Dieter Rams – Less is more

The design principles formed by architect-funcionalist seem to be written for the automobile world

09:00 | 29 юли 2022
снимка: Bloomberg LP
снимка: Bloomberg LP

by Kaloyan Zhelev

It’s not necessary for a person to have profound interests in architecture and industrial design in order to know the name of the born in 1932 in Wiesbaden German designer who has gained worldwide fame with the products of Braun and Vitso. Turning 90 in May, he is a living classic in the functionalist school and author of the universally recognized ten principles of good design.

His life and career are a subject of special attention; he graduated with honors from the art school in his hometown in 1953 and began working as an architect. Two years later Braun hired him as an architect and interior designer but in 1961 he headed their product design and stayed there until 1995.

Leaded by the principle ‘less but better’ Rams and his team created over 500 products for Braun: from household appliances to home audio equipment – their variety is huge. For Braun and the famous British furniture company Bumco, Rams is much more than an employee: he becomes the actual manager who was given the full freedom to cultivate his own aesthetics.

In the late 70s Dieter Rams is more and more concerned for the state of the world around him: ‘an impenetrable mess of shapes, colors and sounds." Realizing his contribution to the world of objects, he fundamentally asks himself: "Is my design good?".

His answer comes in the form of his 10 designer principles gained worldwide recognition, which nowadays we are rethinking from the automobile world’s point of the view.

And so, the good design:

1. is innovative

The horizon for innovation is limitless. Technological development constantly provides new opportunities for original design, and new technologies are an inseparable tandem. Since the philosopher-alchemist Roger Bacon - one of the most prominent Franciscans of his time - allowed the existence of horseless cars (XIII century), Leonardo da Vinci sketched the self-propelled armored car (XV century), Christian Huygens invented his gunpowder piston engine (XVII century), and Karl Benz constructed in 1885 his first tricycle, the history of the automobile is an endless innovation spiral.

Despite that, the new ( in the meaning of ‘never seen before’ and not ‘the latest version of the familiar’) is wayward phenomenon. Auto mobile producers tirelessly suggest us novelties in which there is nothing new; it’s just the usual evolution of something already existing. Among many technologies for the last decade is ‘the new’ third generation of Mazda 6 in 2012: despite it was accepted extremely well and came to the final for design of the year, the beautiful ‘Mazda’ wasn’t novelty, in spite the fact that from a product point of view it was new. The real novelty, something never seen before, for example, would be propulsion from a charged-for-life cold fusion microreactor at the price of a conventional car.

The legendary Mercedes-Benz 300 SL becomes something similar to that in 1954 with its with its lightweight tubular frame, six-cylinder in-line engine with mechanical injection, and overhead camshaft, upward-opening doors (for which it is also named "Gullwing" - Gullwing) and a bunch of other technological innovations, the 300 SL was deservedly chosen as a sports car of the twentieth century.

The rest is a matter of the creative ingenuity of marketing, which swallows unimaginable resources to present reality in a different light. And quite often, I can't deny it, he does it with much talent.

2. is useful

You buy a product in order to use it. It has to meet specific functional, psychological and aesthetic criteria. The good design accents on its usefulness by ignoring everything distracting.

This principle brings to my mind the first generation of Opel Zafira which at the very end of the previous century offered the functional advantage of folding (instead of dismantling) of the third row seats in the ground. Its great success was due precisely to successfully applying such a benefit, ignoring all the potential distractions from it. So quite naturally the Zafira spawned a wave of varyingly successful followers, the majority of which ended their lives with the next tidal wave of utility – the SUV invasion.

3. is aesthetic

Believe it or not, this is one of the hardest aspects of design, as every product has an inherent function, bringing with it a bunch of conventions. It also places countless limitations on beauty and is in constant conflict with it – something like yin and yang. Add to that the thousands of ever-evolving regulatory and standardization regulations and you have an astonishingly difficult task. One example from a decade ago of designing a car that looked good while meeting, among other things, the functional constraint of "pedestrian safety" was the Volko B40 with its innovative pedestrian airbag.

The favourite one in my professional biography is the case of Peugeot 307: when I saw it for the first time in Sofia car showroom I stood as if struck by lightning; the French hatchback offered a previously unseen aesthetic height that made the competition look hopelessly dated. In the beginning of the century, this car ushered in the single-volume trend in the C segment and was (and for me still is) an aesthetic breakthrough. This is the car for whose attractiveness people queued up for in the peak times of the Bulgarian car market.

4. Improves product comprehensibility

It clarifies its structure and allows the design to speak for itself. Yes, yes, I hear you very well and I agree: intelligibility is a subjective category; just try to ask yourself how understandable your car is, and then what your grandmother thinks about it…

Save her the experiment and instead of asking her, recall the E65 generation of BMW 7: with its incomprehensible appearance and even more difficult to understand iDrive interface (evolved into one of the best in the industry today), it was saved from failure only thanks to the religious belief that the Holy Grail is kept in Munich. The irony of fate didn't fail to work flawlessly, as it became the seventh best-selling series of all time. In the end, Chris Bengel left BMW Four-Cylinder in 2009 and founded his own company, Chris Bengel Associates, and three years later he was also hired by Samsung.

5. is unobtrusive

Purpose-built products are tools – neither decorative objects nor works of art. Therefore, their design should be both neutral and moderate, leaving the user space for self-expression.

I immediately think of "the fin era" in American automotive manufacturing - the 1950s and 1960s. These marvellous vehicles are a neo-Gothic cocktail of self-serving ornamentation and technique, and by that standard they are a textbook example of a complete lack of discretion. A 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II, for example, provides unlimited space for self-expression, never mind that you are completely lost in the background of ostentatious American extravagance.

6. is honest

It doesn’t make the product newer, more powerful or precious than it is and does not try to manipulate the consumer with unfulfilled promises. Manufacturers are failing en masse here, and there are so many examples that if I start listing, I run the risk of unfairly missing out on someone deserving and shoes will be flying at me in an instant from all corners of the automotive sector. Honesty in general is a great (not only visual) luxury and therefore a difficult virtue to maintain: just look around you and you will realize its exotic rarity.

Otherwise, Dacia are a definite up-to-date example of honesty: they don't promise more than they are, but they give more than you expect - the dog of their success is also buried there somewhere.

7. is long-lasting

Does not try to be modern and hence it never gets old. Unlike fashion, it is durable even in today's oversaturated and capricious consumer world.

This is one of the key prerequisites in making a purchase decision that many manufacturers stubbornly refuse to understand and - oh my goodness - spew out fads with mediocre market results. Before the start of the dispute, try to count how many share the success of concepts preserved for eight generations Toyota Hilux or VW Golf, for example?

The massive visual zig-zag with each successive model generation always makes me wonder how ashamed the designers are of their previous work. Or are they tacitly admitting failure and needing something so different that it blows up the brand identity they've sworn by? Eager to differentiate EVs at all costs, and making a bunch of compromises with the sixth principle, car designers have done a lot to amend this one.

8. is complete down to the last detail

That is, "in everything". This principle of Rams is most indicative of all the difference between candidates and laureates. Automotive history is full of beautiful disappointments, and here I return to the example of the wonderful-looking "Peugeot" 307: a good concept and a successfully embodied idea were infected with many technical, technological and software bacteria that neutralized the enthusiasm for its beautiful appearance. However, its impact spawned a trend in the C-segment with different successful followers such as the VW Golf Plus and the Toyota Auris.

9. is eco-friendly

That’s right – the design has important role in protecting the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the product's life cycle.

I don't know how many of you realize that what we imagine to be pure is actually not so pure, and our ideas of peaceful coexistence with nature have been so badly manipulated by colossal geopolitical and economic interests that my trust in them has been shaken to the core. How, for example, am I supposed to believe that EVs are carbon-extensive when raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, and recycling (especially the toxic chemistry-filled batteries at this stage) are carbon-intensive processes? And the origin of the current in the network; and her own life cycle? It's good that there are still enough sober heads left to introduce the exception for carbon-neutral alternative fuels in the ban on the sale of internal combustion engines in the EU after 2035.

10. as little design as possible

Less is better because it concentrates on the most important aspects of the product and does not overload it with excess.

Otherwise, albeit with debatable rule #6 honesty, as the concept was stolen from the Tatra V570 (which was however admitted and the Czechs subsequently compensated), the Volkswagen Beetle is a masterful illustration of a visual and engineering concept reduced to the most necessary. It was no accident that it was the choice of three generations of drivers around the world.

Another part of the electric car wave is based on this very principle, compensating for the disadvantages of high price, limited range and slow charging with affordable minimalism. Current example: Citroën AMI, which is practically not a car, but an electric quadricycle with access to urban low-emission zones, and in France it can be driven without a license by anyone over the age of 14.

Rams recently shared, “It must be understood that designing your environment—which is what product design is—requires taking a stand. For many years, mine has been summed up in three words: "less, but better." We need to engage in fewer but more useful, greener, more universal and more engaging things. This, in my opinion, is the key to turning mindless consumption into responsible consumption. Attractiveness should be associated with new and compelling concepts and functions, not with good looks created as an unnecessary incentive to purchase”.

On his birthday in May, he said: “Although we humans are living longer and longer, a 90th birthday is not something to be taken for granted. I would like to take this opportunity to emphasize once again my concern with the design of our world of things. The day marks not so much the fact that I am ninety, but my happiness in working as a designer for seventy years. Throughout my life this has often been a result of luck, but more often thanks to the many people with whom I have had the opportunity to make proposals for a slightly better world'.

Inspired by his grandfather's carpentry skills, Dieter Rams is among the living masters of 20th century industrial design. Its principles have long been academically accepted, and countless honors from around the world, the exhibition "Less and More" and the film "Rams" by director Gary Hustwit from 2018 are just some of the signs of respect for one of the great talents shown in the purest form that less can be much more.