10 Principles of Good Design

“Good design is unobtrusive…[and] restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.” — H.C. Deiter Rams, German Industrial Designer

Deiter Rams is a famous German Industrial Designer whose aesthetic adhered firmly to the “less is more” school of design. He was an advocate of Functionalism, the architectural line of thought that buildings should be built first for purpose. His work, which began in the ’50s, still strongly impacts all types of design today, from architecture to physical product design to digital design.

With credit to Vitsœ, the British furniture company that still manufactures and retails furniture designed by Dieter Rams, here are Rams famous 10 Principles of Good Design, along with how we interpret these timeless principles in the era of modern digital product design.

1. 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.

Yes, good design is innovative, but it must first be user-focused. Start with the user experience, then work back to innovative technology. If you’re designing a product to be innovative without worrying about the user experience, you’re going to fail. Experience design should always be your driving force. Technology should be used to support that.

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 emphasises the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

All true, but with an overarching KISS mentality. Always keep your product simple and intuitive through good usability. One of the reasons social media platforms Instagram and Snapchat blew up is because their interfaces were so simple that a person who barely knew how to use a smartphone could figure them out with no instruction. Both of these apps have great experience design that make creating shareable content easy by being useful.

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.

Even a digital product has a look and feel, and it should create lines of pleasure and passion… without detracting or distracting from usability.

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.

Being useful does not require instructions. People just get it, intuitively. The iconography, experience, and interface all become guideposts.

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.

The Instagram experience is getting better and better over time, as the grayscale interface allows the photographs that users upload to really pop. The focus is on imagery and content rather than the app itself. It’s all about the user’s self-expression.

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.

Deceptive clickbait ads designed to look like content do not work. And social media services that are “free”—but mine all your personal data and sell it to big business—lack integrity. The best design is honest and transparent.

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.

Good user experiences should last, but in today’s ever-changing world of new platforms, devices, and gadgets, you have to be nimble when a platform or channel changes and adapt to how the users’ environment or usage of that platform differs from other platforms.

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 consumer.

You must deeply understand and empathize with your users. This, combined with a spirit of iterating, leads to products people really love.

9. Good design is environmentally friendly. Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimises physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

In the physical product design space, this is obviously true, but it takes some imagination to see how it applies to the digital space. Consider this: the main reason Apple killed Flash was that it was a memory pig, and it consumed so many processing resources that it would kill computer batteries.

Smaller devices with smaller batteries and fewer materials carry a smaller carbon footprint, and as a digital product maker, it’s your responsibility to design products that work on small devices and require less juice. There are billions of devices in the world; in aggregate, environmental design becomes a major factor. 

10. Good design 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.

This is vital to making digital products, but quite possibly the hardest thing to do—especially if you aren’t the single decision-maker. Products by committee love massive, multi-page feature lists. This is one of the major reasons digital products go over budget and get off the rails so frequently.

Simplicity and agility are what we always advocate for. Start small, use baby steps, and iterate as often as possible. This will lead you to remove anything that’s superfluous to the user experience. Work smarter, not harder.

For more on designing digital products toward simplicity and user experience, read our book Got Ideas? Turning Your Ideas into Products People Want to Use.