The Art of Time: Dieter Rams and His Ten Principles of Good Design

Most of us here at worn&wound stand by the idea that every watch—and by extension, every watch designer—has something to teach us about what makes something attractive. I certainly believe it, and try to find the beauty in everything. On the other hand, however, not many designers can claim to have changed the world, and only one has literally written the Ten Commandments of good design: Dieter Rams. Rams, through decades at the helm of the famous Braun design house, refined his restrained yet personal work into an ethos spanning all corners of industrial design.

Examples of Rams’ iconic design work for Braun.

Design was a family affair for Dieter Rams. Born May 20, 1932 in Wiesbaden, Germany, Rams’ youth was spent in the turbulent rise of the Third Reich and the chaos of World War II. To protect him from the dangers of the Nazi regime, his parents sent him to live with his grandfather in the countryside for much of his early years.

A young Dieter Rams.

It was during this time Rams first gained appreciation for function and form. His grandfather, a carpenter, took young Dieter under his wing as an apprentice and gave him the advice that would define his later work. “Weniger, aber besser,” his grandfather would tell him. “Less, but better.” This carpentry experience was so important to Rams that he left the Wiesbaden School of Art after his first year in 1948, taking a full year with his grandfather to master the craft before returning to his studies. His grandfather’s advice certainly took root, and only two years after graduating from art school in 1955, Rams was hired by Braun as an architect and interior designer.

“Weniger, aber besser,” his grandfather would tell him. “Less, but better.”

After six years rising through the ranks, Rams became Chief Design Officer at Braun in 1961. From then until 1995, he oversaw the creation of electric shavers, turntables, hi-fi stereos, furniture, and much more. During his tenure at Braun was when Rams also formed his Ten Principles of Good Design, and a perfect example of these ten principles is one of his first works as Chief Design Officer, the 1963 T-1000 shortwave radio receiver. At first glance, it’s almost too simple, appearing like a sleek brushed attaché case with an integrated speaker grate.

Braun T-1000 shortwave radio receiver.

The only real clue to more complexity is the winding crank to generate electricity, which leads us to Rule 1: good design must be innovative. The T1000’s portability and ease of use was innovative for the time, and the integration of sleek modern design into that technology enhances both. The T1000’s smooth facade hides greater complexity, though. All the radio knobs and components are concealed behind a hinged door in the front, and the telescoping antennas withdraw almost completely into the top. These necessary components are cleanly and legibly laid out however, following Rule 2: good design must make a product useful. Not only are the displays and tuning knobs attractively simple, they’re easy to use. Rule 3 is one of the most of obvious: Good design must be aesthetic. The streamlined, elemental shape of the T-1000 is undeniably pleasant, but it also fulfills Rule 4: good design must be understandable, and all components of the T-1000 virtually explain themselves with their clarity.

It’s a thing of quiet beauty, however, not at all flashy, and so fulfills Rule 5: good design must be unobtrusive. According to Rule 6, good design must also be honest, and the T-1000’s shape makes no promises it cannot keep. It is simply a clean, attractive radio. Rule 7 demands that good design must be long-lasting, and there’s absolutely nothing about the T-1000 that dates it. By looks alone, it could have been made yesterday. No aspect of the T-1000 feels haphazard or left to chance, and so it fulfills Rule 8: good design must be thorough down to the last detail. Every choice is deliberate. Rule 9 seems strange at first, but makes sense with some careful consideration: Good design must be environmentally friendly. In a way this is an extension of the “less, but better” idea. The T-1000’s compact size is free from waste, and minimizes its environmental impact. The T-1000 is, of course, an incredibly simple design at its core, and so fulfills the most important rule of all, Rule 10: good design must be as little design as possible.

dieterrams-3Altogether, these ten rules form a holistic approach to design that made its way rapidly into Rams’ watches. His ruthlessly simple BN0021 three-hander first released in 1989 is one of the purest expressions of this creed, and a design icon in its own right. The case simply couldn’t be more elemental–no lugs, no bezel, just a smooth, evenly brushed cylinder punctuated only by an undersized pillbox crown at 3. Far from being uninteresting, though, its simplicity is starkly beautiful. The overall form takes the fore here, as opposed to hiding behind extraneous detail.

Braun BN0021; photo credit: designmuseumshop

The dial of the BN0021 is a similar story. An austere printed line minutes track punctuated by slightly bolder hours indices runs along the outside, surrounding a clinical Helvetica inner numeral track. The hands are as basic as possible, thin white sticks with squared ends that just perfectly brush the minutes and numerals tracks. The seconds hand, however, is designed for maximum contrast and visibility with a brilliant yellow finish. This has the added benefit of giving the watch a much-needed touch of personality–the only other concession to decoration is a small Braun logo at 12.

The strap seamlessly finishes the package, with smooth unstitched black leather integrating luglessly into the circular case. It’s hard to imagine a simpler watch design, but it truly is “less, but better.” All of the elements are balanced harmoniously, every proportion is spot-on, and the final result is legendary.

Dieter Rams in his studio in 2015; photo credit: Wired.
Dieter Rams in his studio in 2015; photo credit: Wired.

The BN0021 and T-1000 radio are just two samples from a career of hundreds of stellar designs. Rams’ work for Braun helped lay the groundwork for almost every major designer that has followed, and his 10 Principles of Good Design are mandatory learning in industrial design courses around the world. Truly, Dieter Rams has left his mark.

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Hailing from Redondo Beach, California, Sean’s passion for design and all things mechanical started at birth. Having grown up at race tracks, hot rod shops and car shows, he brings old-school motoring style and a lifestyle bent to his mostly vintage watch collection. He is also the Feature Editor and Videographer for Speed Revolutions.