What is good design?
Good design is innovative, useful, aesthetic, honest, and understandable. It is also unobtrusive, thorough, and “as little design as possible.” These principles sound twenty-first century. And they are. But they were articulated by a man who began his career in 1957, Dieter Rams. A visionary German designer, Rams may be best known for his elegant and minimal products such as the Braun Juicer, a revelation in 1972. His 1959 TP1 Radio/phono combination is eerily similar to the first generation iPod, which came out 44 years later. Dieter Rams, in turn, was the inspiration for Jony Ive, legendary designer of Apple products, such as the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad.
Although he is less well known, Jony Ive is co-equal with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak as those who defined the Apple brand. One of many prototype designers, Ive was chosen by Jobs after Jobs noticed how much Ive’s work stood out. Long gone were the boxy, plasticy, conventional buttons that the technology industry had grown complacent with. Jonny had discovered beauty in the simplicity of Rams’ designs; with less congestion, each element in his products became more significant. Each button, each nob, each switch had a purpose. Rams relied on relative human perception for his products: darks only seem dark when they’re adjacent to whites, for example.
In his design of the 2001 iMac, Jonny followed Rams’ principles that less is more. He chose a body that was curved, accented with translucent plastic molded around a larger CRT monitor. No buttons, just a crisp display and a power cord. We take touchscreen devices for granted today, the iPhone set the tone and context of our current relationship with technology. No more flimsy keyboards, complicated user interfaces, arrays of buttons, or features that clouded users from seamless interaction. In his design of the iPhone, Ive rid the conventional cell phone of everything inessential; he sparked a major revolution. Rams changed our expectations of the way analog products should function, Ive created a parallel revolution in the world of digital technology.
Jony Ive cites Dieter Rams as his inspiration. If it wasn’t for Rams or his principles Apple wouldn’t be what it is today; its branding, marketing, and products are all reliant on Rams’ established rule of minimalism. Its wider global success is an indication that only adds credibility to work that Rams inspired. Rams was a tributary through which change flowed, joining with other companies and industries. Ive was a separate tributary who linked with Rams to create a flow of ideas and energy that became irresistible. The force of their creativity lead to a design transformation in computing, mobile communications, and wearables. It has defined branding all the way from packaging to automated vehicles.
Dieter Rams is a presence in Jony Ive’s work. Their minimalist design has served as an artifact of aesthetic achievement. It remains to be seen what the next manifestation of Ram’s principles will be. And where the next Jony Ive will take it.