These 10 design principles are 50 years old but more relevant than ever

Written by - December 20, 2018

Dieter Rams was a designer born in Wiesbaden, Germany in the 1930’s. He was heavily influenced by the presence of his grandfather who was a carpenter. Prompted by a friend he applied for a role at the German electrical products company, Braun, in 1955; eventually becoming the Chief Design Officer – a position he kept until 1995. For me personally as a designer at Wholegrain Digital, he’s a hero, a revolutionary and someone whose design philosophy has shaped my own approach.

In the late 1970s, Rams was becoming increasingly concerned at the state of products in the world that surrounded him – “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises” he remarked. As a notable designer, Rams was aware that he played an important role in the world he was helping to shape, he asked himself an important question: is my design good design?

Good design is subjective and can’t necessarily be measured. However Rams attempted to express what he believed to be the most important principles for design. Let’s see how each of his 10 principles can be (and I’d argue, should be) applied to digital design today.

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.

This still rings true on the web. We’ve seen continuous shifts in design approach, trends and technology, and whilst they overlap and circle back – new innovations are always being delivered. At Wholegrain our innovation is in sustainability, and we’ll continue to push the boundaries for how slim, how fast and how clean our shipped products can be.

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 emphasises the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

A fundamental point when designing any digital experience. This second principles translates to User Experience (UX) design and for every product or web experience we design, functionality and ease of use is paramount – the products we ship should be nothing but useful.

3. Good design is aesthetic

The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

We’re a design agency and we take utmost pride in the beauty of our products. I always have the Jasper Morrison quote in the back of my mind: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”, and it reminds me that whatever I make should be useful and beautiful. As designers, we pain over the smallest details and ensure that what we deliver is as beautiful as it can possibly be.

Dieter Rams’ focus on both simplicity and beauty is clear to see on every one of his products. Image credit: Braden Kowitz

4. Good design makes a product understandable

It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.

The last part of this principle really stands out for me – “At best, it is self-explanatory”. Website experiences should never be confusing. At Wholegrain, we design our sites to be wholly accessible, whether that means we’re catering for disabilities or world locations, our experiences need to be self-explanatory.

If we’re to retain an audience online, they will need a clear understanding of how to navigate the page; that’s why we use a well-known design language and wholly uncomplicated navigation.

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 point can be translated in a slightly different way for the web; for any experience we create it’s paramount that they get the specific job done, without getting in the way of the user. In many ways, another area where the best approach is that of simplicity. A great example on the web is to reduce (or altogether removing) annoying pop ups and cookie messages that disturb the user experience, Adverts also disrupt user flow and slow websites down.

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.

We endeavour to create honest web experiences, with zero manipulation of user behaviour. Design should not be used to trick users into visiting pages, signing up for newsletters, handing over personal data or buying products that they didn’t intend to. There is a lot of darkness in modern web design that is intended to manipulate in order to glean results that wouldn’t normally happen. We believe in putting an end to this behaviour and cleaning up the web to become a safer and more enjoyable environment.

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.

As with the clothes we purchase (Patagonia’s #wornwear is a great example), our products are designed and built to last. Society today is perhaps even more throwaway than it was when Rams wrote these principles during the 70s, so it’s important that any product we ship is built to stand the test of time. We design with the optimal blend of latest trends and the latest technologies so that each product can be as timeless as is possible.

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 user.

Again, Rams makes a fantastic point about respect. We spend weeks of each project (sometimes having to resist our clients desire to rush the end product to focus on long term quality) carefully designing the online user experience and again in hi-fidelity. These weeks are spent making sure every pixel is in its right place, and we would only deliver the final product if we felt the design and journey mapping is as complete as it can be. As mentioned earlier, we live in an era of fast fashion and careless disposal – so we aim to counter this culture by appraising our own standards and aiming to continually further our own levels.

Dieter Rams. Image Courtesy of Vitsoe.

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.

This is a big one for Wholegrain digital, and perhaps better summed up by sending you to a number of articles.

Read our values and our philosophy here, check out this post out on what we’re doing to combat climate change, read this blog post on our steps to creating a zero carbon website, and this case study post on our own website.

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.

Finally, this last principle is one of my favourites. Inspired by Japanese fashion, German architecture and Swiss typefaces – minimalism is part of my DNA.

We strip back all our websites and digital experiences, but not just for the sake of minimalism. Tom always says to me “If in doubt, leave it out”. This quote always rings true over features that don’t naturally fit or add to the experience of a site, we try to cleanse everything we do on to ensure that the customers get only the most useful journeys and informations whilst using them.

This also goes hand-in-hand with the fact that minimalism, done well, is beautiful.

Wholegrain was founded by two designers and good design is at the core of every project we take on. If these principles sound like the kind of foundations you’d like your web project to be built on, please get in touch.