Gadi Amit Offers 4 Lessons From Dieter Rams's Successes, And Failures

Does Dieter Rams live up to his own immortal design ethos? Yes and no—and that offers all of us lessons to learn.

Recently, we took a studio trip to the Dieter Rams show, Less and More, at the SFMOMA. The show presents an expansive and insightful look at the 50-year career of one of the greatest industrial designers. The curators also made a point of displaying how Rams’ work has influenced Apple’s design team, Sam Hecht of Industrial Facility, and other notable designers. As I walked through the space, observing the myriad of ordinary yet not-so-ordinary objects, I came up with a few observations about his approach to design:

1. Design ordinary objects with a social commitment.

Rams’s work is not glorious or self-centered. He has dedicated years to perfecting ordinary objects: hair dryers, beard trimmers, speakers, audio systems, and other "stuff." Today, it is nearly uncool to make gadgets so aesthetically pleasing and well considered. The show itself and his belated ascent to stardom is a good step toward rebalancing the design world’s priorities. Except for Apple products, few industrially designed objects get noted or celebrated as cultural progress or art. I left the exhibition wondering what the state of design could have been if that level of dedication, attention, and respect to ordinary objects had been more common among the brightest designers around, many of who focus on more flamboyant careers in furniture and design art?

2. Longevity is quality.

Confronted with the well-curated selection of Rams’s designs, only a small representation of his work, I immediately noted the inconsistency. Well, not all the objects, such as the hairdryers, are examples of great design. Yet the overall dedication, across generations of products designed throughout decades, creates an amazing body of work. Quality comes from that fortitude and iterative progression. The notion of spending decades creating similar objects under one brand is mind blowing in today’s design world. It is a true challenge to our current restlessness and resistance to commitment to design for the long run.

3. Why so cold?

Stepping back from the displays, the exhibition struck me as visually cold. Looking at Rams’s work, one cannot ignore the color tonality, or to be more precise, the lack thereof. The mechanical precision, strict design language, and above all the gray mood are overwhelming. The work is timeless, created as if postmodernism had never arrived. With only a few colors other than gray, anemic wood selections, and the use of stark metal mesh, the objects cast a subdued and lifeless shadow. These are efficient objects, beautiful in their purposefulness, yet they fail to enlighten or revive their surroundings.

4. Crude is good.

Many of the objects include readily available parts. The metal-mesh covering the speaker grills seems drawn from industrial air ducts; the screws holding the cases together look like they were sourced at the local hardware shop. Gaps between parts are yawning millimeters wide, simple metal profiles are joined aggressively even though all the forms are planar. And it works! Walking through the section on Rams’s influence on current designers, I found the newer products to be finicky, overdesigned, and less pure. The sub-millimeter manufacturing revolution of the last decade and the fanatic craze for myopic details are not holding up well against the straight honesty and directness of Rams’s work of yesterday.

Finally, against the backdrop of his famous 10 design commandments, Dieter Rams’s great body of work is not beyond criticism. In my honest opinion, none of the objects completely stands up to such a thorough and demanding philosophical view. And that’s soothing: Real, ordinary products cannot be a figment of pure philosophical extremism. And even that philosophy is not beyond scrutiny!

[Top image by Abisag Tullmann]

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  • Jacob Oaks

    There's a very obvious lack of scholarship, experience, and knowledge in this review of the work of Dieter Rams. It really offers no value in terms of the subject. It's presumptuous of the author to have blundered into an area where he's clearly so lacking expertise.  

    The appropriate course would have been to simply report on the exhibition and it's content, then perhaps offer some insights into how changes in production techniques and manufacturing have affected the design of objects. (Clearly expert designers, like Rams, were aware of the tolerances of manufacture and used those limitation to their advantage and the benefit of the design.) That would have been useful and appropriate. Unfortunately that did not happen.

    Too often blog posts like this are used by authors as a means of advertising and self-promotion. Obviously this is a particularly unfortunate example of that trend. As Florian Divis pointed out - good design should be applied to writing as well as objects. 

    Rams' work is part of the canon of great design in the 20th century. In order to offer a meaningful critique you either need the scholarship and background, or the skills and experience. Mr Amit is clearly lacking in those areas and should have disqualified himself or taken a different, more humble approach, to this post.

  • Florian Divis

    By the title of the article, I must admit, I was expecting more in terms of insight either based on thorough knowledge of Rams' work or on good research. Because I am sure there are many lessons to be learned from the work of Dieter Rams. However the article is disappointing and offers no added value for anybody "studying" Rams or design for that matter. Of course there are failures in Rams' work, it is nothing more than human and I think good design comes from making errors in terms of "learning from the errors".It still strikes me as odd that people are still talking about the "10 commandments of design". First: Dieter Rams did NOT name them "commandments". In his mind these are 10 principles of good design. Nothing that should be "mindlessly" followed or applied. Second: these principles were not "invented" from one day to the next, but were, as everything good in design, iteratively formed for more than 30 years. It started in the 70ies with mere 6 design rules (!) and only after 2000 Rams offered his principles during a conference. Boiled down to 10 consise points. As an interaction designer it always fascinates me how easily the principles can be transposed to other design domains such as User Experience design.
    One of the principles is "Good design is thorough to the last detail". And this especially can be taken everywhere - even to writing articles.
    Another is "Good design is as little design as possible". And there is an excellent book by that title about Dieter Rams and especially about his work for both Braun and Vitsoe as well as his design ethos. Read it. And get some enlightenment.

  • Arthur Dean

    Mr. Weightman and Steven H have really hit all the right points in their comments. I would add that the author should have watched the video that is posted with this article and took some lessons from Rams. The critique of Rams work not being warm is amazingly lame and just shows a lack of perception and taste. I too looked at the work of Gadi Amit's firm - "cheap" is a kind term. Amit is so out of his depth, it's pathetic. Instead of offering lessons he needs to get an education. It's preposterous, the "lessons" he offers are the failed uninformed pompous ramblings of a pretender.

  • StevenH

    This is an infuriatingly ignorant review. As a design professional deeply involved in the practice, theory, and history of design, I am appalled. The reviewer, Gadi Amit, is clearly lacking the necessary skills, experience and understanding to evaluate the work of Mr. Rams. 

    Mr. Amit apparently does not understand that post-modernism followed modernism. It's clear that prior to this exhibition he was unfamiliar with Mr Rams work - which betrays an incredibly provincial worldview, unforgivable in a designer - and apparently he lacks any understanding of the ethical and aesthetic groundings which guided the ethos of the modernist movement. 

    How does someone with such a parochial perspective and superficial understanding of design (and the contexts in which design happens), attain a position as the president of anything - let alone a design firm?!  I've looked at NewDealDesign's online portfolio - the best way to describe the work represented there  is "cheap" products that are easily forgotten. The best of the work that's there is bland and unimaginative. The commonality of all NewDealDesign's work is that when these throw-away objects meet their fate in the dust bin, they will not be missed.

    After reading this review, I was going to leave well enough alone and not waste my time. But then I watched the video which accompanies this article. The mini-documentary with Mr. Rams is brilliant. It made me want to see the SFMOMA exhibit. But it was inspiring. Mr Rams is a brilliant designer and communicator, who is a spokesman not only for "good design", but for intelligence and ethics in design practice. Mr. Amit's superficial and turgid sentiments contrasted so severely with the depth, wisdom, and intelligence of Mr. Rams. The disparity was so great - too much for me to bare. It's just not ethically appropriate to allow this kind of thing to happen and not call it out. It's ludicrous - like a circus clown critiquing Marcel DuChamp. 

    The sadness in all of this is that for every one Deiter Rams there are thousands of wannabees and barely competent practitioners  -  posers who magically ascend to management positions, not through actual design skills but instead through intense self-interest and a dubious skill in self-promotion or sales.

    On the up-side, there is the joy, inspiring thinking, and work that people like Mr Rams, bring to the world of designers and end users. The design world has justice, we see it here: Mr. Rams' work ends up in the worlds great museums.  Mr Amit's work is coming soon to a local landfill.

    The review is just plane offensive - gad'amit! Watch the video - it's great. 

  • Rico T'melo

    I think this is an issue of taste... simplicity or extravagance and when it comes to simplicity...

  • Kevin Flores

    Mr. Weightman: Thank you for your additional perspective on Mr. Amit's article - very informative.  Especially love your last line:  "So maybe  Rams work was sometimes a little too pure, but thats no bad place to start !"

  • PeterB

    Typical American myopia. Had you lived somewhere else more open and internationally minded, Ram's work would have been well known, understood and respected for decades.

    For heaven's sake, when will the US get its head out of its own a**e and take notice that there is an inspiring world out there?

  • David Weightman

    I havent had the benefit of seeing the exhibit, but I am very familiar with Rams work for Braun and have even spoken to him a couple of times. There are some things that need pointing out about Gadi's brief review

    It was a central tenet of Rams philosophy that designed objects should be quiet in the domestic environment. Visually quiet that is, so they did not make a statement so much as act as a background for the more important things in peoples photos, kids drawings. flowers from  the garden, souvenirs etc. Thats a bit different from the current situation where your toaster has to demonstrate both its and your place in the cultural zeitgeist.....

    At the time that most of the iconic Braun products were produced, they were exemplars of precision mass production....not quite the seamless objects that Apple and others can now produce but the best that could be done at the time with the resources and components available....just compare the cars of the sixties with current production to get an idea of the difference that makes

    One comment from Gadi that really got my attention referred to the lack of colour, "as if post-modernism had not existed".... most of these products are classic examples of high modernism, which preceded post-modernism by some years as you might expect ( duh). This neutrality is consistent with the intent described above and is something that Jony Ives acknowledges about the influence of Rams on the design approach at Apple. Ives makes the simple white and aluminium boxes and leaves the after-market to supply the personalised decorative ( and functional ) adaptions that some people want or need

    One formative lesson of my design career was a seminar with Professor Misha Black at the RCA in London when he showed us his own Braun T    transistor radio. A simple and  iconic white box, it had a tuning dial that had no station names or frequencies, merely numbers from 1 to 10. Black had scratched onto its pristine plastic face the numbers and names of his favourite stations, as the only way to recall them ( in the days before pre-sets)

    So maybe  Rams work was sometimes a little too pure, but thats no bad place to start !