Principles of Good Design

Ever heard of Dieter Rams? He’s an Industrial Designer whose ideas have rightly shaped the way we approach product design. Ever heard of the iPhone 6? Of course you have. Let’s have a look at Rams’ principles and see how it fares. You could draw the same conclusions about pretty much any smartphone manufacturer operating today (as an aside, how ugly is Touchwiz on the S6?). I picked Apple for the purpose of this article, as they sell premium products and are frequently lauded as proponents of good design. Any comments? Get stuck in and share your opinion below.

Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles of “Good Design”

1. Good Design Is Innovative

The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology and can never be an end in itself.

iPhones are being released at such a rate that it’s hard to remember the last time a release has been more than an increment on the previous version. Innovations such as 3D touch are kinda cool, but these feel like advanced features, which are likely to be undiscovered by a significant percentage of users.

That they list improvements to the camera as the second key innovation on their site isn’t necessarily indicative of a dearth of ideas (let’s face it, megapixels sell), but it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

2. Good Design Makes a Product Useful

A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasises the usefulness of a product while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

The fingerprint scanner, or Touch ID as Apple calls it, is probably very useful. The trade off here seems to be security. Using a fingerprint to purchase items, or unlock your phone seems crazy to me. We leave our fingerprints on everything we touch. As stated by Senator Al Franken in a letter sent to Apple:

“Passwords are secret and dynamic; fingerprints are public and permanent…If you don’t tell anyone your password no one will know what it is. If someone hacks your password you can change it – as many times as you want. You can’t change your fingerprints. You have only ten of them. And you leave them on everything you touch; they are definitely not a secret. What’s more a password doesn’t uniquely identify its owner – a fingerprint does.”

3. Good Design Is Aesthetic

The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

It’s hard to fault the aesthetics of Apple products. They have gotten a real grá for the aul gold recently, but hey. Lately it’s been argued and debated online that Apple actually put too much emphasis on aesthetics.

4. Good Design Makes A Product Understandable

It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory. This is less and less these days. There are a wealth of easter eggs included with iPhones. You could argue that these are advanced features that beginners don’t need, and in a way you would be right. You’d be hard pressed to call lots of these gestures intuitive, however.

5. Good Design Is Unobtrusive

Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

6. Good Design Is Honest

It does not 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. Evidently there are two different chips being shipped with the iPhone 6s. One appears to be a bit of a dud, offering less battery life and reduced performance.

7. Good Design Is Long-Lasting

It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years, even in today’s throwaway society. Speaking of battery life, this Smart Battery Case is a ridiculous gouge of the consumer. It’s an admission of 2 things.

Firstly the battery life isn’t great. They’re obsessed with shaving off millimetres to the device—the thinnest iPhone ever you say (again!). Secondly, you need to purchase a case. This will break without it because you know, good design means that products are less durable as time goes on. 15 years ago we all had indestructible brick phones that ran for days. How is this progress!

8. Good Design Is Thorough Down to the Last Detail

Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer. It seems thoroughness doesn’t extend to testing the operating system on older, “supported” devices. It’s very hard to overlook the fact that Apple routinely bricks its own products with iOS upgrades that provide a crappy User Experience. Just run a quick Google search to see what I mean! How any company can sell a 16GB phone with an operating system that demanded up to 5.7GB of free space to install an update is beyond me.

However, when you produce a product people love, anyone who questions this is open to be mocked or labeled an idiot. Let’s be honest, most people don’t speak in Gigabytes. It’s a marketing thing used to give a Goldilocks effect.

Storage limits should be listed in things people understand. Take the Total Space, subtract the size of the Operating System and the average storage taken up by apps. Then provide the number of photos and videos users can be expected to take at the default camera setting. Ok, not a great example, but there has to be a better way to inform users of their options instead of making them choose the middle pig.

9. Good Design Is Environmentally Friendly

Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimises physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product. The drive to release an iPhone every year essentially nullifies the appeal of last year’s model.

Nobody wants an iPhone 5. Environmental concerns were relatively low on the Apple list. They are listed at the very bottom of the spec list, after all of the cool sexy stuff as a post–script. In their defence they have addressed their wicked ways over the last number of years.

10. Good Design Is as Little Design as Possible

Less but better, because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity. When it comes as little design as possible, Apple are pushing less than required. There’s more on this in this excellent long form read by Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini which also draws comparisons to Dieter Rams’ 10 Design Principles.

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