Less, but better: The legacy of Dieter Rams

My colleague and friend, Robert Stribley, recently arranged for our User Experience department to watch Rams, a new documentary by Gary Hustwit about the designer Dieter Rams.

After initially training to be an architect, Dieter Rams became a renowned industrial designer, creating many iconic, minimalist products for Braun in the latter half of the 20th century. His designs have influenced generations of designers after him. At one point in his career he stepped back and asked himself how someone could tell if their designs were good, and he articulated Ten Principles for Good Design. He was approaching this from the perspective of industrial design, but the principles have since been applied to other design disciplines as well. So, I thought I’d revisit these principles and apply them to the world of content, including content design, content strategy, and content creation.

Ten Principles for Good Content

For each of Dieter Rams’ principles, I have replaces the word “design” with the word “content.”

Good content is innovative

For Rams, this was a statement about the relationship of technology and design – he was developing technological products, and even using new materials to build them. He felt his designs should be as innovative as the products and materials.

In the world of digital content, the most innovation is happening in the ways that content is distributed, shared, discovered, and consumed. Content publishers have to make their content ready to be viewed on everything from large-screen displays to smart watches, and keep an eye on what’s coming next. They also have to be aware of how people are finding and sharing their content, so they can structure and craft their content for increased exposure.

Good content makes a product useful

This is a funny one, because sometimes the content is about a product, and sometimes the content is the product. In either case, it should be useful – and that means from the perspective of the audience. This requires a deep understanding of your audience’s needs. What are they trying to get from interacting with this content, and how do you make sure it’s crafted in a way to satisfy that need?

Good content is aesthetic

This is pretty clear. Good content should be enjoyable to read, watch or listen to. Otherwise, even if it contains useful information, you’re creating an unnecessary barrier that people have to push through in order to receive its benefits.

Good content makes a product understandable

In this case, Rams was saying that the product should be self-evident from the design. Consider an item you’ve encountered with such a clever design that you couldn’t figure out how to open it or start it. In the realm of content, this may apply most directly to the field of UX Writing, and the economy of words needed to concisely convey an idea or function.

Additionally, digital content is far reaching and as it travels to different sites and devices, you should make sure that it’s as complete and self-contained as it needs to be. Your content needs to make sense where ever and whenever a person may encounter it, or people will skip right by it.

Good content is unobtrusive

Here Rams seems to be reacting to design-for-design’s-sake. Basically, he’s saying, get our of your own way. Don’t show off your verbal skills at the expense of comprehension. Or, as Mark Twain said, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”

Good content is honest

In other words: Follow through on the promise of your content. If people followed this one, we’d see significantly less linkbait online. It’s not just about “fake news” though – it’s about making sure you’re not promising more than your content can deliver.

Good content is long-lasting

I love this one, because digital content can stick around for a long, long time and yet it’s often written or produced as if it’s going to be consumed right in that moment and then disappear forever. Future-proofing your content is not just about avoiding current slang, it means considering if it will continue to make sense to people in 6 months, or 10 years. It also means including metadata for reference (date stamp, source info, etc), and ensuring content can be separated from visual design elements so that when people encounter it later (perhaps in a completely different layout) they will still have all the textual and contextual cues they need to understand it.

Good content is thorough down to the last detail

This principle is about process. It means that you should be thoughtful, do your research, and consider the impact of every aspect of your content. For Rams, this meant “Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance.” This creates an interesting challenge when we’re increasingly making use of algorithms to help create data-driven content and experiences. In my last post, The Algorithms are Hangry, I walked through some examples of both mundane and extraordinary bot failures. I think the best way to honor this principle, especially when working with dynamic content, is to consider way more edge cases than we would normally entertain, rather than just focusing on a handful of primary scenarios.

Good content is environmentally friendly

Taken literally, this principle applies to industrial design in a way that’s not particular relevant for digital endeavors. But at its core, it’s about conservation and if we consider the idea of “waste” more broadly, this one has a lot of applications.

For one, I think about the waste of content production time. In my own career, I’ve focused a lot on creating and improving tools and processes that make it easier to perform the repetitive tasks of creating and publishing content. This allows content creators to spend more of their time and energy being creative.

For another, I think about all the “contentless” content available. This content creates a lot of noise and makes it more difficult for people to find the content they really want or need. It’s content pollution, and in an attention economy, that should probably be considered a crime.

Good content is as little content as possible

For this principle, I weighed whether to leave the second instance of “design” as-is because I suspect there’s a nuance here where the first design is meant to convey “the resulting design” and the second design is meant to convey something more like “evidence of the process of doing design.” I don’t think the principle, as translated for the realm of content, is actually about having “as little content as possible” – although, that’s often going to be a side effect of keeping things simple, clear, and concise. I think this principle is really about making sure that the design process is invisible in the final product. It may take you hours to craft and edit your words, but in the end it should seem effortless, obvious, and inevitable.

Final thoughts

I find it curious that none of Rams’ principles include a concept of design being “universal,” though maybe, for him this was inherent in the idea that design should be simple and self-evident. When relating this to content principles, I couldn’t find the best place to talk about important topics like accessibility or localization, though, in some sense, these may be considered tactics for making content useful, understandable, and thorough down to the last detail. It all depends on having empathy for a wider audience with a broader, more varied set of needs.

It’s an interesting framework, though. And even if it doesn’t comprehensively cover important content considerations, it’s clearly flexible enough to allow for the addition of new areas of practice. What I like best about it is that it came from a spirit of self-reflection. We could all stand to take a step back from time to time and ask ourselves how we know when our work is good.

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