Dieter Rams: Celebrating the genius with 10 products for 10 commandments of design

STIR honours the legacy of Dieter Rams, one of industrial design’s most celebrated visionaries, on his 89th birthday, with the products that exemplify his ‘10 principles for good design’.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : May 20, 2021

In a speech to the Braun supervisory board in 1980, Dieter Rams once stated, "I think that good designers must always be avant-gardists, always one step ahead of the times. They should – and must – question everything generally thought to be obvious”. Fitting words for a man whose influence and reputation for innovation in the realm of industrial design have grown to a size equally colossal as his diverse and extensive body of work.

Originally trained as an architect at the Handwerker Kunstgewerbe Schule, in his native town of Wiesbaden in Germany, Rams graduated in 1953, after spending three years in-between at a carpentry apprenticeship. Following a brief stint at Otto Apel’s architects’ office in Frankfurt, he began a longstanding association with Braun, the German consumer goods manufacturer - eventually spending over 30 years as its head of design between 1961 and 1995. At Braun, Rams developed a refined, concise, and legible visual language for his products that reflected another one of his instantly quotable utterances - "Simplicity is the key to excellence!" At the time, he also worked with UK-based furniture manufacturer, Vitsoe, and continues to do so till today.

Braun SK-4 Stereo-Phonosuper, 1956: a radio-phonograph device Rams designed with Hans Gugelot, affectionately known as 'Snow White's Coffin' | Dieter Rams 89th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
Braun SK-4 Stereo-Phonosuper (1956): a radio-phonograph device Rams designed with Hans Gugelot, affectionately known as 'Snow White's Coffin' Image: Courtesy of Flickr user Mike Macadaan, Creative Commons

He created some of the most prominent and enduring product designs in the latter half of the 20th century, such as the Braun SK-4 -Stereo-Phonosuper-1956: a revolutionary radio-phonographic device designed alongside Hans Gugelot, now affectionately known as 'Snow White's Coffin’. Other remarkable Rams-designed products include the ET55 Calculator, the T3 Pocket Radio, the HW1 Model Weight Scale, and the 1968 Braun Table Lighter. All four are currently part of a collection of his works at the Museum of Modern Art.

Rams was also among the earliest designers to express his concern for the debt to the environment incurred by inefficient design and large-scale manufacturing. He was troubled by the cacophony of styles, colours, and forms seen in the work of his contemporaries during the 1970s and questioned whether his own contributions qualified as 'good design’. To better comprehend the issue at hand and devise a framework by which to evaluate his ideas, Rams developed the now-iconic set of doctrines for his design philosophy, presently immortalised under the banner of “Dieter Rams' 10 principles of good design”. On his 89th birthday, STIR lists some of the products that best embody each of the 10 commandments put forth by him.

1. Good design is innovative

Braun Lectron System (1967-1969)

The Braun Lectron System was initially designed by Rams and Juergen Gruebel as modular magnetic brick system to be used as an educational aid in schools | Dieter Rams 89th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
The Braun Lectron System was initially designed by Rams and Juergen Gruebel as modular magnetic brick system to be used as an educational aid in schools Image: Kippelboy, Courtesy of Creative Commons

Rams and Juergen Gruebel originally developed this inventive children's toy as an instructional tool for use in schools. Composed of magnetic bricks that could be linked to form circuits, the Braun Lectron System provided an ingenious means to educate curious young minds about complex topics that included physics, electrical circuits, and physical computing.

2. Good design makes a product useful

Braun ET66 – Calculator (1987)

Developed in collaboration with Dietrich Lubs, the ET66’s user friendly, classic design helped make the calculator an everyday personal item | Dieter Rams 89th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
Developed in collaboration with Dietrich Lubs, the ET66’s user-friendly, classic design helped make the calculator an everyday personal item Image: Kippelboy, Courtesy of Creative Commons

Rams designed this now iconic product in collaboration with Dietrich Lubs. The classic visual language, easy-to-use rounded buttons, and sleek profile of the T66 and its predecessors contributed heavily to the calculator becoming an everyday household object. It even influenced the layout of the digital iPhone calculator further along the road.

3. Good design is aesthetic

Braun Dymatic Pocket Lighter (1980)

An exquisitely slender profile with a functional aesthetic characterised the Braun Dymatic Pocket Lighter, designed to be used and admired for its beauty | Dieter Rams 89th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
An exquisitely slender profile with a functional aesthetic characterised the Braun Dymatic Pocket Lighter, designed to be used and admired for its beauty Image: Austin Calhoon, Courtesy of Creative Commons

A smoker himself, Rams enjoyed designing lighters as sculptural objects to be admired and used. Among them, the Dymatic pocket lighter was an exquisitely slender article that came in an array of finishes, equipped with chrome end caps and an ignition switch built into its side as part of the minimalist, functional design vocabulary.

4. Good design makes a product understandable

Braun T1000 World Receiver (1963)

One of the top-range devices of its time, the T1000 came with a legible yet austere layout and could scan all frequency bands | Dieter Rams 89th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
One of the top-range devices of its time, the T1000 came with a legible yet austere layout and could scan all frequency bands Image: Benjamin Heinecke, Courtesy of Creative Commons

Able to scan all available frequency bands, the portable T1000 World Receiver possessed a reserved yet legible layout with an oblong case, telescopic antennas, and user-friendly controls. Made of aluminium, it was one of the top devices in its range at the time - a further testament to Rams' ability to craft accessible, cutting-edge products.

5. Good design is unobtrusive

Braun T3 (1958), T4 (1958), & T41 (1959) Pocket Radio

Made to fit snugly into pockets and cases the T3, T4, and T41 Pocket Radios reflect the technical and aesthetic superiority of Braun amongst its contemporaries  | Dieter Rams 89th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
Made to fit snugly into pockets and cases the T3, T4, and T41 Pocket Radios reflect the technical and aesthetic superiority of Braun amongst its contemporaries Image: PeterAjtony, Courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons

Designed in conjunction with members of the HfG Ulm, this compact, modularly designed pocket radio is emblematic of the technical and aesthetic superiority of Braun-designed products, made to fit snugly within pockets or a specialised case. Its influence extended far beyond contemporaries, playing an integral role in the conception of the click wheel and design proportions of Apple's first-generation iPod models. 

6. Good design is honest

Braun cylindric T 2 / TFG 2 (black) (1968)

The T2’s cylindrical thermoplastic body and stainless steel top exemplified Rams’ commitment to presenting products for what they truly were | Dieter Rams 89th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
The T2’s cylindrical thermoplastic body and stainless steel top exemplified Rams’ commitment to presenting products for what they truly were Image: Courtesy of Flickr user magnus*, Creative Commons

This cylindrical table lighter has a stainless steel top and thermoplastic body as part of Rams' utilitarian, aesthetic-based approach to design that presented a product for exactly what it was. Intrigued by a novel magnetic ignition mechanism, Rams' main focus throughout the design process was to ascertain the precise location on the object's body where the maximum pressure could be applied to the ignition pad.

7. Good design is long-lasting

Vitsoe 620 Seating System armchair (1962)

Designed by Rams for Vitsoe, the adaptive modular 620 seating system could serve as both an armchair or a sofa of infinite length and was built to last a lifetime | Dieter Rams 89th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
Designed by Rams for Vitsoe, the adaptive modular 620 seating system could serve as both an armchair or a sofa of infinite length and was built to last a lifetime Image: Vitsoe, Courtesy of Creative Commons

A versatile modular seating system, the Vitsoe 620 consisted of a kit of parts that can either serve as a single armchair unit or transform into a sofa of practically infinite length. The system provided options between linen and leather upholstery and was built to be durable, employing a coil-sprung mesh unit overlaid with long-lasting coir and a natural rubber pad.

8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail

Vitsoe 601 Easy Chair (1960)

Possessing a high level of detail and technical articulation, Rams’ 601 Easy Chair for Vitsoe had a sleek and stunning visual character | Dieter Rams 89th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
Possessing a high level of detail and technical articulation, Rams’ 601 Easy Chair for Vitsoe had a sleek and stunning visual character Image: DavidVinod123, Courtesy of Creative Commons

Featuring aluminium legs with casting seams, striated cushioning, and a fibreglass shell, the 601 Easy Chair displays a high level of technical articulation and detail in the design of its constituent parts. This results in a sleek, stunning visual profile that does not compromise on comfort.

9. Good design is environmentally-friendly

Vitsoe 606 Universal Shelving System (1960)

One of the most efficient modular storage systems, the 606 shelving system was extremely space saving and wasted minimal materials in its manufacture | Dieter Rams 89th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
One of the most efficient modular storage systems, the 606 shelving system was extremely space saving and wasted minimal materials in its manufacture Image: Vitsoe, Courtesy of Creative Commons

The fact that Vitsoe is still manufacturing this shelving system in its original form is evidence of its incredibly high efficiency of storage and material usage. Linked by anodised aluminium endplates enclosing painted spanning elements, it is likely to be among the most well-structured modular storage systems ever conceived.

10. Good design is as little design as possible

Braun LE 1 Electrostatic Speakers (1959)

The LE 1’s large membrane and simple functional design based on the Quad ESL-57 proved to be groundbreaking for its time | Dieter Rams 89th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
The LE 1’s large membrane and simple functional design based on the Quad ESL-57 proved to be groundbreaking for its time Image: René Spitz, Courtesy of Creative Commons

Based on the Quad ESL-57, these were the first electrostatic speakers available in the German market during their time and still possess the capacity to match some contemporary hi-fi sound systems. Having a large, distinctive membrane and simple, functional design, the speakers were trailblazers at the time of their release - both technically and aesthetically.

Ram’s restrained, functional, and elegant vocabulary throughout his career has been based on these principles, which have even influenced later designers | Dieter Rams 89th Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
Ram’s restrained, functional, and elegant vocabulary throughout his career has been based on these principles, which have even influenced later designers Image: Courtesy of Flickr user Ged Carroll, Creative Commons

Rams' designs throughout his career have been based on these 10 principles - seen in their restrained, functional, and elegant design vocabulary. He crafted products that were impeccably coherent but most importantly, easy to operate through extensive testing and an exceptional degree of fine detailing. Dieter Rams' elegant, modularly versatile, and effortless style, borne out of his technical brilliance and ‘Less but Better’ philosophy, has left an indelible impression on many notable designers from the present day, including Sir Jonathan Ive and Jasper Morrison.

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