Product Design |

August 15, 2018

Why Dieter Rams is my UX design hero

When I think about what excellent UX/UI design should look like I get a mental picture of a Dieter Rams record player. Perhaps not the most obvious touchstone when designing for digital, but Dieter Rams' contribution to User Experience design cannot be underestimated.

Schematic from the Design Museum London showing Dieter Rams' "Snow White's Coffin" Braun SK 5 at centre right. (Adopt one  here  ).
Schematic from the Design Museum London showing Dieter Rams' "Snow White's Coffin" Braun SK 5 at centre right.

No history of design could be complete without Dieter Rams. And although it’s easy to lionise the man because he and his designs were – are – so beautiful in their pared-down utility, he wasn’t without his detractors at the time. For instance, the 1958 Braun SK 5 Radio-Phono combination whose design he collaborated on with Hans Gugelot drew ridicule from his rivals when it launched. Originally conceived with a sheet-metal lid, in tests this was found to rattle. Rams suggested using transparent moulded plastic, which at the time was a cutting edge new material. Although chary at first, Gugelot agreed and the SK 5 shipped with a hinged clear plastic hood. Amused pundits branded it ‘Snow White’s Coffin’, and it’s easy to imagine what a polarising solution the design must have seemed in its day. But of course, Rams was vindicated, as evidenced by almost all turntables subsequently produced adopting a transparent plastic cover as a way of protecting delicate moving parts from knocks and dust.

One of the things that distinguished Rams was his pursuit of simplicity. The idea that every detail, every control must have a justification for its existence, otherwise it didn’t need to be there. He was committed to a User-Centred Design approach way back in the ’50’s, way before the UX that we understand today. This led him to simplify the controls on electronic devices, or group them in an intuitive way, as on his 1970 Braun Nizo S 800 Super 8 camera.

There are obvious parallels with legendary product design and what we now call User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) design. Although UX seems suspiciously close to “common sense” a lot of the time, it’s telling how a User-Centred mindset inexplicably goes missing from the design of everyday things from time to time, leaving an opportunity for an obdurate visionary such as Steve Jobs, to step in. Jobs believed the iPhone would succeed because he understood that mobile phones and smartphones were being designed, without exception, for the profit of their manufacturers. He recognised that this was why they were a nightmare to use and everyone hated them –  they just weren’t being made for the people that used them. Jobs preferred to put the user’s experience centre stage where it belongs, just like Rams.

Although Rams’ sensibility wasn’t entirely new, he was self-aware enough to question his own process. He questioned himself and his output constantly and concerned with the state of the world he was contributing to, eventually asked himself simply; “Is my design good design”. This question drove him to set out a set of criteria that he would judge his own work on – later to become known as the 'Ten Commandments'. Contained within are plenty of analogs with good UI/UX design practice:

  • Good design is innovative
  • Good design makes a product useful
  • Good design is aesthetic
  • Good design makes a product understandable
  • Good design is unobtrusive
  • Good design is honest
  • Good design is long lasting
  • Good design is thorough down to the last detail
  • Good design is environmentally-friendly
  • Good design is as little design as possible

Eventually the tide went out on what I like to think of as the “baroque period” of web design, 1995-2001. In the absence of established conventions other than those of graphic design for print, there was a craze for going back to first principles on every single website design. Coming up with a totally new method of navigation in a crazy Flash movie was seen as desirable and the obvious (and often more usable) was frowned upon. I clearly remember the snootiness directed at the so-called ‘hockey stick’ web layout – where the logo was top left and the top and left side of the site would have space for navigation. Like a hockey stick. A simple and clear solution in the era of Frames that was often disregarded in our quest for the "wow factor".

It was fun, but it couldn’t last. Our audiences tagged along for a while, as enthused as we were by the entertainment value of creative navigation schemes. But long download times and being prevented from getting what you wanted due to a designer’s inward-looking pursuit of innovation for innovation's sake meant that time was running out. The possibilities of Flash dragged out the experimental interface for some time but the route forward was eventually summed up neatly for me by Ben Hunt in his slim 2007 volume, Save The Pixel – The Art of Simple Web Design. Inside, the author set out a simple credo. Imagine that pixels are in very short supply. The world only has so many to go around, so if you use one on a web interface you’d better have a very good reason for it. This killed the over-egged, over designed mindset once and for all. The book outlined a more clear-thinking approach to web design that chimes with Dieter Rams’ pursuit of simplicity many decades before.

So that’s why I like to think of great product designers like Rams as the godfathers of UX design. Making things that were delightful, simple and intuitive. These are principles that the UX and UI designers of today hold dear.

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