Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Good Design Is Aesthetic

Thoughts on one of Dieter Rams’s 10 Principles of Good Design.

I believe this. Don’t you? You must, or you wouldn’t be reading this journal which, with its gray-on-gray scheme and boxy layout, resembles the aesthetic ideal to which Dieter Rams’ designs cleave. A functionalist might quibble with the lack of contrast. A minimalist might quibble with the bars. A modernist might wonder if the 1970s-style logotype wasn’t a little too much. But aesthetically it works: It sets a mood, and a different mood from other design blogs, despite the generalized preference for black, white and gray. Functionally it works too: The posts and parts are clearly identified and separated. The headlines are differentiated with just the sort of off-bright color Rams favored for his Braun calculators (look at the = button).

But there are thousands of other blogs that work equally well, maybe even better in terms of legibility, links, stickiness, that look terrible, junked up, in the manner of the rival stereos, shavers, shelves with logos and lights, extraneous moving parts and homey touches. Rams’s principles follow closely on the ideal of Good Design articulated by the Museum of Modern Art in its exhibitions of the 1950s: paring away, smoothing out, reducing visual clutter to try to leave just the parts absolutely necessary to perform the task. The MoMA idea conflated aesthetics and functionalism, but left out people who didn’t happen to share the same aesthetic. Some people want their stereo to match their shelves, and not be white, either. Sometimes the paring away goes too far. I’ve written before about my Jasper Morrison coffee pot, which suffers the same staining as the cheap ones, and doesn’t have a timer. It looks great, but fails on functional criteria.

On the flip side, there is the Congress for New Urbanism, which conflates aesthetics and functionalism from the opposite side. The work of the architects involved suggests that reasonable, even modern ideals for walkable towns, minimized car presence, shared community spaces, open facades have to look like Victorian villages. How does a gingerbread-trimmed porch function better than one with a concrete floor and steel pillars? It doesn’t, as long as its architect understands materials and proportion. Proponents act as if there is only one way (or a pattern book of traditional ways) for a new town to look, but we can look past their aesthetic to common principles.

The conflation of aesthetics and functionalism on what might be considered design’s right and left has led to a newly dominant (at least in the media) third way: social design. It is now a little shameful to admit you care deeply about how something looks. Instead, we care about its post-consumer content, its low price and third-world distribution channels, its health benefits, and so on. Worthy goals for most, but not all, design endeavors. I have yet to be convinced that shipping containers really do make great houses, however many we need to reuse, and however close to the early modern existenz minimum they appear. I would put the goals for social design under the heading of functionalism—in the 1950s corporations hoped modernism would increase productivity and satisfaction the way today’s corporations believe in sustainable architecture—and hope that going forward aesthetics might be acknowledged as part of the ideal. There can be good design (lower case) without aesthetics, but if you believe in this principle, as I do, it can’t be great.