The following is the first in a ten-part series exploring legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams’ ten principles for good design as they relate to digital products.
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.
– Dieter Rams
“Of course we’re innovative,” the product designer says. “We build software for cutting-edge devices. Even Star Trek couldn’t predict the kind of technology we carry around in our pockets every day.”
The truth is, just because we build software for cutting-edge devices, we’re not necessarily innovating. A quick search for “calendar” or “weather” in any app store shows how often we retread tired ground, copying our predecessors without adding much value besides a different UI.
The vast majority of new software — apps and websites alike — make poor use of their medium. They use design patterns and metaphors developed for out-of-date technology, reinforcing obsolete paradigms and making limited use of their platform’s capabilities.
It’s just as easy to swing too far the other way. Good design never incorporates anything that doesn’t serve a purpose, so innovation for its own sake is out of the question. Most of the products we develop are simply ports of existing ideas, brought onto a new platform and improved just slightly enough to notice. Creating an Iron Man interface for a brochure website or spreadsheet application is just overkill.
Where’s the middle ground? How do we bring Rams’ first principle into the digital age without abandoning our design goals?
As with all design, it comes from the challenging of assumptions. By questioning the origin and usefulness of the design patterns we use, we create opportunities to push the limits of the medium when appropriate, and stick within the parameters of what already exists when it’s truly the better option.
Using a picture of a floppy disk to represent “save” may be the best option in some cases – if so, there’s no use scrapping it in the name of innovation. Using it because it’s the best option is good design; using it out of laziness or lack of thought is lazy and thoughtless. On the other hand, creating a new gestural interaction for your calendar app may break the paradigm everyone’s gotten used to. Something can be innovative and still be bad design.
Innovation is about creating the future, not emulating one vision of what it might look like. It’s about solving problems and avoiding the superficial. True innovation is rarely a concerted effort. Instead, it happens organically as designers solve individual problems in the best way they know how. Sometimes this means staying within the bounds of what already exists, but sometimes — rarely — it means pushing the limits of a medium and blazing a new trail. We can only hope to be in the right position at the right time to ensure the latter.
The ten principles of good design are published on the website of Vitsœ, a furniture manufacturer with whom Dieter Rams has had a long-standing partnership. The principles can be found here, and are licensed through Creative Commons.