Dieter Rams’s Regrets

There’s a strange paradox in the profession of industrial design. Ideally you create products that look and function so well, they need never be replaced. You create products that help reduce the need for new products. It's a philosophy that is anti-excess. Of course this is at odds with what most clients of industrial designers want. Product companies require consumers, which means constantly offering new products and new justifications for those products, to consumers. These companies thrive on excess. 

No one designer has come closer to reaching this sweet spot of timeless functional design as Dieter Rams, who designed some 500 products while at Braun, and lived by the design philosophy of less clutter. He is the focus of a new documentary from Helvetica director Gary Hustwit. Hustwit also made films about product design and urban planning, so he really is the perfect person to make this film. The film is now Kickstarter.

Tastes and technology change over time, and design must reflect that, but I also find it curious that in the last decade a myriad of products have been released that reflect a past design aesthetic. We’ve seen it in motorcycle design, auto design, sunglasses design and certainly with Apple’s products, which are so heavily influenced by Rams’s designs. These new retro products would be easy to write off as simply nostalgic designs, if the designs weren’t so terrific. It's as if we found great design and then abandoned it, only to rediscover it again later. 

Is it possible that great design is a static place, a location that can actually be reached through careful thoughtful work, a place we need not leave for the sake of next year’s tastes or consumer profit models? Of course I think so, and I think Rams would think so too. I think the best products were made great years or decades ago, and only need slight refinements year to year. 

So much of industrial design now is actually making a product work worse than it did before, unfortunately. 

Rams “looks back at his career and says if he had to do it again he wouldn’t want to be a designer,” says filmmaker Gary Hustwit. ”He thinks that the work he’s done has contributed to this commercialized, consumerized society. That there’s so much unnecessary stuff in the world, and he feels like he’s been a part of that.”

It’s easy to see why! Rams is the exalted one of product designers everywhere, many of whom are working to feed this consumerized society, instead of designing to get rid of the excess. It’s got to be a strange feeling, and I can’t wait to see the documentary to understand it even more.