A question inspired by the Dieter Rams documentary
What have we given up?
Last week I invited a few of my colleagues to see the world premier of Gary Hustwit’s outstanding new documentary, Rams, a sparkling, smart, surprisingly touching film about legendary product designer Dieter Rams. (Hustwit is himself a master of his medium, having skillfully explored other design arcana in the documentaries Helvetica and Objectified.)
The film left me feeling inspired and reinvigorated. It also surfaced a question, one that’s been on the periphery of my thoughts lately: How did great product design come from small teams that rarely did focus groups, user research, design sprints, a/b tests, split tests, user acceptance tests, and so on? Or, put another way: Does all our modern hoop-jumping really result in better products?
The standard answer is, “Of course it does.” Questioning our modern design process is like questioning the scientific method itself. And yet, things weren’t always so.
First, some background.
If you’re unfamiliar with Dieter Rams and you work in any capacity related to product design, go educate yourself. Start with his 10 principles for good design. (If you want a book for your library, this is it.) Rams is the product designer’s designer, an icon whose impact is indelible. When I discovered his work as a student, something clicked. His ethos shaped my understanding of the design trade. Even now, decades later, I find myself revisiting his 10 principles whenever I question my professional bearings.
Rams relentlessly pursued user-friendly design through reductionism, ergonomics, materiality, authenticity, and function. His body of work exemplifies the Buckminster Fuller quote, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
Which is to say, his designs—while austere—are eminently human and humane. The documentary makes clear that, at every turn, Rams considered the end-user, the person who would own and use the products he designed. If you’ve ever used or touched one of his products, you get that. Every detail is thought through. It’s no wonder Jony Ive cites him as a singular inspiration for his own work at Apple.
“Dieter Rams’ ability to bring form to a product so that it clearly, concisely and immediately communicates its meaning is remarkable…He remains utterly alone in producing a body of work so consistently beautiful, so right, and so accessible.”—Jony Ive
Yet there’s no mention of focus groups, market surveys, user research. No discussion of constantly iterative design processes. No details about demographics, personas, or ethnographic research. No A/B testing.
In Rams’ day, the designer was almost solely responsible for knowing how to achieve success, and the process was simple: design it, prototype it, build it, sell it. Designers had to have confidence in the validity of their instincts and experience, and an innate sensitivity toward, and understanding of, human nature. Designers relied on an internal north star as their guide. I may be simplifying things a bit, but having worked with several Rams-era creative directors in my past, I’ve seen firsthand their go-it-alone approach to design.
“Design should not dominate things, should not dominate people. It should help people. That’s its role.” — Dieter Rams
Rams wasn’t unique in his approach: this was the era of design luminaries like Ray and Charles Eames, artisans who used their skill and intellect to create supremely beautiful yet humane products. Their goal, like Rams, was to make life just a little bit better. They believed high design could also be purposeful, usable, and affordable. The resulting products easily stand the test of time, as desirable today as they were at launch—and often far more durable.
“Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.”—Charles Eames
There’s an almost Platonic sensibility at work here, a design ethos that suggests some things are simply universal; that good design isn’t conditional, but is immutable and follows core principles founded on empathy, compassion, ethics, and aesthetics.
“Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design.”—Dieter Rams
And so, the thought that’s stuck with me since seeing the documentary is this: Have we, as design professionals, lost our way? Have we ceded our expertise, our craft, to the “wisdom of the crowd”? Has something changed that prevents us from creating quality work without seeking input and consensus at every turn? Who among us hasn’t felt the ire of having to justify a design decision we knew, instinctively, was right? Or, at least, right enough.
I believe strongly in informed design. I recognize the power and value of research, collaboration, feedback loops, and iteration. I believe a big part of a designer’s job is to be a synthesizer of truth.
Yet I believe in design expertise. I believe our value isn’t just in interpreting but innovating. I know gut feelings can be wrong, but I’ve also seen exhaustive feedback loops result in utter failure when a designer’s instincts were discounted or ignored. I believe in design processes that manage risk, but I also know without risk, innovation is impossible.
And I’ve been designing long enough to see patterns others don’t, and sometimes those patterns belie what our research is telling us; sometimes what we learn isn’t as useful as what we know.
I’m glad I saw Rams when I did: I’m currently starting a design initiative that, for a variety of reasons, has to be pretty seat-of-the-pants. We’re going to move fast with scant input from external sources. We’re going to need to trust our expertise, reflect on our experience, and rely on our gut instincts. I can’t hope to be Dieter Rams, but I can try to channel his sense of conviction.
This article was first published on UX Collective