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Design Knowledge Intermediary
Dieter Rams
(By Ayhan Ensici)
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It's a truth that interviewing with Dieter Rams, asking questions to this designer who has lots to say about design is very inspirational for the beginners of design. It sounds nice to ask questions to a maestro who has witnessed the development in the history of design in person. Dieter Rams started his job in Braun as an architect and interior designer in 1955. He overtook the first design project in Braun in 1956. In 1957 he made the first furniture sketches for Otto Zapf. In 1961, he became the head of the design department of Braun. In 1997 (because he reached the legitimate retiring age which is 65) he got retired. The questions we asked are not maybe original questions but we wondered to know what Rams would say to the questions everybody asks themselves during their education. How does he regard his own work? Our first question is how he defines his own design style. The answer is clear: plainness, understandability, modesty and simplicity. On the other hand he is focused on usefulness. In other words it is function centered product design. Does he have a specific method that he uses in design? Or how does he define a design of success? Here he replies all our questions with a single answer. The basic ideas, the philosophy of Dieter Rams and his colleagues, are gathered in 10 simple factors. These 10 factors must not be concrete factors, indeed they are not. Besides, the thoughts on the definition of new design develop exactly as the development of culture and techniques. These facts can be put into order as follows:

Good design is innovative!

Good design is not pretending the known but is being innovative through doing progress in functionality. It doesn't seem that the proceeding choices will not end because of the new possibilities that technological development has created.

Good design makes the product useful!

People buy products to use it. There are secondary functions but the primary is the optimization of usage.

Good design is aesthetical!

The quality of the aesthetics of a product and thus its value is a property of the completeness of functionality. Because it is certain that it is sinister and weary to use a product that is complex to understand and to use. Leaving everything aside it's very difficult to comment on the quality of aesthetics for two reasons: First of all it's very difficult to define a visual concept with words because every word means something different to every individual. The second reason is the role of familiar and balanced appearance of the visual elements and the balance in details, the quality of aesthetics and the must of visual intuition that comes with the experience necessary to comment reliably.

Good design makes the product understandable!

Design emphasizes the structure of the product. It may even make the product speak out. Ideally the product defines itself and this solves the problem of reading a usage prospectus.

Good design must not be uncomfortable!

Products satisfying a task fulfill the function of a gadget. These are neither decorative objects nor objects of art. That's why design must be neutral. Items must draw back for human to live.

Good design is honest!

Good design doesn't- must not- seem different (more useful, more innovative, more valuable?) than what it really is. It must not deceive either the salesman or the consumer. It must not cause them be deceived.

Good design lives long!

It doesn't have components of fashion for the sake of living long (visually). This is how well designed products differ with a distinct line from trivial products with short lives. Today there is no profit in these products.

Good design is though in detail!

The tidiness and concreteness of design is the sign of the respect to the product, its functions and at the same time the respect to the consumer.

Good design is environmental friendly!

Design must protect the environment and must not damage the sources. Meanwhile something must be done against pollution of the environment not only physically but also visually.

Good design must be 'the least designed' as possible!

It's the way back to plainness and simplicity.


After defining good design, we asked whether- except for his work-he likes other designers' work. The answer is in his own garden. He finds the simplicity in the traditional Japanese Architecture close to his work.

That's why he designed his garden like Japanese gardens. Besides Japanese Architecture he finds Romantic movements' churches fascinating. He had the chance to meet the Romantic Movement in his visits to Erback Monastery in Rheingau a few kilometers to where he was born. In his mature period it is seen that this visit was efficiently important.

Which items does he use in design? Computer? Models? How important are they in his work? His answers to these questions are brief: paper, pen, model, computer; all these have minor importance. The major is to think. Design begins in the mind.

But at the same time does he work on more than one project? When we look at his cv we see that in 1955 after starting his job at Braun, he designed his first furniture piece for Otto Zapf in 1957. Besides, his designing his own house and its garden is the answer to our question.

How far does functionality lead in Rams' work? Rams' article about this is enough to explain his ideas about the issue.

Functional design, is it the task of the future?

The term ''functionality'' is a vital point in design and the name of a movement. I think it is very important to understand the root of ''functionality'', the reason of being the key in modern industrial design, the way it was derided and the reason of the inexistence of an alternate to functional design (and I mean being designed to serve human by saying functional) and to me it's very important to think in detail.

The word 'functio' in Latin is 'to be done'. An act that has a target, efficiency in target?Mathematicians, logicians use this term as to mean 'contrary addiction'. Kant would define the term 'function' as 'output of the brain'. The meaning of 'fonksiyonal' and 'fonksiyonell' (referring the original text in German) are diverse but they are very complex at the same time. 'Functionality' and 'Functionalistic' at first stand for efforts done in the frame of a design style referring especially to the outer structure. What are meant are things that exist the way they are because they are influenced by 'functio' or because 'functio' makes things to be done the way they are. It's very understandable that the buildings, objects, tools are defined as 'functional' since then the beginning of the 30s.A house, a hammer, a chair?what may they bring rather than being 'functio'? Functionality is a must. By the end of the craftsmanship, regarding non functional parts as excessive load on design made 'functionality' a peak for the new design generation. On the other hand a product's value is not estimated with appropriateness of usage. What has major importance is the obsession of prestige and this value is increased by the attitude towards art work. Then what has made it vital to appreciate the value of efforts to make products functional? Why did this understanding of design become important?

For sure, there are many facts in the composition. I am not informed enough to judge these through the relations with the history of culture. But to express it clear, I am sure that, the primary reason of the efficiency of this concept is its honesty and reality. A chair is manufactured to sit on, sold to sit on, serves to sit on. A chair must be designed to sit on. Functional design, despite its absolute simplicity has been losing value by then. How come? How can a concrete formula like 'form follows function' be morphed to 'function follows form' without being misunderstood or made fun of? As a result of this designers perceived functionality as a movement. Moving from 'function' to 'functionality' and from 'attitude towards design' to 'style' is worth evaluating. What do they mean when people say 'This is pure Baroque' or 'This is a real Biedermeier'? Do they mean that these include everything except functionality? Or do they mean design is not only functional but also decorative? 'Functionality' started to develop from a point where 'function' is the major issue. Then it was developed to a pure movement by architects and designers.


Here, solutions for design problems provide a big reservoir for styles of functionality. It is to be evaluated by me; I understand it as a conscious ignorance of poverty and simplicity in design at the same time. Putting everything in geometric shapes is another approach. It is not good to try in order to prepare the most useful design; in fact it is only an attempt to pretend to be useful. As a result, design of usefulness became a style. This is a paradox because the basic ideas of functionality carries design beyond all the styles and beyond everything defines it through the reality of usage. The usage of the elements of form which seemed to be functional at first then was thought to be far away from the real world and being humanistic, especially in architecture. This kind of buildings give the impression that the same person lives the same things in them; however, at the same time these buildings give the impression that the simplicity which is a result of usefulness, has been spent without imagination. In the end in order to clear the chaos in which we are directed to live we must learn to leave these entire aside to comprehend validating the important one. Thus, this is really important.

To me, the biggest sin that a designer may commit is to think that people and their lives are equal. Design that fulfils the requirements of functionality must be composed of the reality of human usage, human life, human needs, will and deep, diverse, patient emotions. The design of a product reflects the designers' thoughts of the people. We can know about someone having a look at his residence. Just like that we can understand what kind of a consumer population is in the target of the designer by looking at a chair. For sure in the past and today designers' view of the reality of usage is very narrow and shallow. The reality of usage restricts the tasks a product must fulfill. This is the same for specific tools with specific tasks for instance. Consumers may not think that an office chair is ergonomic because it is designed for specific postures. This is how design acts to adapt human to machine. A chair for the living room has other important tasks.

As a product it has to perform more than its primary functions, the contents of the term "function", has been extended continuously. Some other points of interest are the psychological functions of the products, which are performed through design, product graphics or the adaptation of the user to his environment. While looking for complementary functions of the products, we can easily get lost among the infinite possibilities or become a part of things that we tease. Today, according to designers, the duty of the design of the products which proved their values through daily usage; is to point out the hopes, fears and wishes of an era Expansion of functions can be carried on parallel to the ever changing expectations of people. Totally unuseful products have certain value for people who see themselves different from others, and want to show of. Design theory has created a problem such as having a definition, which will include the man (human being) in order to develop a definition of function that will cover the products. But, the problem which has to be solved in design practice is the problem of deciding the functions to be omitted or the deciding the functions which will be given priority and determining the density of work that will be performed depending on these priorities. I can say that this is a long and detailed task. And unfortunately, there isn't a recipe or quick solution for this. Besides to these, there is not as chance of making the decisions alone. We work with a lot of people as a team, who are specialists on the subjects such as management, manufacturing and product development. In order to reach forms, which will add complementary functions to the primary functions in a reasonable way, we try to define all of the related factors. Here, concept of "being meaningful", is shaped as the pictures of our design in the minds of people we work with, or as our knowledge about the reasons the functions which we give to the products, or our ability to determine the things we achieve using the possibilities of the company that we work for. The most important function: Functionality and having aims. They are always developed depending on the direct, serious and dense usage of the primary function.


To say more directly, a person wants who wants to buy a toast machine, doesn't want to see a sign of today's world's hopes, fears and wishes on his table but to toast a piece of bread. This example reveals: "The products which are designed by us-the avant-garde designers, are clearly "gaga" (demonstration of irony, objects trying to be funny or the madness of hand tools.) The primary duty of these things is their unmeaningfullnes. Maybe this design mentality is legitimate but is it true? Or valuable? I consider this as a diversity of art, a provocation or an uncompleted criticism of culture. This has nothing to do with industrial design or with product design for the industrial preparation of big series. In my opinion, the case is just the opposite. To bring forth the secondary motifs, to give them value (importance) are the basic principles to increase the total value of a product. Industrial products are work tools and they must stay like that. When not used, they must stay behind to give people the opportunity of designing their environments as they wish. These products are neither artwork or cult objects, nor status symbols and accessories. Another principle is the obligation of taking and reflecting as much as possible from the things that are thought and done in the professional environment. We work inside the context of cultural and technical developments. Another extreme example: Even today some design experiments are carried out within the approach of "Tabula-rasa". Ideas are formed separately without looking at the future or past. I can't see an innovation here, because the people who are making this experiment are not seeing the existing solutions and never try to develop them. Today as functional design is looked upon often, this makes young designers and non-designers think that it's easy to design a product as "it must be" and there is no more than the daily tasks, which has to be performed by these products. These approaches, which concentrate on form- as if there is nothing to be designed and thought about a product - are the revivals of the speculative degeneration of the functional facts. Actually, functional design is a future-duty today. As a result industrial design is still a young profession. We are at the beginning yet. In none of our designs and details we could reach the perfectness of natural phenomena such as hand-wing, eye-skin and flower-seed, which are formed through a natural evolution. Technique is developing with an accelerating pace. The behavior, needs attitudes and the life, facts of people are continuously changing. Parallel to this, the environment created by functional design is moving quickly and continuously. New problems and tasks await us, but we have experience and technique.

This article is written by Dieter RAMS in 2001.  Designophy ©


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