Less is more

Dieter Rams believes sustainable design forms part of the cure for wasteful consumerism. He expanded on this at yesterday’s RSA Student Design Awards 75th anniversary lecture

What will happen to design in the coming years? What will be the aims of product design and the underlying criteria affecting it? What will design mean and how will it be evaluated? A rethink that takes into account the reality of tomorrow is urgent, yet has hardly even begun.

With our technological-industrial civilisation threatening to destroy life on Earth, a far-reaching change is inevitable. We can only hope that these changes can come about through our own conscious efforts, and will not be forced upon us by catastrophe. Perhaps these changes will lead, not to an impoverishment of our lives, but to enrichment in a human sense.

The crisis of our product culture will force us to adopt a new design ethic: in the future the value of design must be judged on the contributions it makes to survival in the widest sense. These contributions will be of great importance. Design will be able to influence the permanent improvement of the ecological quality of products – and, more critically, will contribute to an effective reduction in the overall quantity of products manufactured. The watchword for product culture will be “less but better”.

The “purchase-attraction” aesthetic upon which design today is almost exclusively based, and which only fuels the destructive product extravagance, will give way to an aesthetic which supports long-term use and the conservation of resources. But a changed product culture cannot be achieved purely by insights, good intentions and appeals to sense. Changes of attitude can, in general, only be achieved through changes to the structure of the way we live.

One example could be the development of a “closed circle” for consumer goods: products would not be bought, but would remain the property of the manufacturer. The user would pay not for the ownership, but for the use of the product and its maintenance. After use, the products would be returned to the manufacturer, serviced, repaired, recycled and put back into circulation. This structure would change the way products are perceived, and would thus change the emphasis of design away from creating a higher “purchase-attraction” to the optimisation of longevity and usefulness.

It is the task of designers, design schools, design institutes and companies to find starting points for such a change in structure, to think them through, and to turn them into reality. But designers are the only ones who can visualise – beginning with experimental projects which show the new direction.

Design has a definite meaning. I was convinced of that 40 years ago, and I am even more convinced of it today. Designers and the businesses which produce good design have quite a task ahead: the task of changing our world where today it is ugly, irritating and confusing, into something better, from small everyday items, to our great cities.

I am reminded of a few words from a comic book: “Phoebe looks down on the pink houses, nestling in the gentle hills and valleys of Los Angeles. She reflects upon life: what does it all mean?” No doubt, someone looking at our world from the outside, and seeing the impact we have made on it, would ask the same question.

The task of design has an ethical dimension. Good design is value. The better world we have to build must be done with moral values in mind. This attitude is very different from the widespread approach which treats design as entertainment. Everything which can be shaped and designed, from music and architecture to advertising and TV programmes, is made to have instant appeal to its target audience. Whatever gets a good reaction is judged to be good.

That is the almost cynical attitude of the Post Modern era, indifferent to any binding values. Under this umbrella comes much which, seeking to be different at any price, compromises the aesthetic value of functional design. Many people believe that in the future we can fulfil every want for ourselves with thoughtless design, giving little attention to the consequences. They think the risk is small, and that the technology of tomorrow will clear up the damage.

True education is never overbearing nor arrogant, but modest, critical, attentive and clear-sighted. If we were to make a decision to use sense and reasoning in a concrete factual way, and not try to grapple with so many preconceived ideas, prejudices, irrelevances and irrational fears, it would be a big step forward.

It is difficult to improve morals, but it would be a tremendous achievement if we could improve thinking – and design is in the front line of the thinking process. Honest modern design means overall thoughtfulness and global consciousness. In our society, a new dimension in design will be developed which will be a measure for the quality of life.

A result of the use of design in all areas is that we presuppose a sensitivity in all segments of the population. However, it is only when design is really understood and accepted by the whole population that a lasting rise in the quality of life can be achieved through design.

In the age of high technology, design is confronted with many challenges of a totally new kind. Its contribution is a growing symbiosis of economy and ecology, and the reduction of production that is material and time-intensive.

The outcome of this competitive situation in the future will be essentially a growth of performance capability in both the national and European economies, which promotes innovation and technological development, as well as the development of lasting and useful ecological concepts. Design can make an essential contribution in all these areas and can take over a decisive function – but, as a prerequisite, there has to be an effective and common policy of design development in Europe. In this way, the countries of Eastern Europe in particular will be involved in future concepts.

What we need is intelligent design for intelligent technologies. Industrial production is becoming an increasing problem in today’s world. Fewer and fewer people are producing more and more products, placing a burden on the environment that seems to be growing exponentially. We cannot close our eyes to these difficulties, we have to recognise their significance and take seriously the challenge they present.

In many respects, the immense fundamental problem we face has a far-reaching relevance for design. The room for manoeuvre, the “freedom” that design has enjoyed in the past, has become more confined – and the demands are higher. Design now has new responsibilities. Of course, it is not just design that now has to face up to its responsibilities. A comprehensive strategy is necessary to overcome the flaws in our current systems and to come up with new ideas for industrial production. All forces must work together towards this: education, industry, technology, economics and ecological forces, and also those concerned with finance and politics.

In the future, economic growth will mean qualitative growth instead of extravagant, wasteful consumption of resources. Burdening the environment is no longer without cost. We need new, intelligent technologies, and especially design technology. The overall quality of new products always reflects their design quality, as it is attained through, and with, design. The designer therefore has a new task, the integration of his or her work into applied industrial research.

But strong impetus for change is necessary and it cannot come from market forces alone. A conscious cultural decision has to be made by society to demand new, future-protecting development. This would be based around a changed production ethic and a product philosophy of “less but better”. And we need visions of a product culture which is human and at the same time conserves the natural environment and the ability to sustain life on Earth.

Professor Dieter Rams is the former director of design for Braun and an Honorary Royal Designer for Industry. This is an extract from his RSA Student Design Awards 75th anniversary lecture, entitled The Responsibility of Design in the Future, given in Glasgow last night. The RSA Student Design Awards exhibition continues at Glasgow’s Lighthouse design centre until 30 November

Latest articles