As the chief designer at Braun and a key figure at the renowned German industrial design firm, Vitsœ, Dieter Rams left an indelible mark on the field of industrial design. One of his ten design principles, “Good Design is Innovative,” encapsulates his belief in pushing the boundaries of creativity, functionality, and aesthetics.
Innovation Beyond the Obvious
Dieter Rams’ “Good Design is Innovative” principle goes beyond mere novelty. Rams believed that innovation should arise from a deep understanding of both users’ needs and the materials and technologies at hand. His designs consistently showcased a thoughtful fusion of these elements, resulting in products that were not only groundbreaking but also functional.
Consider Rams’ iconic designs for Braun, such as the SK4 Phonosuper radio and the T3 pocket radio. These designs weren’t innovative simply for the sake of being different; they represented a new level of integration between form and function. The Phonosuper, for instance, combined a record player, radio, and storage into a single unit—a novel idea at the time. Such innovation required a profound understanding of users’ desire for multifunctional devices and the technology necessary to bring them to life.
Innovation as Timelessness
Rams’ approach to innovation extended beyond immediate trends. He believed in creating designs that would stand the test of time, embodying a timeless quality that would remain relevant for years to come. This approach is evident in his maxim “Less, but better.” By focusing on essentials and eschewing unnecessary embellishments, Rams’ designs possess a minimalist elegance that continues to resonate with modern audiences.
Rams’ Vitsoe 606 Universal Shelving System is a prime example of his commitment to timelessness. Introduced in 1960, the system is still in production today, a testament to its enduring design and functionality. This innovation in creating lasting designs contrasts with the throwaway culture that can be observed in many contemporary consumer products.
Innovation for People
Central to Rams’ design philosophy was the notion that innovation should serve people and enhance their lives. He believed that designers were responsible for creating products that improved the user experience, making everyday tasks simpler, more efficient, and more enjoyable. Rams’ designs often achieved this by seamlessly integrating technological advancements with ergonomic and user-friendly features.
The Braun LE1 Speaker, designed by Rams in 1959, exemplifies this people-centric innovation. The speaker’s sculptural form provided superior sound quality and blended harmoniously into domestic environments. Rams’ ability to envision technology as a tool to enhance human experiences was a defining aspect of his innovative approach.
Innovation as a Guiding Light
Dieter Rams’ principle that “Good Design is Innovative” continues to resonate in today’s rapidly evolving design landscape. It challenges designers to explore new materials, technologies, and concepts while remaining grounded in user needs and functional excellence. In an era marked by disposable products and fleeting trends, Rams’ emphasis on lasting, purposeful innovation serves as a beacon of inspiration.
As technology advances and societal needs shift, Rams’ principle reminds us that innovation must not be an end in itself but a means to create meaningful connections between design, users, and the world at large. By embracing the spirit of thoughtful innovation, designers can honor Rams’ legacy while shaping a future where aesthetics, functionality, and sustainability coalesce seamlessly.
Don’t Confuse Change as Innovation
There are many wonderfully designed products that were designed years ago, where modern industrial designers are asked to refresh and modernize the design so it can be relabeled and sold to consumers as a fresh new, innovative product. Sometimes industrial designers are successful, but unfortunately, not always. The direction from their clients, maybe to redesign it to make it cheaper, thus ruining the longevity of the product. Or the designer does not understand all the product features and how they are useful. An example of this would be the humble toaster. Twenty-one years ago, my wife and I got married, and a toaster was on our wedding gift registry. This toaster had a special bagel feature. When the bagel button was pushed, it would turn off one side of the heating element so that the sliced inside face of the bagel would get toasted while the outside of the bagel would simply be warmed. This made for a perfectly toasted bagel. Sadly after 20 years of service, the toaster caught fire, and we had to retire it.
When searching for a new toaster, I wanted one with that same bagle feature to continue enjoying perfectly toasted bagels. I purchased a new toaster that had a bagel button. Unfortunately, the designer did not understand how perfectly the original design worked. They changed the function of the bagel button. Now when pressed, instead of perfectly toasting the sliced surface of a bagel, it adds additional power to the heating elements on all sides. Toasting the sliced side and burning the outer crust of the bagel. The design is ruined.
The designer that redesigned this bagel burning feature needs did not understand the feature nor Dieter Rams’ Design principle that Good Design is thorough to the last detail.