Dieter Rams, Must Good Design be Honest?

One of the first things students of my course were told was to read about Dieter Rams, and inevitably we came across his 10 principles for good design.

Dieter Rams’ 10 principles of good design

For a designer to set out such principles is a bold move.

You are putting your reputation on the line, at the risk of coming across like a know-it-all. Luckily, Dieter Rams has quite a good reputation in design spaces, and his principles have been generally accepted as correct. I personally agree more than I disagree with all of them, but it doesn’t hurt to think harder and challenge them. And recently I have been thinking harder about his sixth principle:

Good design is honest. It does not attempt to make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.”

Dieter Rams’ 6th principle

I think that good design doesn’t have to be honest. I think it is acceptable to manipulate the consumer so long as it is done for a worthy cause.

Now, I get the sentiment. Nobody likes a pair of Beats headphones that use pieces of metal to artificially increase the weight and ‘quality’ of the product. Nobody likes dark patterns on the internet that make you accidentally sign up for that subscription you didn’t want. And nobody likes food packaging that is designed to make you think there is more food than there really is (Co-op profiteroles, I’m looking at you). All these dishonest designs are malicious at heart; they aren’t made with consumer satisfaction in mind. I understand, but I don’t think that is the whole story.

The Dyson Supersonic hairdryer

The Dyson Supersonic hairdryer is an illustrious object. The simple geometry, the magnetic attachments, the sleek anodised aluminium casing, and that beautiful hole where the fan should be… it’s enough to get any designer excited. However, the Supersonic hairdryer has dishonest design. The fan isn’t missing, it’s just hiding in the handle. And that isn’t aluminium: it’s plastic.

The casing can’t be metal otherwise the user’s hand would experience the full force of the heat being generated by the element within. Instead of doing that, Dyson opted for a moulded polycarbonate that has been metallised to impregnate aluminium vapour on the part’s surface, before finally being anodised to whatever colour the user selects. This is a long-winded process which can only be justified by the desire to make a part look like aluminium, while still behaving like plastic. Nobody is going to Dyson’s headquarters with pitchforks and torches, as we all understand the reasoning behind this choice. I would argue that Dyson are being dishonest – that they are attempting to make a product more valuable than it really is. They are being dishonest, and that’s ok.

Another example I want to use is IKEA. If you own a piece of wooden furniture from IKEA, there’s a good chance it’s veneered. A veneer by its very nature is intended to imitate another – usually more expensive – material. IKEA and others use veneers on components which are shaped just like wooden planks. There is no functional purpose for this other than to make you believe that the component is made from solid wood.

IKEA BJURSTA oak-veneer table

I believe this is dishonest because, again, they are attempting to make a product more valuable than it really is. I think this is permissible because they are making a sacrifice in the interest of affordability. They are giving the customer a good reason to buy this veneered table instead of a solid wood table: it’s just so much cheaper.

Dieter Rams might frown upon these design choices as dishonest, but he would have to tread lightly so as not to come across elitist. He might say that if you can’t afford to be solid wood, then you should be plastic and proud. At this stage I would disagree. There are plenty of plastic tables out there, and I’m sure that with a bit of hard work you could make a nice plastic table, but not everybody wants a plastic dining table. An oak-effect veneer chipboard table might prove to be a much more popular option at that price point, and the consumer deserves to make that choice for themselves.

These examples are about honesty of materials, and I will admit that both are low hanging fruit. When Dieter Rams came up with this principle, he probably wasn’t thinking about materials so much as functionality. It is definitely more important to be honest about your product’s function, but I still think there are times when you can justify being dishonest about function.

Take Apple for instance. The familiar shape of the iPhone app has a lot of thought behind it. Appearing to be rounded squares, many people would be surprised to hear that this is not the case. They are squircles. This means that the corner curve isn’t derived from a single circle, but is actually a mathematically complex curve which begins its path at the centre point of the edge. In fact, there is not a single straight line in the shape of the iPhone app.

They do this everywhere. The corner curves of the Macbooks are the same. But turn the Macbook to the side and you’ll see a different story.

When Apple shifted from a plastic to metal construction on the Macbook Pro, they also subtly changed the form. Gone was the circular, curvy profile and in was a more angular approach. This sharp edge allows the true thickness of the body to be tucked out of sight. From most viewing angles the laptop only appears as thick as the straight sides would let on. When Steve Jobs unveiled the first Macbook Air, there was a slide which compared the thickness to a much thicker Sony laptop.

Steve Jobs tells us what’s in the Air

This slide showed the maximum thickness but also the minimum thickness. This is all well and good, but only a very small fraction of the laptop is that thin, and that fraction is mostly empty space inside.

I don’t have any problems with this approach; it does make for a beautiful object after all. However, I would still classify this under ‘making a product appear more innovative than it really is’. When you pick these laptops up you’ll realise they’re thicker than you thought. Upon first impressions, it makes a promise it can’t keep. The current iMac design is another culprit of this technique. As are most premium laptops.

Now, is the consumer going to feel utterly betrayed by these examples of dishonesty? No, absolutely not. They probably like these design choices. It boils down to how you want to define dishonesty, and I’m sure most people will fight me on that one. My point is that Dieter Rams’ principles are not steadfast rules and might not always apply perfectly to every situation. They are a great guide, but we shouldn’t follow them blindly.


3 thoughts on “Dieter Rams, Must Good Design be Honest?

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