10 Principles Of Good Design: Dieter Rams

What makes for good design? Are there general principles for what makes one design better than another that can guide us? Dieter Rams thought so.

In the 1980’s concerned about the state of the world and his contribution to it as a designer, Dieter Rams expressed what he considered to be the 10 most important principles of good design.

This was before the internet and so before web design. While the web wasn’t on Dieter’s mind at the time, his principles still apply.

10 Principles of Good Design

Below are Rams’ 10 principles of good design. These aren’t so much principles on guiding us how to use space or color as they are more higher level concepts.

  1. Good design is innovative
  2. Good design makes a product useful
  3. Good design is aesthetic
  4. Good design makes a product understandable
  5. Good design is unobtrusive
  6. Good design is honest
  7. Good design is long-lasting
  8. Good design is thorough, down to the last detail
  9. Good design is environmentally-friendly
  10. Good design is as little design as possible

Consider the list for a moment before continuing on to some of Rams’ additional thoughts on each along with some of my own thoughts about how they apply to web design.

As I was researching for this post I discovered Scrivs had written a similar 2 part post looking at these same 10 principles, specifically how they relate to web design. Both are worth reading for a different perspective.

As you can probably guess Scrivs and myself are hardly the only ones to talk about these principles. Here are a few other posts I found discussing them.

Each of the sections below begins with some paraphrased words of Dieter Rams in regards to the specific principle. I’ve marked the start of my own thoughts with the bolded Web Design.

Dieter Rams living room installation

1.Good Design is Innovative

New technology always offers new opportunity for innovation, however innovative design develops in tandem with new technology and can never be an end in itself.

Web design — Learn to see where web design is heading and start playing with new technology sooner rather than later. Be forward thinking.

On the web we’re often limited by what browsers support when it comes to live production sites, but that doesn’t mean we can’t experiment and be prepared for when support is there.

Specs for html5 and css3 may not be complete, but that’s no reason you shouldn’t start using them now.

A concept like progressive enhancement fits well here in that we can innovate at a layer on top of a fully working site.

Braun T 1000 Multiwave Radio (1963) by Dieter Rams

2. Good Design Makes a Product Useful

Products need to satisfy certain functional, psychological, and aesthetic criteria. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product while disregarding what could detract from it.

Web design — A useful website is usually one that communicates a variety of messages to an audience and allows visitors to interact with it.

Is your design communicating the intended message(s)? Does your design support the goals of the site. Does it allow visitors to find what they want and complete tasks?

Is there unity and harmony in every element across your design to emphasize the message(s) you’re communicating?

Brain radio by Dieter Rams

3. Good Design is Aesthetic

The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness. Only well executed objects can be beautiful

Web design — The aesthetic-usability effect tells us that the designs people find more aesthetically pleasing are easier to use than the designs they find less aesthetically pleasing.

People form quick, even instant impressions and aesthetics matter in that instant. Meaningful aesthetics help set a context, a frame for how everything else is perceived.

Does your aesthetic support the usefulness of the site?

Braun prototype radio

4. Good Design Makes a Product Understandable

It clarifies the product and at best good design makes the product self-explanatory. No instructions needed

Web design — We can look to principles of affordance and mapping to make our designs more self-evident.

Through better content organization and information architecture we can design websites that are easier to understand.

W can make calls to action clear and minimize potential errors on our sites. We can use meaningful and easily understandable navigation labels to help visitors find what they want.

Braun T 41 Radio (1962) by Dieter Rams

5. Good Design is Unobtrusive

Products are neither decorative objects or works of art. Design should be both neutral and restrained.

Web design — Focus on solid design principles, grids, and typography. Don’t distract visitors with your design.

People visit a site for its content, not your design. Focus on simplicity. Don’t call attention to your design. Design to call attention to the content of the site.

Everything should work together in harmony to support the content and interactivity of the site.

Braun PC 3-SV Record Player (1953) Dieter Rams co-designer

6. Good Design is Honest

It does not make a product more innovative, powerful, or valuable than it is. It doesn’t manipulate with promises that can’t be kept

Web design — Your design should enhance the content and it should fairly represent that content and the business behind the site.

Stay away from dark patterns that aim only to manipulate. Always have your visitors best interest in mind. Direct, but don’t deceive.

Take the time to understand your client, your client’s goals, the goals of your client’s customers. Understand everything you can about the purpose and reason for the existence of a site and make sure your design reflects those things.

Being genuine is advice we’ve all received since the first time we encountered another human being. It’s good advice for design too.

Dieter Rams chairs

7. Good Design is Long-lasting

It avoids being fashionable and never appears antiquated.

Web design — Follow solid design principles over the latest trends. Technology will change and sites will be updated every few years, however with a good design they don’t have to be radically altered.

You can design for flexibility and growth. Your design can adapt to the new without needing to significantly change. Get the underlying structure right and you can strip layers off the top when it’s time to change.

Trends change quickly. The height of fashion today may be at the opposite end of the spectrum tomorrow.

Detail of a phonograph from Dieter Rams exhibit

8. Good Design is Thorough, Down to the Last Detail

Nothing should be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy show respect toward the consumer

Web design — Attention to detail matters. Correct typos. Write clean and semantic code. Add easter eggs to delight.

Don’t rush a design or decide it’s good enough. Seek an unattainable perfection. Polish your design.

In some cases the extra attention to detail will delight your audience. In other cases they may never notice the actual detail, but will have a better experience with your design. In all cases it means you aren’t ignoring anything.

606 Universal Shelving System by Dieter Rams

9. Good Design is Environmentally-friendly

It conserves resources and minimizes both physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

Web design — Optimizing for speed can lead to less processing power on computers and servers. Your visitors and search engines will like it too.

Scrivs suggests thinking of environment as the user and to reduce wasted motion for your visitors. Make everything as easy as possible so your audience can complete tasks.

Needless decoration is noise and pollution. Seek to eliminate the unnecessary.

Braun L2 speaker by Dieter Rams

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.

Web design — Again focus on solid design principles. Aim for simplicity and minimalism. Think mobile first.

Reduce your design to only what’s essential to communicate your message and ruthlessly cut everything else.

Summary

While you may or may not agree with every aspect of the principles above there’s a lot of wisdom in them. Though formed before the web existed they still apply to the websites you and I design today.

These principles are at the heart of Apple’s current design philosophy which has certainly worked for them and is seemingly being copied again and again by companies looking to produce better design.

So many of these principles are worth further and more detailed discussion and I’ll look more closely at the idea of as little design as possible next time when talking more in-depth about simplicity in design.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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