What makes a good designer?

Dieter Rams is one of my favorite product designers, and I recently stumbled across his definition of what a “good designer” is in a book called “As little design as possible“. It’s a great read, but sadly its out of print, and a used copy on Ebay is going to put you back $350.

That said, I wanted to archive his quote on my blog since it resonated with me so much.

Dieter Rams’s experience of design is that of someone who worked predominantly for one company throughout his career. It therefore comes as little surprise that he does not view the role of the industrial designer as an autonomous presence but as an element within a larger system.

He understands design to be an integrated process within the ‘whole’, but nevertheless one with a large measure of importance. Therefore the basic qualities that a good designer needs to have, in his view, show many parallels with those of any other well-qualified individuals within the company system: ‘A designer needs to be intelligent and quick on the uptake … He should have a grasp of technology. He should be critical, reasonable and realistic. He should have a talent for teamwork…. He must also be patient, optimistic and persistent… and finally he should have the capacity for better ideas, a sense of proportion and colour, sensitivity and, last but not least, a foundation in handcraft and aptitude’.

Being a product designer, insists Rams, has nothing to do with being an ‘artist’ or a ‘decorator’. It is more about being a ‘Gestalt-Ingenieur’, an ‘engineer of form’ or ‘technically orientated designer’. Rams explains: ‘He synthesizes the concrete product from given specifications laid down by technology, production and the market. His work is predominantly rational in the sense that the formal decisions are substantiatable, verifiable and understandable’? It is a hard and uncompromising viewpoint that leaves little room for the softer, more artistic sensibilities involved in design, but this too can be seen as the result of a need to establish and maintain an authoritative position in a complex hierarchical workplace.

This rather strict view of a designer’s work is not the whole definition, however, a designer must also take notice of cultural and social values and developments in society, as well as thinking of individual users, and integrate them into their designs. ‘The designer who wants to develop a function-appropriate product must think / feel himself into the role of the user… the designer is the user’s advocate within the company,” says Rams. Thus he or she needs to be rational but sensitive and empathic at the same time.

As if that was not enough, a designer in a manufacturing company must also understand everyone else’s position and needs (especially the customer’s) and communicate with them all through the products he or she designs. This means that an industrial designer is perhaps above all a communicator, someone who is fluent in a variety of expressive languages, ranging from words, modelling, drawing and technical specifications to the ergonomics of form.

In summary, a good designer is a person who can feel, listen and understand, anayze precisely and quantifiably in detail, then share and communicate the results ofthat analysis using appropriate media to manufacture a product that, in turn, communicates with the user and fulfils their needs. Finally, a good designer has to produce ‘good design’; they must be innovative in the best sense of the word. In the end, says Rams, a designer needs to ask themselves. “‘Have l succeeded in improving things?

Making them better than others did?

Is my design good design?”

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