January 14, 2016

What Is Good Design? It’s ...

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“Good design is as little design as possible.”

When Dieter Rams, the famed German industrial designer, listed his ten principles for good design, he saved this one for last. It’s the principle that best sums up his design philosophy of “weniger, aber besser,” or “less, but better.” Rams’ first nine principles of good design inform our understanding of the final principle, so we’ll take a look at his full list. 

No single person has influenced industrial design in modern western culture more than Dieter Rams. His influence is far-reaching, and perhaps most evident today in the elegant simplicity of Jony Ive’s product designs for Apple. Although I'll look at how each principle applies to graphic design, the language Rams uses for his list applies most directly to the design of consumer products.

Either way, though, his list answers a question you've likely asked yourself (and your marketing agency) many times: What is good design?

1. Good design is innovative.

"The possibilities for progression are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for original design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with improving technology, and can never be an end in itself."

How does this first principle apply to graphic design? I’d say it means designers should never stop looking for better solutions. Just because a particular design has been in use for a long time doesn’t mean there’s not a better, simpler, more easily identifiable way to express the same idea through design. As the world changes, look for those opportunities to improve design to keep up with changing ideas. 

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Control TS45, Reel to Reel Tape Recorder TG60, Slim Speakers L450 by Dieter Rams for Braun.

2. 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 while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it."

Good graphic design should emphasize the usefulness of the content as well. Design should be in service of the message, and never get in the way of it.

3. Good design is aesthetic.

"The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful."

This principle provides the most important caveat to Rams’ “as little as possible” idea. Rams is not saying “do nothing.” Like the products Rams designed for everyday use, the print or online pieces we design should have a pleasant effect on the people who see them. They should be well-executed and beautiful.

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Dieter Rams, Braun coffee machine (KF 20 Aromaster), 1972; detail, design: Florian Seiffert, photo: Koichi Okuwaki.

4. Good design makes a product understandable.

"It clarifies the product's structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user's intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory."

Good graphic design is understandable, too. Put the necessary information where people expect it to be, or otherwise make it easy to find. Make sure that button you need people to click looks like a button they’ll want to click. Use typefaces and color palettes that serve the message and make the information easy to digest. Unless you’ll be available to explain your design to everyone who views it, you better make sure it explains itself. 

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."

This one is closely related to the final principle. Don’t design just for the sake of designing. Rams uses a word here that I think is key to great design: “restrained.” Good designers have learned all of the things they can do; great designers have learned when not to do them.

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."

This may seem, in the graphic design world, more of a directive aimed at those who write the content we work with. That’s probably accurate to an extent, but this is still something graphic designers should keep in mind. Make sure your design reflects the truth about what you’re selling.

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."

Learn to separate design trends from fads. Look at designs from 10, 20, or 50 years ago. What dates them? What is there about your design that will look dated 10, 20 or 50 years from now? I don’t think we should always avoid those things. Sometimes tapping into what’s “hot right now” is a fine thing for a graphic designer to do, and that’s perhaps a way in which graphic design — even great graphic design — is inherently more disposable and therefore different from industrial design. Still, avoid passing fads to ensure your design won’t be an object of ridicule for denizens of the future.

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Braun electric shaver. photo: Koichi Okuwaki

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."

Don’t rush. Don’t “good enough” it. Pay attention to every detail. Take pride in your work. Good advice not just for designers of all kinds, but for, well, everyone.

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."

Minimizing visual pollution is what good, clean, efficient graphic design is all about.

And finally:

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. Back to purity, back to simplicity."

Taking this principle by itself, without the context of the first nine, would seem to lead to the conclusion that a blank sheet of paper is the perfect design. While some nihilistic philosophers would no doubt agree, that’s obviously not practical design advice. 

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606 Universal Shelving System by Dieter Rams for Vitsoe. Airside

Within the context of Rams’ complete list, I think the message is really “achieve the first nine principles with minimal design exertion.” Or, “do the first nine things and only those things.” Don’t show off. Don’t get in the way of the message. Don’t jump on a fad bandwagon, and don’t unquestioningly adhere to the status quo either. Don’t slack off.

Don’t design more than needs to be designed.

Learn more about Rams and take a look at more of his beautifully simple and elegant work here.

Top photo credit: Dieter Rams, Braun clock radio (ABR 21 signal radio), 1978; design: Dieter Rams and Dietrich Lubs, photo: Koichi Okuwaki

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Ben Carpenter

As madison/miles media's art director, Ben puts his background in magazine and advertising design, film and video production, and print and digital delivery systems to good use. He lives in the Atlanta area with his wife and three kids.