“I Have Always Been Concerned with the Plain and the Simple”

Explore the creative origins of product designer Dieter Rams

Modular audio and video atelier system from 1982 (Design by Dieter Rams, photography by Koichi Okuwaki)

design & fashion

Ideas of what can and must be achieved through good design are constantly changing depending on cultural and technological developments. German product designer Dieter Rams, however, came up with a foundation that advocates for the purist, almost imperceptible design. His 'ten principles of good design' are still considered timeless bedrocks of design theory and practice today.

 

Injection pen for insulin designed by Braun for pharmaceutical company Hoechst AG. (Design by Peter Schneider, Jürgen Greubel, photography by Braun AG)
Good design is innovative. Good design makes a product useful. Pharmaceutical company Hoechst AG commissioned Rams and his team to design a handy, compact device for daily use for diabetics to inject their exact doses of insulin. What might seem obvious to us nowadays, the pen shape of the injection device was new at that time also the use of different plastics, hard and soft for grip. (Design by Peter Schneider, Jürgen Greubel, photography by Braun AG)

 

Head of the design department at Braun from 1961 to 1995, Rams changed household product manufacturing during his four decades at the company. Founded in 1921 by Max Braun, the company began in Frankfurt, Germany, where in the early days there were no product designers. First devices like the famous radio and record player combination were designed by engineers. As a consequence, the designs were highly functional. That being one source of the purity of his designs as he kicked off his career there in 1955 as a young designer. He famously said, "My design ideals were shaped within the framework of Braun and it was Braun products that I primarily designed."

 

Braun coffee maker with bright red plastic components. (Design by Hartmut Kahlcke, photography by Braun AG)
Good design is aesthetic. Dieter Rams said, "I have always been against the use of bright colors at Braun. The main colors were always white, light grey, black or metallic colors… Very few products were red, yellow or blue … offered as product alternatives for individuals who wished to add strong color accents to their environments via appliances rather than with bunches of flowers or other decorations that did not fit into the overall harmony of the room." (Design by Hartmut Kahlcke, photography by Braun AG)

Rams’ grandfather who used to be a master joiner had left a great mark on him as well, his notion of composition and craft especially. In Less but better, Rams shares very personal memories like a letter he had sent to Erwin Braun, former CEO of Braun and son of company founder Max Braun. In the letter, he said, “My grandfather had no machines, he didn’t like them, and he preferred to work alone; apprentices never did things well enough. He specialized in surfaces and I learned from him how to polish wood by hand, layer by layer.” The designs of his grandfather to then teenage Rams had “reflected the economy of his way of working, they grew out of his handcraft … I absorbed it and it has been part of me to this day. I have always been concerned with the plain and the simple.”

 

Close up image of color coded buttons of a hi-fi system by Braun. (Design by Dieter Rams, photography by Timm Rautert)
Good design makes a product easy to understand. The color was used for information purposes during the Rams years at Braun. In hi-fi systems or pocket calculators, for example, a color coding system had been developed that has been in use for decades. (Design by Dieter Rams, photography by Timm Rautert)

 

As a young adult Rams actually followed his grandfather’s footsteps and interrupted his studies of interior design at the School of Arts and Crafts in Wiesbaden to do a three-year apprenticeship in a carpenters’ workshop.

 

Shelving system photographed in black and white designed by Dieter Rams for furniture brand Vitsoe. (Design by Dieter Rams, photography by Vitsoe)
Good design is unobtrusive. Good design is honest. Good design is durable. Rams intended to have his Vitsoe furniture pieces high usability, variety, and durability. He said, in order to achieve this high quality was indispensable and that led to having gained the products "a degree of exclusivity that was never intended". (Design by Dieter Rams, photography by Vitsoe)


Picking up his studies again, Rams started to develop a great interest in architecture, urban planning, and environmental design. In his first two years out of university, Rams worked in an architectural office until he started at Braun in 1955.

 

Stereo system by Braun with cables hidden within flexible tubes. (Design by Peter Hartwein, photography by Braun AG)
Good design is durable. Good design is thorough, down to the last detail. The cables of this stereo system are hidden within flexible tubes that are in line with the overall design of the device. (Design by Peter Hartwein, photography by Braun AG)


Prior to starting at Braun, Rams reminisces in Less but better about this moment. He said, “I have to confess that for my first two or three months, I was, and remained, pretty unclear about how a company like Braun functioned,” helping out the photographers who were tasked with the job of photographing new products in a suitable environment, a young Rams was occupied with “small, harmless (but important) interior design tasks.” His first task at Braun that entailed actual product design work were alterations for the wooden radio and photo cabinets. “So there I was back with the material that I had started with–wood. But I didn’t like it anymore,” Rams recalls. He ended up using a metal casing, which he didn’t like too much either, but it went into production anyway.

 


"Not outstanding design, but better design"–this, Rams said in an interview with gestalten, was his main task in the beginnings of his career at Braun. Watch the full interview in this video from 2010.

 

Explore the legacy Dieter Rams created during his four decades at Braun and Vitsoe. Less but better gives you a clear understanding of the ideas, criteria, and methods behind his creations and how a shifting culture of product manufacturing gave rise to universal design benchmarks. The book is illustrated with color and black and white images of classic product designs complemented by sketches from Dieter Rams.

Browse Less but better here.


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