Revisiting Deiter Rams’ 1976 Speech

Revisiting Deiter Rams’ 1976 Speech

For probably 80% of the US population, 1976 was a time so long ago now that it feels like a forgotten realm ( D&D joke 💁‍♂️). It’s ancient history, something they’ve barely read about, something they loosely know….maybe something they watched in a Netflix movie.  It’s a vague memory of a thing, like wearing a suit to work, listening to the radio or eating real meat.

For probably 80% of the US population, 1976 was a time so long ago now that it feels like a forgotten realm ( D&D joke 💁‍♂️). It’s ancient history, something they’ve barely read about, something they loosely know….maybe something they watched in a Netflix movie.  It’s a vague memory of a thing, like wearing a suit to work, listening to the radio or eating real meat.

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Design Immemorial 

Dieter was famous for his 10 principles of good design. These principles have stood the test of time. They are easy to understand but hard to execute. And they are often ignored depending on situation and environment. 

But also, like good design, Dieter’s ideas here are timeless. You read them in the voice of now, in the context of your current work. They don’t belong to some vague forgotten time, they belong to us. They belong to design as a timeless, inherent right to our work itself.

Here is my breakdown of a few of his arguments and how they’ve held up over time:

Dieter was famous for his 10 principles of good design. These principles have stood the test of time. They are easy to understand but hard to execute. And they are often ignored depending on situation and environment. 

But also, like good design, Dieter’s ideas here are timeless. You read them in the voice of now, in the context of your current work. They don’t belong to some vague forgotten time, they belong to us. They belong to design as a timeless, inherent right to our work itself.

Here is my breakdown of a few of his arguments and how they’ve held up over time:

In House vs. Hired Hands

"I am convinced that design – at least in the terms I understand it – cannot be performed by someone outside the company. I am absolutely convinced that this is true if products are designed as part of a larger system, like we do at Vitsoe." - Dieter Rams

"I am convinced that design – at least in the terms I understand it – cannot be performed by someone outside the company. I am absolutely convinced that this is true if products are designed as part of a larger system, like we do at Vitsoe." - Dieter Rams

Dieter states that the ideas behind his work must ‘match with a company’s objectives’. And in this regard, he asserts that an agency or outside designer wouldn’t be able to connect with the company’s ethos and goals as well as an in-house designer or team. He states that the ‘ideology behind my design is engrained within the company.’ This is actually very important and if not present it can undermine any progress designers make.

We see this in a few contemporary product companies, most renowned of which is/was Apple. Apple was the largest and most public face a design-centric company. Jony Ive essentially became the messiah of design at Apple and was one of the only Chief Design Officers in existence. This undoubtedly helped us as a profession, even though most founders and CEOs didn’t’ fully understand design-centrism or how to use it. We attained relevance nevertheless. 

Dieter states that the ideas behind his work must ‘match with a company’s objectives’. And in this regard he asserts that an agency or outside designer wouldn’t be able to connect with the company’s ethos and goals as well as an in-house designer or team. He states that the ‘ideology behind my design is engrained within the company.’ This is actually very important and if not present it can undermine any progress designers make.

We see this in a few contemporary product companies, most renowned of which is/was Apple. Apple was the largest and most public face a design-centric company. Jony Ive essentially became the messiah of design at Apple and was one of the only Chief Design Officers in existence. This undoubtedly helped us as a profession, even though most founders and CEOs didn’t’ fully understand design-centrism or how to use it. We attained relevance nevertheless. 

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Decoration vs. Function

"To use design to impress, to polish things up, to make them chic, is no design at all. This is packaging. When we concentrate on the essential elements in design, when we omit all superfluous elements, we find forms become: quiet, comfortable, understandable and, most importantly, long lasting." - Dieter Rams

"To use design to impress, to polish things up, to make them chic, is no design at all. This is packaging. When we concentrate on the essential elements in design, when we omit all superfluous elements, we find forms become: quiet, comfortable, understandable and, most importantly, long lasting." - Dieter Rams

Every day across the globe 🌎 a battle ensues. Should the button be blue or green?…or maybe the button is purple with an icon in it…maybe it’s not the color but the font….yeah Lato or Open Sans…which one feels better? Which one pops? Can we make this feel like a 90’s magazine? Can we give it more…pizazz, personality, color?

I’m steadfast in my belief that in order to achieve good design none of these things matter. The polish, the gold-plating…it’s all shine…The most important part is that you need the chrome underneath to shine in the first place. Dieter states that ‘Functionality must be at the center of good design.’ The button can be blue or purple or tangerine. It’s all mostly subjective. But experience…that's one of the most objective things that we can control. There’s a reason why Craigslist is still in the game years after we all predicted it’s downfall due to its hideous aesthetics. 

Everyday across the globe 🌎 a battle ensues. Should the button be blue or green?…or maybe the button is purple with an icon in it…maybe it’s not the color but the font….yeah Lato or Open Sans…which one feels better? Which one pops? Can we make this feel like a 90’s magazine? Can we give it more…pizazz, personality, color?

I’m steadfast in my belief that in order to achieve good design none of these things matter. The polish, the gold-plating…it’s all shine…The most important part is that you need the chrome underneath to shine in the first place. Dieter states that ‘Functionality must be at the centre of good design.’ The button can be blue or purple or tangerine. It’s all mostly subjective. But experience…thats one of the most objective things that we can control. There’s a reason why Craigslist is still in the game years after we all predicted it’s downfall due to it’s hideous aesthetics. 

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For design to be understood by everyone – which good design should strive to do – it should be as simple as possible.

For design to be understood by everyone – which good design should strive to do – it should be as simple as possible.

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Systems vs Chaos

"The order of the elements – their arrangement, their shape, their size and their colour – is based on a thoroughly-planned system. This system is the language of Vitsoe design." - Dieter Rams

"The order of the elements – their arrangement, their shape, their size and their colour – is based on a thoroughly-planned system. This system is the language of Vitsoe design." - Dieter Rams

To Dieter the system was consistency. It was a real design language and like a language, it needs to be flexible. A good design system allows ‘All structures, components, and finishes [to] coexist as a well-balanced and harmonious design that gives it usability.’

Design systems have been a hot topic these days. I half expect product design reqs to say: If you can’t make a design system – get out!  But it’s not all hot air. A real design language is invaluable and not only increases the speed of work but cuts down on ’10px padding or 12px padding?’ arguments by approximately 72.94%. ← no citation needed. 

To Dieter the system was consistency. It was a real design language and like a language it needs to be flexible. A good design system allows ‘All structures, components and finishes [to] coexist as a well-balanced and harmonious design that gives it usability.’

Design systems have been a hot topic these days. I half expect product design reqs to say: If you can’t make a design system – get out!  But it’s not all hot air. A real design language is invaluable and not only increases speed of work but cuts down on ’10px padding or 12px padding?’ arguments by approximately 72.94% . ← no citation needed. 

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Adaptive vs. Reactive

"Vitsoe products are in constant evolution. We do not limit our products to the manufacturing technologies available at the time of their design. Built into the language of Vitsoe products is adaptability – adaptability for the user in the home and adaptability in design and manufacture." - Dieter Rams

"Vitsoe products are in constant evolution. We do not limit our products to the manufacturing technologies available at the time of their design. Built into the language of Vitsoe products is adaptability – adaptability for the user in the home and adaptability in design and manufacture." - Dieter Rams

Lastly one of the main tenets of Rams' ethos is that design should be ‘long-lasting’. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be improved or innovated on.

Having that functional core and flexible language to build off of is as important as water to a fish. The product isn’t reacting to trends…it’s adapting to them, while keeping its functional center. Like natural selection, the design should keep the things that work and change to be better suited towards its habitat. 

Lastly one of the main tenets of Rams’s ethos is that design should be ‘long lasting’. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be improved or innovated on.

Having that functional core and flexible language to build off of is as important as water to a fish. The product isn’t reacting to trends…it’s adapting to them, while keeping it’s functional center. Like natural selection, the design should keep the things that work and change to be better suited towards it’s habitat. 

Design Lately

As someone who has done this thing we call ‘design’ for a number of years, it’s easier to see the patterns emerging, changing and ultimately dying. The nature of a trend is wind in the leaves, but the tree…that’s long-lasting. Be the tree 🌳.

Link to the whole speech ←

As someone who has done this thing we call ‘design’ for a number of years, it’s easier to see the patterns emerging, changing and ultimately dying. The nature of a trend is wind in the leaves, but the tree…that’s long lasting. Be the tree 🌳.

Link to the whole speech ←

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© 2020 Jonathan Brazeau

© 2020 Jonathan Brazeau

© 2020 Jonathan Brazeau

© 2020 Jonathan Brazeau