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Inspiration Series - Dieter Rams

In our last post we switched gears a little to kick off a series of entries on designers, artists, and architects who inspire our work at Modern Fuel. In part one, we looked at the seamless minimalistic design of architect John Pawson, and discussed how his aesthetic impacted the design of our Modern Fuel pencil.


In this installment of the Inspiration Series, we’ll examine the work of German industrial designer Dieter Rams, who’s ’10 principles of good design’ we personally followed during our design process.


Rams, now retired, is a student of the “functionalist” school of design, which dictates that a product should be built around its intended function rather than just aesthetic appeal. A razor, for example, should be designed with the goal of making it as effective at cutting hair as possible. If a visually beautiful element that would interfere with that function was proposed, it would not be accepted as part of the final product.

 

 

After studying architectural design in school, Rams worked at German consumer product company Braun (now famous for their electric razors) for four decades as a designer. During that time, the company was more involved in radio and television electronics, and Rams had a hand in designing some iconic pieces for the company that hold up over time as examples of good design. His P1 pocket record player, for example, was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. Rams’ pieces have also been exhibited at the London Design Museum.

 

 

Rams’ design work is famous for letting the user know a product’s intended function just moments after seeing it for the first time. Juan Garcia Mosqueda of NYC gallery Chamber Design describes the design of Braun’s T 1000 World Receiver radio in exactly this way in an interview with the New York Times’ T Magazine:


It doesn’t matter whether you’re German, American or from anywhere else in the world, you can read how the entire interface works just by looking at it.


Design tends to have three main elements: function, structure, and aesthetics. Basically, a product has to do its job, be durable, and look beautiful. Different designers will opt to include different elements more heavily than others, but they’re all present to some degree.


Perhaps due in part to his fascination with architecture, which has to be functional above all else, Rams came to believe the use of a product should dictate every other aspect of the design. He addresses the impact architecture and industrial design had on his work in an interview with Fast Company:


“In industrial design, everything for the production has to be clarified in advance with models and prototypes, all the details, for multiple parts. Otherwise you don’t proceed to the production stage,” Rams said in the interview. “You have to think carefully in advance about what you’re making and how you will make it, because for both architecture and industrial design, the cost of changing things afterward is much higher than the cost of better preparation. So I learned a lot from architecture.


When designing a product, Rams always had longevity at the front of his mind. He did not want to design things that would wear out quickly or go out of style; he wanted his products to be timeless. That belief led him to distill his knowledge and experience into the points which define good design. They are, in brief:


  • good design is innovative,
  • good design must be useful,
  • good design is aesthetic design,
  • good design makes a product understandable,
  • good design is honest,
  • good design is unobtrusive,
  • good design is long-lasting,
  • good design is consistent in every detail,
  • good design is environmentally friendly, and,
  • good design is as little design as possible

In the same Fast Company interview, Rams expressed concern over what he called the “throwaway habit” of modern day design: products designed to be used once, or a few times, and then discarded have created a pattern of waste Rams finds deeply troubling. Rams sees it as the responsibility of designers to help conserve resources and protect the environment by creating durable, long-lasting products instead of the single-use plastic items clogging today’s landfills.


“Things can, and must, last longer. They must be designed so that they can be reused. We need to take more care of our environment. That means not only our personal environment but also our cities and our resources. That is the future of design, to take more care of these basic elements.”


Later in that piece, he suggests integrating things like solar panels more seamlessly into the design of newer buildings, expanding the realm of design into green energy and conservation. He also doesn’t decry new technology as destroying the industry or being harmful, but lauds it as something we can use to push innovation forward for the benefit of everyone. No longer actively involved in the design world, Rams continues to educate others in an academic capacity through what he writes, and those who cite him as an inspiration have gone on to work at companies like Apple and Rowenta.


Rams’ passion for ethical, functional design is inspiring to professionals in any field, and it’s no surprise that his principles made their way into our product. Durability, functionality, and aesthetic beauty drove every iteration of the Modern Fuel pencil. We kept our all-metal mechanical pencil simple, clean, and ticked every box on Rams’ list.


Check back as our series continues for more innovative and inspiring work.