Thursday, March 22, 2012

If Dieter Rams Designed a Car...

It’d probably be a lot like the MkIV Golf/Jetta.

Rams is credited by many to be the father of modern Industrial Design, having taken inspiration from the earlier Bauhaus masters and refined their somewhat hand-crafted aesthetic to the point that it was ready for production across an industrialized scale.  As head designer at Braun, a German consumer goods giant, Rams designs flooded the European market for nearly forty years from 1961 to 1995.  

Rams with some of his designs
To this day, European design in general is of a much higher quality and of a more refined standard than what is found in the rest of the “modern” world, and it could be argued this is in large part due to the influence of one man’s prodigious output.  From hair dryers to coffee machines to foil razors, alarm clocks, and electric juicers, the variety, affordability, utility and prevalence of his Braun merchandise sub-consciously shaped an entire continent’s design philosophy.

Rams’ “10 Principles of Good Design”

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.
  • 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 emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Is environmentally friendly - Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.
  • 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.

Braun KF20 Aromaster - Rams design

OK, so not all of these commandments are represented in the MkIV, particularly the first – innovation. With a beam rear axle, rubbery dynamics and some pretty ancient engine technology near the bottom of the spec sheets, it was hardly bursting with exciting new technology. But where it counted, the car was a near masterpiece of design. It was clean, timeless, functional, unadorned, rational, unobtrusive, honest, thorough and simple.

There are many examples on the car(s) that stand out as shining examples of good design, from the functional simplicity and architectural arrangement of the interior, to the high-quality materials used in its construction. One in particular has always stood out to me, though – the way the shut line of the rear passenger doors of the five-door Golf is aped by the shut line of the hatch, continued visually downward in the shape of the rear light cluster where it meets at a flush angle with the side bumper seam – three distinct parts combined in one meandering line, simultaneously lowering production costs and highlighting the most interesting and perceptible element of design on the car.
shut line pr0n

For the MkV and MkVI (why a face-lifted model gets its own model designation is beyond me) VW strayed slightly from the ideals used in the design of the MkIV, but only relatively so when compared to the mess that BMW, Mercedes and especially Audi have made of their brand’s recognizable design language in the past 10 or 15 years. When the Germans start following the Koreans and Japanese in the pursuit of out-gimmicking one another with every new design cycle, you know that they’ve lost their way.

At least we still have Apple.


  1. I had never thought of a car's design language in terms of Ram's principals and now I totally agree about the VW. They definitely had a particular functionality inside and out which I have always appreciated for what it was and was not. And as I comment here from my incredible new iPad, I hope we find more form and function soon, like maybe a Fisker or Tesla?