Website Design  |  Graphic Design

Dieter Rams’ 10 Timeless Principles for Truly Successful Design

Joe Rinaldi

Designer, HubSpot Design & GDD Certified, Designer for 70+ Sites for HubSpot and Various CMSs

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Dieter Rams’ 10 Timeless Principles for Truly Successful Design Blog Feature

Published on May 30th, 2018

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While people may not be familiar with Dieter Rams, chances are everyone has used a product heavily influenced by him.

Rams, a German industrial designer, is one of the most influential designers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

His work and design philosophy of “less but better” helped Braun, a consumer products company, create products that transformed the way people use household appliances and today, his philosophies and principles continue to influence designers and major companies like Apple.

One of the most influential contributions to the design world is Rams’s set of guidelines known as the “10 Principles of Good Design.”

These principles serve as a guideline for judging how successful a design is. While they were originally crafted for the industrial design industry, they can easily be taken and applied to the web.

Principle #1: Good Design is Innovative

“The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Innovative design exists to provide long-lasting, robust solutions to problems that constantly evolve.”

Dieter Rams first principle is centered around something we aim for everyday in web design: Innovation.

Every single day the web design industry grows and new trends emerge. Rams’ principle reminds us to approach every project with an innovative mindset; to keep an open mind to new trends, and to be on the constant lookout for unique ways to stand out and improve performance.

Companies that have integrated live chat onto their sites are a perfect example.

Live chat is one of the latest trends to take the industry by storm. In fact, it’s expected to grow as much as 87% in the next year.

While live chat technology is nothing new, companies have just recently begun to really adopt it onto their sites. The companies that were early to this trend and decided to give it a try, however, are now reaping the rewards (like 40% increases in conversion rates!) while other companies are rushing to catch up.

Principle #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 emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.”

Much like a physical product, the pages of your website need to provide users with an enjoyable user experience and a solution to their problems.

If visitors visits your site only to find it has poor load times, the content’s unorganized, and it’s difficult to navigate throughout your pages; chances are they’ll leave and search for a solution elsewhere.

A critical first step in ensuring your site is useful is making sure you understand your user’s buyer journey. This ensures that you’re creating an experience that’s both relevant to your persona and includes something for every stage of the journey.

From there, I suggest looking into some of these popular design trends to make sure your content is organized and easy to digest.

For example, if you know your visitors like to quickly scan only the headlines of articles, you may want to look into moving your blog into a card-based layout.   

This is also just a good guideline for web designers in general. While yes, we want our sites to be beautiful, they also need to work toward the goals our clients set out to achieve with them. If it doesn’t, it’s not truly functional or useful.  

Principle #3: Good Design is Aesthetic

“The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.”

When you hear the word “aesthetic” your mind probably goes to the actual appearance of something.

However, when Dieter Rams talks about the “aesthetic quality” of a product he’s referring to its visual harmony. The perfect balance of visual detail and, as we mentioned in the last point, usefulness.

Over-designing and focusing too much on adding unnecessary bells and whistles to your designs will ultimately lead to cluttered pages and take away from the overall goal.

With so many different tools and trends on the web, it can be easy to go overboard.

A good habit to get into (which I personally use) is to review every element of a finished design and ask yourself “How does this build towards the overall goal of a page?”

If you can’t answer the question; remove the element and move on. Remember, if it doesn’t serve a purpose, it’s clutter.

Principle #4: Good design makes a product understandable

“It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.”

Susan Dray, an expert in usability, summed this principle up best when she said “If the user can’t use it, it doesn’t work.” Plain and simple.

People shouldn’t be unsure of how any aspect of your website functions or run into any roadblocks that stop them from completing a task.

Take your website’s navigation, for example. It’s not only the first thing a user will see when they get to your site, it’s usually their roadmap to the rest of their buyer’s journey.

With today’s goldfish-sized attention spans, all it takes is one ambiguous menu label or a confusing dropdown menu to send that user packing.

Everything about your website should feel intuitive and natural.

That being said...

Principle #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.”

A website that is unobtrusive centers around two main characteristics.

Aesthetics

The first tying back into the idea of “aesthetic quality” from earlier.

Your pages shouldn’t be designer-driven but instead user-focused. Rather than worrying about the decorative aspects of a page, focus on creating an experience that put people in firm control of what they want to do on your site.

This can include things such as experimenting with different colors to call the user’s attention to the next steps on page, providing users with a clearly defined navigation menu, and making sure your site translates well to mobile.

Accessibility

The second characteristic is designing for accessibility. When choosing things like what color combinations to use, you need to consider what that might look like to someone with a vision disability. You want your site to be easy to use for everyone.

Principle #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.”

With things recent events, such as the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Scandal and GDPR regulations, honesty and trust on the web are more important than ever.

There are plenty of websites and companies today that trick users into taking unwanted actions such as subscribing to a newsletter they never wanted.

It’s your responsibility to provide your users with an experience that puts them at ease when it comes to this.

Taking steps like using clear and descriptive language on your forms, implementing SSL on your site, and clarifying the purpose of each button or link on a page will go miles in helping you to build trust with your visitors and providing them with a safe browsing experience.

Principle #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.”

Creating a site that is “evergreen” is an impossible task, but there are steps you can take to create a site with a long-lasting structure that only requires small iterations.

One of the biggest steps is to wary of implementing too many “trendy” design elements.

Trends come and go and once they pass, it can leave you with a dated looking site.

Instead, stick to basic UX principles and creating an experience that is in-line with your persona’s browsing habits and brand.  

If you give someone what they want and need, there will be no reason for them to care that perhaps your layout hasn’t changed in a bit.

Take Snapchat for example.

In February, the company released a major interface redesign that changed the way users access features they use on the daily basis.

The company saw immediate pushback (a petition was even created to reverse the update) and users began to migrate away from Snapchat over to other apps with story functions such as Instagram.

To many users this update seemed unnecessary and added a ton of confusion to the UX. Snapchat was already built on a strong structure that many would argue didn’t require any major updating.

Principle #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 user.”

Rams has always been a firm believer that the success of a design is in the details. This means that every element of a page should placed and positioned for a reason, nothing should be created or removed on a whim.]

Instead, look at your ideas from as many points of view as possible and really decide what’s best for the page and its goal.

I recommend taking this principle one step further and experimenting with user testing on your site to really get an idea of how users will interact with a page.

For example, before making very unpopular changes to its UX recently, Snapchat could have asked influential users their opinions on the changes.

Principle #9: Good Design 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.”

While a website won’t exactly reduce your carbon footprint, this principle can speak towards the optimization of your website’s performance.

You can reduce the amount of bandwidth it takes to load a page by making sure your images and base code are properly optimized and your scripts are minified.

Being mindful of these things will help your site load faster and create a more enjoyable experience for your users.

And to keep things green, it may even drain their batteries a bit less on mobile.

Principle #10: Good Design is as Little 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.”

This principle sums up the Dieter Rams’s ethos and mantra; The foundation of all of his principles: Remove anything that does not directly contribute to a better experience for your users.

With less clutter, you can achieve more. Your users will be able to digest more content, download more offers, and be more invested in your company.

If something doesn’t NEED to be on your site, remove it.

The Final Takeaway:

If there’s one thing to take away from these principles, it’s to remember that successful design is design that makes the user and their needs a priority. Following these principles puts you control of the experience you’re going to deliver your website’s visitors.

In the words of Dieter Rams:

“The designer is the user's advocate within the company," we have to create something rational, but at the same time emotional.”

Always keep your user or prospect in mind when designing. In the end, your goal with any website redesign or build is to use design to make your user’s journey to doing business with you easier. 

Featured Image Courtesy of Vitsoe

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