic designs, “Braun Calculator”. It’s developed for households and clearly defines different functions and areas along with the power on and off button.

This is one of Dieter Rams’ designs that focus on aesthetics along with usability.

Principle #4 Good design makes a product understandable.

In an ideal world, your design shouldn’t need a manual, even if it’s a single word ‘Push’ on a door. One of the most beautiful things about Deiter Rams’ philosophy is that it doesn’t focus on beauty. Rather it focuses on functionality as its foundation.

You might be wondering, “Why can’t design be both?”

And there’s a pretty good reason why. In order for a design to be effective, it needs to be easily understood. When we add design elements that don’t relate to the product functionality, those elements act as visual pollution.

Now you call it laziness but we’ll just use the previous example here as well.

Why? Because when Rams designed the common household calculator his idea was to make it so simple that even the average Joe/Jane should be able to tell what button does what.

Principle #5 Good design is unobtrusive.

Design, like many things, serves a purpose. Design without purpose is visual pollution.

So how do we find our design’s purpose?

The easiest approach would be looking at the problem you’re solving with your product. In most cases, solving that problem is the purpose. Now once you’ve identified the purpose, the second step is to eliminate what isn’t the purpose.

If a single word is capable of conveying what you want to convey, don’t use two.

Here we have the example of one of the most famous websites in the world — Google. The reason Google is the norm of internet browsing is that they provide their users with everything they need and nothing they don’t.

When the user lands on this page, the first thing they see is “Google” then followed by the search option.

The design is beautiful and unobtrusive because it does one thing and does so elegantly.

Principle #6 Good design is honest.

A lot of us might already be aware of the term ‘Dark Patterns’ in UX. To those of you who aren’t, dark patterns are pre-set notions in a design used to manipulate the user into doing something they wouldn’t normally do.

You might think, “How does that work?

Here’s an example, the title says one thing, but the image attached to the article indicates that there is a satirical meaning behind it. Which there isn’t.

At first, I thought this is just a satirical article that uses sarcasm to attract audiences. But that wasn’t the case at all.

Here’s an article by Reuters Plus that shows that this is completely fabricated and Hillary said no such thing.

Article link here.

Therefore, the design in itself is not honest. And this is exactly what Deiter Ram meant when he said ‘Good design is honest.’

Principle #7 Good design is long-lasting.

When talking about long-lasting design, it’s hard to ignore one of Nokia’s most prized products, ‘Nokia 3310”.

Nokia 3310 — Dieter Ram’s design

The other day, I saw a hydraulic press give away in front of this bad boy.

But I would take this moment to say that design should be long-lasting, but never ever-lasting. The design needs to be updated. That’s why Nokia launched another version of the same phone back in 2019.

So what’s the difference between long-lasting and ever-lasting?

Long-lasting means the user shouldn’t need to constantly worry about updating. Everlasting means the user will eventually worry about the product being obsolete.

Principle #8 Good design is thorough down to the last detail.

Beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, the charm of a good design is its attention to detail.

In one of my late-night internet adventures, I stumbled upon the Opera GX browser. At first, I completely disregarded it but something caught my eye.

It enables you to limit the RAM usage your browser uses. As someone who’s used Chrome for years, I knew this was a problem and that I needed this solution.

But they didn’t stop there. They also added a network limiter, along with quick access options to popular platforms like Instagram, Twitch, Whatsapp, Facebook, and more.

All in all, it’s the perfect browser for gamers.

Principle #9 Good design is environmentally friendly.

All this research has brought us back to the McDonald’s straw. Another interesting thing about McDonald's straw is that it’s completely recyclable.

That means it’s not made from plastic. Instead, it’s made from paper. This is why it’s so thick too. That thickness allows you to bring your beverage without the straw getting soggy.

Isn’t it amazing how much effort and time McDonald's has put in a single straw?

Principle #10 Good design is as little design as possible.

The last point boils down to Dieter Rams’ philosophy “Less, but better”.

Need I even say more when it comes to Apple?

Well, that’s all the information I was able to gather so to answer the first question, Yes. Dieter Rams’ 10 principles of design are still as relevant today as ever.

Thank you so much for reading this far!

To show you my appreciation, here’s my secret message to you:
Secret Message

If you love to talk about anything design-related hit me up on Linkedin here.

Or just send me an email here.

Ahmad out!

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I Design Stuff! — UX Designer & Writer

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Muhammad Ahmad

Muhammad Ahmad

I Design Stuff! — UX Designer & Writer

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