What Is Good Design?

 Dieter Rams design.“Good design is as little design as possible.” – Dieter Rams

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub.
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

– Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching

Good Design is not about

  • costing the most
  • being the most intricate
  • having the most features

It is about cutting out the unnecesary parts to leave only what is useful.

It is the bare minimum, executed with attention to the tiniest detail.

It appears effortless.

It is less, but better.

It is timeless.

It is honest.

Dieter Rams 600 Chair on Melissa Rachel BlackDieter Rams 600 Chair

I had the honor of seeing Dieter Rams’ original designs at the San Francisco MOMA yesterday and it was pretty powerful for me.

Part of me hesitates to write that last bit because I don’t consider myself an art or design snob.  If we’re being totally honest, even though I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art, museums usually bore the crap out of me.  I think they’re stuffy and that my friends make art that’s better than half of the stuff behind fancy plastic barriers.

So when I say that seeing Dieter Rams’ stuff was the bees knees, I hope you know I mean it in a genuine way.  But it wasn’t special because his aesthetic WOW-ed me with its grandeur.  In fact, if you stepped into that room without any prior orientation, you’d probably assume you were just in IKEA.  Surrounded by rows and rows of everyday electronics and furniture, you might as well be in an office in Anytown, USA.

Melissa Rachel Black - Good DesignGetting serious at the Getty museum in LA.

What got me so excited about the Dieter Rams exhibit was the restraint.  The pure functionality of each piece.  The familiarity.  Each item, from a chair, to shelves, to hair dryers, to radios, to speakers, to televisions, to electric shavers–they all existed purely in their simplest form.

There was no showing off.  Nothing was gaudy, loud, or in your face like so much of today’s aesthetic.  They were sleek, discreet, and toned down.

“Design should not dominate things or people, it should help people.” – D. Rams

Just like Michelangelo sculpted by removing unnecessary blocks of stone, so did Rams refine and reduce to the essence of a machine, so Jonathan Ive left only the essentials in creating Apple’s quintessential products, and so you can sculpt your project, home, or life.

None of them did it alone, they took the building blocks of their predecessor and continued to subtract.

“Prefer subtraction.”Leo Babauta

Good design does not only work in art and products.  A lifestyle can be sculpted too, which is why the term “Lifestyle Design” makes so much sense to me.  I am constantly sculpting my life, molding and reshaping, trying new things and shaving away what doesn’t work.  I practice incorporating many of Rams’ 10 principles of good design in my graphic designs as well as in every aspect of life.

“We need new structures for our behaviors.  And that is design.  We have enough things. The unspectacular things are the important things, especially in the future.” – Dieter Rams

Good design goes even deeper than lifestyle and a lot farther back than famous sculptures and Dieter Rams and iPods though.  Evolution has been sculpting our bodies, our minds, our environments, and everything in our reality for at least a few years now.

It hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been quick, but over the millennia, evolution has done a pretty fine job of smoothing out the rough spots for our human design.  We’ve got systems inside us whizzing and buzzing and reacting and interacting that keep us pumping day in and day out.  From the tiniest electron at the very core of our atomic building blocks, no detail has gone unnoticed.  Everything works in harmony (though obviously we still get sick sometimes–its a good design, nobody said it was perfect).  And yet its so simple we don’t even have to think about any of it.  The hard work is already done for us, by us, in conjunction with everyone who’s ever lived before us.

When you hone and refine, test, create, learn, make mistakes and repeat.. you evolve into more sophisticated, yet sleeker ways of living.  You are capable of more, but do less.  Strip away everything but that which is absolutely necessary.  That is the beauty of good design.


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