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As little design as possible

Why the wise words of Dieter Rams are as important today as ever

Dieter Rams photo from Vitsoe – good design is as little design as possible

“Good design is as little design as possible.”
— Dieter Rams

Dieter Rams is famous for changing the world of consumer electronics, by proving that mass produced items can – and should – be thoughtfully designed.

In his Ten Principles of Good Design he outlined the commandments designers should obey to produce better products. Each principle is easy to agree with, but one that has really stuck out to me recently has been number ten: “Good design is as little design as possible.”

But what does Rams – a product designer, a man who has designed everything from electronic razors to shelving systems – have to do with software product design?

Rams’s principles can easily be applied to the world of software.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

to reinvent the wheel or not to reinvent the wheel

Design paradigms in both hardware and software exist for a reason – they drive the way a user expects to use your product.

When a user first sees your product, they will instantly start making assumptions about what all the different components of the interface do. What’s a button? What’s clickable? What do they expect to happen when they interact with various components? If any part of the interface disagrees with their assumptions, they then have to stop and think and process how to use it.

Unless you have an extremely popular app or platform with millions of users, you’ll struggle to change these base paradigms, so instead you should embrace them and make them work for you.

If you really do find a concept that can’t be expressed within existing paradigms, then you need to make sure your users don’t end up wasting their time trying to think through it. Make it easy to discover, easy to learn, and easy to remember so the user doesn’t have to concentrate hard every time they use that feature.

Nine times out of ten you can borrow concepts from existing components, and avoid introducing something entirely custom and home-baked.

Don’t build what you don’t need

Swiss army knife vs scalpel

Often when you set out to build a new feature you can overthink the requirements and design more functionality than you actually need. Focus first on the problem and the customer and think about what’s essential.

Chances are you can implement the feature without designing anything on the computer – you may be able to sketch out your ideas and collaborate with an engineer to build the first prototype, before you establish what’s important and what doesn’t need to be built at all.

The fewer features you have, the fewer moving parts there are. And when you iterate on your product, the fewer moving parts you have, the less there is to go wrong.

Decide what’s important

Prioritisation is key

It’s amazing how much easier it is to design a screen or a feature, when you’re clear on what’s important. Well-designed interfaces and screens are usually born out of simplifying a feature conceptually.

Bad features, on the other hand, are usually the result of minimal consideration for the end user or for what they’re actually trying to achieve when they use your product.

If you have a screen with five different possible paths and actions, then the screen can easily become overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be. The best screens usually follow a simple, learnable structure and take you down an obvious and logical course of action.

When the structure is obvious, you can afford to spend less time on aesthetics and more time on making the feature bulletproof.

Avoid maintenance costs

Features are the tip of the ice berg - maintenance is the rest

The less you design and the less you build, the less you have to maintain.

Cutting down the number of custom-designed screens in your product not only means your users have less to learn and you have less to build, but it’ll pay off for months to come – you have less to maintain down the road.

Having fewer features and screens to maintain means your product team can focus on what’s important – pushing forward with new and improved functionality, rather than wasting time getting bogged down in keeping existing parts of the product up-to-date.

Steal good ideas

Picasso and Steve Jobs - great artists

Often companies will be criticised for copying or stealing ideas from others. While plagiarism is not a noble goal, there are often sources of inspiration already out there that can help form the foundations of a new idea.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
– Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso, T. S. Eliot, Igor Stravinsky

Even the famous quote “good artists copy, great artists steal” has itself been copied and stolen over time, and is attributed to many different people throughout history. If someone has already expressed your meaning and intentions as well as possible, then you don’t necessarily need to do anything differently just for the sake of being different.

Design less, but better

The beauty of designing less is it frees you up to focus your energy and effort onto fewer things that likely need your input more. Next time you’re working on a new piece of functionality, think about what really needs your design input, and what’s already been solved for you.

Image of Dieter Rams courtesy of Vitsoe.

Written by
James is CEO and one of the co-founders of GoSquared. He also likes to talk about design.

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