As a design major, it was practically mandatory that I see the exhibition of Dieter Rams’s work at SFMoMA.* It is indeed brilliant and it does a wonderful job of showing how the complexity of a product can be distilled down to the core essentials of its functionality. It also provides a fantastic exercise as a design refresher course for anyone inclined to be a designer—or a design critic.
*Side question. At what point does one stop purchasing books which fit in with the core curriculum of one’s undergraduate study? Or does one’s continued interest in the subject matter confirm the correct choice of major?
Design exhibitions are always tricky since museums specialize in objects which cannot be touched and to truly appreciate product design, you have to use the product. A design exhibition cannot be just about the products as things to be admired and looked at. While you can’t try sitting in a Dieter Rams chair or put objects on the bookshelves, the exhibition does a very good job at communicating his philosophy of design and explaining how it has been applied to all the products.
That Rams is so clear and obvious in his design makes a lot of the “how is this used” question disappear. And while some of the pieces do look sort of dated, they’re not that bad. His design legacy, between Apple’s current product line and even some of the way IKEA’s modular systems work, is pretty clear. The most-dated part of his designs is the actual technology—bringing up the question I was trying to figure out the entire time I was in the exhibition.
In another 35 years, how will these designs be displayed?
Right now, most of the people looking at the exhibition still know about things like records, radios, and reel-to-reel cassettes. Explaining the functionality of the devices isn’t needed in part because we know (or remember) what they’re used for. After another decade, the clarity of the design will still be there but the genius won’t be as obvious. Something can look simple because it’s been refined to look simple or it can look simple because it’s been dumbed down and handicapped. The less we know about the functionality of the product, the less we can distinguish between the two.
There’s also the fact that all the Braun designs exist from a time period before remote controls and graphical user interfaces. We interact with our products very differently today and while the design fundamentals are still valid, placing them into context will become increasingly difficult.
None of this takes away from the brilliance of the designs and the importance of his design methodology. His ten principles of design will remain both relevant and applicable. If anything they’re even more important for computer design. Physical controls are expensive so minimizing them has a quantifiable benefit. Graphical controls are cheap and easy to implement—making them much more prone to feature creep and the mistaken conclusion that “more and more” is better than “less and more.”