Fresh Prince
Photo via Design Dare.

I was chuckling over this Fresh Prince photo at Design Dare the other day. “Now they all look dumb,” wrote Design Dare’s Jon Bell of Will Smith’s fresh eighties entourage. “Oh, fashion.”

Got me thinking about the difficulty of truly timeless design, whether for fashion or objects or software interfaces. Designers and their creations are captive to their times, and notions of “good design” constantly shift under our feet. I tweeted that thought, noting that interactive design trends age as quickly as a fresh Philly wardrobe. Lukas Mathis responded with a bit of reassuring advice: “I think the trick to timeless design is leaving out as much as possible, which coincides with *good* design.”

True enough. Even minimalism has its ebbs and flows, but elegant, keep-it-simple designs have had far more staying power than more elaborate confections. I’m thinking especially of the clean industrial design of Dieter Rams, who was chief of design for Braun from 1961 to 1995. The Dieter Rams photo pool at Flickr (yum) collects a whole slew of Rams-designed objects, their elegantly minimal design almost certainly a direct inspiration for the aesthetic driven by Apple’s lead designer Jony Ive for the past decade or so.

Radio-Phonograph (model SK 4/10) by Dieter Rams and Hans Gugelot (1956)
Radio-Phonograph (model SK 4/10) by Dieter Rams and Hans Gugelot (1956). Photo from
Pocket Radio (model T3) by Dieter Rams and Ulm Hochschule für Gestaltung (1958)
Pocket Radio (model T3) by Dieter Rams and Ulm Hochschule für Gestaltung (1958). Photo from

It’s a design sensibility whose application goes beyond just hardware. Rams once summed up his design credo as “Weniger, aber besser,” or “Less, but better.” That’s the spirit that necessarily drives the design of the best mobile apps. Designing tapworthy apps means designing for an economy of time, attention, and screen space. Great apps might be easy on the eyes, too, but the fundamentals of great design don’t hinge on making things pretty. In app design, beauty derives from function, and every interface element has to be focused on helping your users do what they’re there to do. This takes both careful editing and definition of purpose.

All of this requires extraordinary focus, but never fear, Dieter Rams is here to help. His “ten principles of good design” are as appropriate to mobile apps as they were to the appliances Rams designed half a century ago. A little food for thought from the master:

Loudspeaker Model No. LE 1 by Dieter Rams (1960)
Loudspeaker Model No. LE 1 by Dieter Rams (1960). Photo from
  • Good design is innovative
  • Good design makes a product useful
  • Good design is aesthetic
  • Good design makes a product understandable
  • Good design is unobtrusive
  • Good design is honest
  • Good design is long-lasting
  • Good design is thorough down to the last detail
  • Good design is environmentally friendly
  • Good design is as little design as possible

And just to be sure the Fresh Prince gets his say, too, we have Will Smith’s design-savvy words from his show’s third season: “Whooooooo, somebody call a cop ‘cause it’s gotta be illegal to look that good.”

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