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 replaced 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 out 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.

The Internet: Now With EVERYTHING

I have this theory that everything you could ever want is on the internet, or will be soon. In fact, I’m going to be giving a talk in a few weeks at MetaSpace in DiscourseLab, which is a 5-day event that’s part of paraflows 2008, a digital art and culture festival in Vienna, and this very idea is part of the premise of my talk.

In preparation for my talk, i wanted to find a way to generate labels that looks like cards from an old-fashioned card catalog. I figured that there must be something like this somewhere online, but I didn’t know how difficult it might be to find. I typed “card catalog” into google and this Card Catalog Generator was the fourth result, with this explanatory post called Roll Your Own Catalog Card as the fifth result.

I love when things like this happen. So, now I’m going to use this to prepare some of the graphics for my talk and, it’s very meta, but I’m going to have to mention how easily I discovered it too. Thanks John Blyberg!

Designing Information at IxDA

Two of my colleagues, Anh Dang and Nirali Patel, are going to be speaking at a conference called IxDA Interaction 08 in a few weeks. We recently had a preview of their presentation, called Designing Information. I don’t want to give too much away, for those that may be attending the conference, but I really enjoyed hearing about it because it converged nicely with my own interests.

The aim of their talk is to discuss their point of view on how to present data in a way that’s meaningful – not just cool or interesting looking. There are some sites that present really beautiful infographics, but they don’t necessarily tell you anything. More suitable for hanging on the wall than for providing illuminating knowledge or understanding. I think that’s just wasteful.

I’m not a designer, myself, so in my line of work I generally collaborate with someone who is. Ideally, I bring insight on the full range of data and the story that it wants to tell, and the IA or designer has the tools and techniques to make that story come to life. Anh and Nirali have a great perspective on the thought processes, insights, and strategies needed to make those techniques really work, and I’m glad to see them contributing their ideas to the discussion.

Digital Design Outlook

My company, Avenue A | Razorfish, has published a Digital Design Outlook book, and an accompanying blog. I contributed an article providing a user experience perspective on the Semantic Web. I’m excited about the potential for bridging the gap between really powerful semantic technologies and elegant and effective user experiences. I think this is one of the major digital design challenges of the next few years.

For more details, read my article, The Semantic Web We Weave, on the Digital Design Blog.

Disinformation Architecture

I enjoy Facebook, but I find some of the available apps increasingly annoying. Aside from the fact that many of them are pointless, I’m really disturbed by the tactics they frequently employ to make themselves ubiquitous.

One of the apps that, in a general sense, I actually like is an app that lets me rate and review movies, share my opinions on films, and read about the opinions of others. It includes a “Movie Compatibility Test” which tells me how close my taste is to my buddies’, based on comparing our ratings for some 50-odd movies. It alerts me every time one of my friends has taken the quiz, so I can go check how well we matched up. I love movies, and all this sounds pretty cool. The problem is… Continue reading “Disinformation Architecture”

Typographical Debate

This evening I went to see a documentary called Helvetica with some friends from work. Normally I wouldn’t write about films here, but this one seemed appropriate. Positioning itself as a documentary about a font, it was actually a broader exploration of the evolution of typography and what a font communicates. 

Helvetica logo

Helvetica was created in the late ’50s. At the time it solved many graphic design problems and it sort of took the modern world by storm. Later, there was some post-modern backlash, but the font was already so ubiquitous, there was no going back. The film depicted the views and feelings of many prominent designers, and offered a wide range of perspectives on the font.

Continue reading “Typographical Debate”