The following is excerpted from Phaidon's Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible (2011) by Sophie Lovell:
Dieter Rams is one of the most influential product designers of the twentieth century. Even if you don't immediately recognize his name, you have almost certainly used one of the radios, clocks, lighters, juicers, shelves, or hundreds of other products he designed. He is famous not only for this vast array of well-formed products, but for his remarkably prescient ideas about the correct function of design in the sometimes messy and out-of-control world we inhabit today. These ideas are summed up in his "ten principles" of good design.
One of Dieter Rams's most famous and favorite phrases, "Good design is as little design as possible," means that a well-designed product should be so good that it is barely noticeable. By omitting the unnecessary, says Rams, the essential factors come to the fore: the products become 'quiet, pleasing, comprehensible and long-lasting." However to arrive at products with this quality the designer has to travel a very long and difficult path filled with questions, trials, discussion, and experimentation. Rams explains: "Product design is the organization of the product in its entirety so that it fulfils its respective function as well as possible. At the same time, this design must meet the factual terms and conditions under which the product can be brought on to the market. Designers that confront this task have nothing to do with those who may also call themselves designers, but only concern themselves with a retrospective clothing of products purely according to criteria of taste."
Rams has a resolutely rational understanding of the term 'design'—all formal decisions need to be 'substantiatable, verifiable and understandable.' He believes the criteria by which good design can be measured, byond woolly notions along the lines of 'I like that' or 'that looks attractive,' are useability or 'functional quality,' 'feasibility' and 'aesthetic quality.' The useability of a product is a direct result of the designer's ability to anticipate the needs of its user. The better the designer has anticipated the needs ofthe user and the better the product meets these needs, the better the design.
The feasibility of a product is its capactiy to be produced within limitations, including costs, materials, production technology, time and competition. "When a designer is 'strong'—imaginative, competent, patient, hard-working and optimistic—then he can of course do a lot to change and improve the conditions involved... but generally one needs to be able to move within a strictly defined framework—the framework of what is feasible," he explains. The aesthetic quality is something that Rams finds harder to define: for most individuals, in his view, it comes down to a superficial question of taste and is therefore a debatable variable. But to the eye of a well-trained designer, who is able to appreciate the complexity of interconnecting elements involved in the creation of a product, the aesthetic value can be judged, if not quanitified.
Good design is, For Rams, also about careful and intensive research. In a talk from 1980 on the role of the designer in an industrial concern, Rams outlined fifteen questions that a designer should ask of a product or product-to-be in order to produce a well-designed result. They provide an insight into the level and breadth of critical enquiry employed by himself and his design team, as well as the strongly user-oriented values that shaped their product design. They are as follows:
1. The first question is not if one should be designing something but how.
2. Is the product that we are designing really necessary? Are there not already other, similar, tried and tested appliances that people have got used to and are good and functional? Is innovation in this instance really necessary?
3. Will it really enrich people's lives or does it just appeal to their covetousness, possessiveness, or ideas of status? Or does it wake desire because it is offering something new?
4. Is it conceived for the short- or long-term, does it just help increase the speed of the cycle of throwaway goods or does it help slow it down?
5. Can it be simply repaired or does it rely on an expensive customer service facility? Can it in fact be repaired at all or is the whole appliance rendered redundant when just one part of it breaks?
6. Does is exhibit fashionable and therefore aesthetically short-lived design elements?
7. Does it help people or incapacitate them? Does it make them more free or more dependent?
8. Is it so accomplished and perfect that it perhaps incapacitates or humiliates you?
9. Which previous human activity does it replace and can that really be called progress?
10. What possibilities for change, what scope does the product offer people?
11. Can the product be used in other, perhaps playful, ways?
12. Does the product really offer convenience or does it encourage passivity?
13. What does the expected improvement look like in a broader context?
14. Does it make an action or activity on the whole more complicated or simpler, is it easy to operate or do you have to learn how to use it?
15. Does it arouse curiosity and the imagination? Does it encourage desire to use it, understand it, and even change it?
All these considerations about a product's design are related to its function, and this would be a good point at which to clarify Rams's view of functionality. When we consider functionalism and functionalists we think first of architects such as Mies van der Rohe or Walter Gropius. Often conflated with 'lack of ornament,' functionalism began as a reaction against historicism, turned into a dictum ('form follows function') and an ideal that was at times almost dictatorial ('a house is a machine for living in'), and ended up being criticized as an aestheetic style like all the others that came before it. Although function plays a central role in Rams's ideas about design, he does not perceive it as a decorative attribute nor as a straightjacket: "Strict functionality has fallen into disrepute in recent years. Perhaps rightly so in a way, since the function that a product had to fulfil were often too narrowly, too puritanically determined. Human needs are more diverse that many designers are sometimes ready to admit or, perhaps, capable of knowing, For me the territory that the term "function" covers is constantly expanding. one is simply forced to keep learning how complex and manifold the functions of a product are." These include psychological, social, and aesthetic functions as well as just usability. Rams is always at pains to stress that the duty of industrial design is first and foremost to users and the users are, generally, human beings, with all their complexities, habits, ideas and idiosyncrasies: "Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design. Function-oriented design is the fruit of intense, comprehensive, patient and contemplative reflection on reality, on life, on the needs, desires, and feelings of people.