(As included in West Country Life, Nov 2018)
Look at any piece of technology today and it will be instantly recognisable that the overall look and feel is just as important as the functions. In many instances the design may actually be more important than anything else not only in helping manufacture and sell the product initially, but in our overall enjoyment and assessment of that gadget. Who hasn’t shouted at their mobile phone because they can’t work out the simplest of tasks; or thrown the TV remote control across the room when none of the 300 buttons is the one you are looking for? But before you publicly berate your poor piece of tech, take a moment to consider if it is the hardware you are actually frustrated with, or just the lack of foresight of the industrial designer who packaged it all together? Unless your item is straight from a Chinese Knock-off shop, it is probably the latter.
Effective design plays a massive role in our continued love of technology, but this understanding of seamless aesthetics did not really take off until the later 1950s. It was not that aesthetics were not important before this date as elegant and bold pieces were created right from the start, just that the role of design to be the bridge between the technical effort of the creators and the enjoyment of the user had not yet been fully realised. And as a designer of such products, there is a fine line to tread between creating something that stands out from the crowd and yet remains childishly simple to use.
In the field of industrial design few names have been more influential over the last 60 years than Deiter Rams. As the long-standing head of the German manufacturer Braun he oversaw the design of countless objects from toothbrushes to blenders, Wall-shelving to radios. And although he has designed hundreds of items, each are instantly beautiful and instantly recognizable as his. Rams’ products are always crisp, white and paired back to a minimum, yet intuitive to use. For those of you who like the chic appeal of Apple products, their chief designer Jony Ive has long admitted he is a loving disciple of Rams and there is certainly an uncanny similarity between items Dieter Rams designed in the past and some of our most loved Apple products today. Rams’ T3 Radio of 1958 with its simple form and central wheel has commonly been thought of as the possible design inspiration for the i-pod (although Apple admitted they actually borrowed their famous scrolling wheel from a Bang and Olufsen phone at the time). Either way there is no denying that Rams’ design principle of functional minimalism has had a big effect on Apple and other contemporary electronics firms.
Dieter Rams was born in 1932 in Hessen Germany and although he studied architecture and interior design has always stated that the carpentry skills of his grandfather instructed him in his future design principles more than anything else. In carpentry the very nature of wood means you are forced to create simple strong forms where too much fussiness is detrimental to the overall feel of the piece and where the devil forever remains in the detail. Dieter Ram’s objects mirror this principle well and although he has famously come up with 10 design principles which are supposedly embodied in all his products, visually his objects are usually white and geometric, buttons and knobs are paired back to a bare functional minimum, and the whole piece is as understated and unfussy as it can be. According to Rams this fundamental simplicity helps the user to easily navigate the options of the product on their own. Interestingly Rams was reputedly the first to turn the radio tuning dial into a push/pull on-off switch as well (a feature now so common we forget anyone actually invented it). He sort of created a proto Walkman 20 years before Sony, and he added coloured buttons to his ET66 calculator in 1986 to make it easier for people to discern the different functions. Elements such as these may seem inconsequential on their own, but together they create an enjoyable user experience and often an iconic product. Today that ET66 calculator layout is itself immortalised in the calculator found on all Apple iphones and ipads.
Dieter Rams’ use of colour (or lack of) is also an interesting choice to follow. While radios and record Players in the 1940s were either black, brown, royal red or muddy blue, by the early 1950s the emergence of new plastics and synthetic dyes allowed the designers to go crazy, and many of course did! Suddenly no colour was to garish to use, but as precise colour pantones are very closely tied to fashions and fads, these objects ran the risk of looking dated pretty quickly and that’s a headache for your marketing and manufacturing departments. For Braun the consistent use of pure white (almost exclusively) in their products was in one sense a logical progression of Ram’s principles, but also made their items easier to produce and ensured they stood out from the sea of colour around them. White also has fascinating connotations with people and implies both medical cleanliness and purity, but by its austerity it also helps create a sense of timelessness.
Over the years design tastes have naturally fluctuated and although Dieter Ram’s look may fall out of favour one day, it is fair to say his lifelong dedication in presenting us with electronic objects that are just beautiful to look at and enjoyable to use will probably have a long-lasting impact. For while technology can often be viewed as a bit big-headed and brash, the quiet austerity of industrial designers like Rams will remain a welcome partner in all our best gadgets.
Photo attribution: Remote Control by Counselman Collection; 1950s Crocodile effect radio by Joe Haupt; Dieter Rams portrait by Jonas Forth; Apple Ipod by Sky Seeker; Snow white Record Player by With Associates;