If somebody asked you to redesign the society of the future, what would it look like?
Since life as we knew it came to a halt, and while scientists race to find a cure and a vaccine for COVID-19, we’ve been living in a surreal situation.
When I started writing this post, over a third of the world population was on lockdown; a couple of weeks later, it’s half of it.
Part of me seems to be unable to avoid checking the news, the numbers, in search of some certainty and comfort in a situation that can’t offer any. At the same time, as our activities are mostly indoors, entertainment became the most effective way to take our minds off the current crisis.
I watched Rams, a documentary on Dieter Rams, one of the most influential designers alive. Rams’ work at Braun and Vitsœ has influenced the way most of today’s consumer products look and function.
Less, But Better
Rams’ design philosophy puts function before form. The product’s aesthetics depends on its purpose, not the other way round; every little detail is thought through as a sign of respect for its users. In the 70s, he published the Ten Principles for Good Design, which are relevant today more than ever.
Even though two of the principles define good design to be long-lasting and environmental-friendly, Dieter Rams regrets not promoting his ideas about sustainable design to the masses. Or, perhaps, they weren’t understood the right way.
If he could go back and do it all over again, he would have chosen to become a landscape architect or an urban planner instead.
There is a bigger system at play. Within a culture of overconsumption, every single product needs to scream to get attention. What if each one were built to last instead, and their purpose and use were clear: would we still have clutter and visual pollution?
“Less, but better” is Rams’ motto. He invites us to think about what we’re designing, how and why. As everything interacts and is dependant on other things, his message couldn’t be more appropriate today.
Within our throwaway society, we are rarely concerned about what happens after we discard an object. It’s easier to replace something than repair it, most of the times because of the way it was designed.
The “less, but better” way of thinking applies to behaviour as well. We are used to having products scream at us, claiming they’re indispensable. And we became comfortable scrolling through large quantities of media and information every day, only to quickly forget them.
Society Isn’t Working
Lockdowns showed us that our society as it is doesn’t work. We discovered, just before the restrictions were in place, that the “just-in-time” supply chain is very fragile and that small shops selling local produce are a lifeline.
We saw workers, once considered low-skilled, becoming vital and inequalities standing out. At the same time, we witnessed governments step in to help those in need with unprecedented measures.
Those of us not dealing with illness, housing or work problems, have the opportunity to pause and understand what’s needed and what’s redundant. We can, and should, choose to act responsibly the next time we design something.
I find similarities between Rams’ philosophy of work and the Design Thinking iterative process. In both cases, it’s paramount to understand the users’ needs and define the problem we’re trying to solve.
Design Thinking promotes collaboration between people with different skills and backgrounds as the only effective way to think outside the box and spark innovation.
At the beginning of the documentary, we see a student asking Rams how to overcome mediocrity in industrial design. His answer is to collaborate with the right people. The ones who can think beyond their daily duties. The ones who ask “what will our society look like in the future?”
Rams’ suggestion is all about taking into consideration what we produce, how it fits into our society, and how it could shape it. We don’t need things to be beautiful; we need them to be better.
It brings us back to Rams’ desire to be a landscape architect: looking at the bigger picture, we can fix problems effectively. To quote him: “If you want to fix traffic, start with the landscape, not the design of a machine”.
I believe that anyone can apply this way of thinking. We are now aware of how we are all connected; our actions and choices influence our family, neighbours and society for better or worse. Whatever our jobs or roles, we should think about the consequences of what we do, and strive for better.
Rams is a documentary by Gary Hustwit. You can watch it here.
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