Dieter Rams, designer of Braun electronics

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Over at Domus, my dear pal John Alderman reports on "Less and More: the Design Ethos of Dieter Rams," a retrospective exhibition about the German designer that's currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Rams is best known for the gorgeous electronic products he designed for Braun from 1961 to 1995. He defined his approach as "Weniger, aber besser," roughly "Less, but better." From Domus:

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Considering Rams' innovative use of systems does something to resolve a point of criticism about the way his work is championed by designers in high tech fields that seem unable to build products to last. Opposite of the notion of buying furniture for a lifetime, investing in pricy materials for objects that Moore's law will render obsolete in a few years seems wasteful. In this environment, what can be designed to last are interfaces themselves, or more importantly the general interface vocabulary, so that the mental investment in how a system works is not in vain, even if its physical pieces are discarded regularly. Mental effort here is the better investment. The familiarity stays, and so little thought is required to jump in and work, play, or communicate that we experience that system as simply how the world works: "Don't Make Me Think," as the title of a popular book on Web design puts it. Across his body of work, Rams paid attention to developing interfaces that would instantly feel comfortable, using color sparingly, but always in the same way from piece to piece.

"Dieter Rams: making systems and making sense"


  1. Pretty much sums up Jonny Ive’s design ethos, and he is, after all, a huge admirer of Rams’ work at Braun.

    1. “Don’t Make Me Think” doesn’t apply to some popular “clean” designs by Apple. Navigating through endless levels of hierarchy on the iPod to change basic settings does make you think a lot more than just having a shorcut button on the front, for example. But yes, having a lot of buttons is worse most of the times.

      It’s obvious that based on functionality, their design ethos is not the best approach. The learning curve is probably better, but once you know your way through the interface it becomes very clear that it’s slow and tedious compared to other solutions. (consumer vs professional interfaces)

      Having an easy learning curve was (it still is) something important for generations of people not familiarized with technology, but with the levels of tech knowledge in current generations the relevance of the easy learning curve is becoming smaller every day.

      1. I think I disagree, it’s about prioritization. You cannot make everything instantly available and maintain userfriendlyness. It’s about tucking the wires out of the way, so to speak, so you can use the things you will use most often efficiently, and pull out the cords when you want to move things around.

        1. What does “user friendly” mean? I think you are talking about the learning curve, but learning how to use it is a very small part in the life of any device, so it doesn’t make sense to optimize it’s interface for that, unless you are aiming for technologically challenged users, of course.

          Maybe in the 70s when TVs were expected to do just a few things (change channels and volume) that interface was OK. But nowadays TVs do a lot more, so you can’t expect to use the same interface without relegating some important functions to a place where they are difficult to reach.
          It’s just naïve to think that a good interface for 5 functions can also be good for 30+.

          Even Johnny Ive knows that. Thats why on an unlocked iPhone screen you have 20 buttons (apps), plus 4 physical buttons on the device (that’s a lot, isn’t it?). They had to make a touch screen with interactive buttons to create an interface that is “complicated” but at the same time clean-looking on the device when it’s off. That’s why nowadays everyone is putting touchscreens even on freezers.

          But the iPod’s clickwheel? God, that was an abomination. One of the worst interfaces ever. That reminds me the Onion’s parody of an Apple laptop with just a clickwheel instead of a full keyboard. It sums up perfectly the frustration of using it.
          Yes, it was that bad. That’s why they’ve been replacing it in their most recent products with normal buttons and inline buttons on cables… which is what Sony was doing 20 years ago.

          1.  I always admired the clickwheel, at least as compared to the typical design of other MP3 players. I never owned an ipod myself (I did get a free ipod touch when I bought a macbook pro but that’s different) but always found it easy to use when I used someone else’s. It did take a minute to figure out though, pretty much every time I used one (which was rarely).

            I think this is partially a case of good design – once you figure it out it does work quite well, so long as you don’t wish to do certain things – and just being the best of all the bad options, making it seem better than maybe it actually was.

            Sony may have been doing some of the things you describe 20 years ago, but I owned Sony players and believe me, they were not as good as the ipod in terms of user interface!

          2. Are you completely nuts? Have you tried to use a touchscreen devise like the Touch or Nano in a pocket without looking at it? Ok, yes, you can have a degree of functionality via a headphone remote, but I have favourite ‘phones without a remote, and the capacity is limiting as well. I’ve been out today with my 80Gb iPod in the top pocket of my Belstaff Trialmaster wax cotton jacket, and I can pause, play, skip forward and backward and adjust the volume through the material without taking it out.
            And scrolling through 9000 tracks is much quicker than using a touchscreen.

          3. Reply to CountZero:
            Changing the volume in your pocket is way easier with two hardware buttons (iPhone, current nano, thousands of mp3 players), compared to using the clickwheel. And that is the most basic feature of a music player. And you can do it even without a 3rd party fix (your jacket).
            Scrolling is one of the best things with iOS, thanks to the on-screen alphabet.

            Reply to penguinchris:
            Meh, any interface was better than the clickwheel. Even those from Sony. They didn’t look good, but they were much easier to use once you knew how.

      2. Endless? 

        And why would one often want to change a “basic setting”?
        The basic settings of any player device are on/off play/pause  volume up/down. 

        All those are pretty much accessible on any modern MP3 player, iPods included.

        1. EQ is a good example.
          And we can even argue that the clickwheel pretty much forced you to take the iPod out of the pocket for some of the basic tasks you mention, because the tactile feedback was terrible. But that was OK because then everybody gets to see your shiny device.
          I had 3 iPods and 4 mp3 players from other vendors, and while the aesthetics are debatable, one thing is for sure: the iPods were the most frustrating to use.

          1. But why do you need to screw around with EQ? Mine is left off, because I use decent ‘phones that don’t need EQ. There isn’t a single menu setting I can think of that requires access on the go once the pod’s been initially set up.

          2. Reply to CountZero: You need EQ unless you have $500+ headphones. And even then, depending on the kind of music you are listening to you may want a warmer sound, more forward vocals, etc.

  2. MicroSloth, on the other hand, believes in random changes to their interfaces and APIs with every release.  That way there’s a lot of money to be made  in new certification courses.

  3. I wish Dieter Rams had gotten around to designing a flatscreen TV that could fit into a room of Bauhaus inspired design without looking like a piece of crap that fell off the side of a bus.

      1. Well looking around me at my walls I see windows , bookshelves , artwork , doors and cabinets. I suppose I could move some artwork,  but then all the chairs would face away from the TV. I could move the chairs , but then they would be in the way of the doors or the windows or just in the way of everything. 

        Supposing I could move the windows and doors etc and put the chairs on one side of the room and the TV on the opposite wall then either the TV would be small and far away or I could get a big TV and instead of having a small ugly piece of ugly black plastic I’d have a big ugly piece of black plastic bolted to the wall like in an airport or waiting room.

        Out in the suburbs you might be able to have a room dedicated to a single use but here in the city the only single use room is the one with the toilet in it.

        All else aside, sticking an ugly slab of plastic on the wall isn’t going to make it any less ugly , just more conspicuous and inflexible.

        1. Ever though of painting a wall white and using a ceiling mounted projector? I was looking at a 50″ Samsung LED backlit TV today. Barely 2″ thick, with a plain black border of approximately 1″. Difficult to imagine anything much more minimalist.

          1. The point is that I don’t want to put the TV on the wall, or dedicate a blank space on the wall or face the furniture toward the wall. I also might want to use it in the daytime. 
            While I really like the idea of projecting on the wall or the ceiling on occasion, what I really want is something I can plop down on a table where it makes the most sense in an existing room and doesn’t look like crap when it’s off. 

            Even B&O can’t make a set that doesn’t look like crap.

            Maybe Apple will come out with a really big iPad, or maybe I should start something on kickstarter to build boxes to stick Video displays in.

  4. Oh, and in the documentary film they’re showing as part of the retrospective, Rams tells the story that the record player shown at the top of this piece came to be nicknamed “Snow White’s Coffin.”  Ha!

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