Why is it that some products are oh-so easy to pick up and use, while others seem to baffle even the most tech-savvy of users? This is a question that designers have grappled with since the dawn of the industrial age. It’s even more pertinent now, when technology is moving forward at such a breakneck pace that many people can’t keep up. To make a product a success, designers need to ensure that anyone can get their head around it. The key to this lies in appearance. Attractive things work better- and no one understands this better than iconic industrial designer Dieter Rams.
“Less, but better”- Dieter Rams
Rams is often associated with the functionalist school of design. It’s easy to see why many people draw a link between the two. After all, so much of Rams’ career was spent creating products that seemingly put function above all else. In truth, though, this couldn’t be further from the truth. To Rams, how something looks is just as important as how it works, to the point where the two things are inseparable from each other. By taking a minimalist approach to design, he could ensure that every last detail serves a clear purpose. Function thus becomes the very heart of the product’s appearance- an approach which Apple have used to enormous success in recent years.
In fact, Rams himself has said that Apple are one of the few modern companies who have truly taken his philosophy to heart. Writing in 2011, he called them “lone voices treating the discipline of design seriously in all corners of their businesses.” The feeling is mutual; Sir Jony Ive, the company’s Chief Design Officer, has long named Rams as his biggest inspiration. It’s thanks to Ive’s work that Rams’ principles have become perhaps the leading design philosophy of our era- even if most users haven’t heard of the man himself.
The secret of Apple’s success
Fittingly, Ive himself fell in love with Apple due to their intuitive approach to computer design. Back in his student days, he had given up on the desktop computers of the time, finding them too difficult to use. Until, that is, he discovered the Apple Mac. In particular, the mouse-driven interface- as opposed to the text-heavy approach that PCs took at the time- helped him to get his head around this technology. By using simple yet effective icons, users could easily find their way about the various programmes. Bringing function and aesthetics together, the Mac helped to bring the desktop out of the office, and invented the home computer as we know it.
Under Ives, the Apple team continue that same approach to this day, making every aspect of their products as simple and intuitive as possible. Think of an iPad- there are only four buttons on the device itself, but they are placed so that even the most technophobic users will instantly understand what they do. The original iPod took this concept to the extreme, ditching buttons entirely for a touch-responsive control wheel. This laid the groundwork for the iPad and iPhone, but its design owes more to Dieter Rams than just theory.
Take a look at the Braun T3 pocket radio, created by Rams in 1958, and you’ll see it looks more than a little familiar. Replace the speaker holes with a screen, and it’s almost a mirror image of the very first iPod. Ives himself has acknowledged that his design was inspired by the earlier product, and it’s not the only time that this has happened. Way back on iOS 3, the calculator app was directly based on the Braun ET 66 calculator from 1987. The clock on iOS 7, meanwhile, took similar inspiration from Braun’s signature clock and watch design. Not that Rams himself is offended, though- in that same 2011 piece, he said that he takes all Apple products “as a compliment” to the style he helped spearhead.
The power of great design
Rams worked for Braun for 40 years, and in that time designed hundreds of products that still look and feel timeless. However, despite the company’s success, and Rams’ own reputation as a “designer’s designer”, they never approached the kind of world-beating success that Apple have enjoyed. It has been left to Dieter disciples to pick up the gauntlet he threw down with his ten principles, and Jony Ives and his team have shown just how powerful this philosophy can be when put into practise. As Rams himself noted, with just a touch of jealousy: “Apple has managed to achieve what I never achieved: using the power of their products to persuade people to queue to buy them.”
Related: Dieter Rams: Design Philosophy