Good product design: The 10 principles of Dieter Rams

While I was in San Francisco this week, I got a chance to do something I've been meaning to do for years -- visit SFMOMA, the Museum of Modern of Art. The building itself is striking from both inside and out and there's plenty to see in the permanent collections (the photography on the third floor was my favorite), but the thing that drew me there on this trip was the current exhibition Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. | Photo: Jason Hiner

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. | Photo: Jason Hiner

As you may have heard, the industrial design of Rams (right, photo credit: Dieter Rams) at Braun since the 1960s had a major impact Steve Jobs, Jonathan Ive, and the minimalist, functional design of many Apple products. Seeing many of Rams's original Braun designs -- from stereos to kitchen appliances to calculators -- and reading his quotes throughout the exhibit about the discipline used to create great products is inspiring stuff.  

The best part was a visual display of Rams's 10 principles of "good design," which was paired with an exhibit of modern products that his principles have influenced, including the iPhone 4 and the MacBook Air. Here is the exhibit's list of the Rams principles along with his explanation of each one:

1. Good Design Is Innovative— The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

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.

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.

4. Good Design MakesA 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

9. Good Design Is Environmentally Friendly— Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimises physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

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.

I'd highly recommend the Rams exhibit at SFMOMA. I took advantage of the fact that museum admission is half-price on Thursday evening, the one night of the week that it's open late (until 8:45PM).

If you're interested in another important influence on the career on Steve Jobs, take a look at the New York Times article "The Man Who Inspired Jobs," which looks at how Polaroid's Edwin Land had a big impact on the Apple co-founder.