Dieter Rams And The Art Of Immersive Design

by Uriah Findley and Anthony Rocco of Foma Labs

For such “out of the box thinkers” as we immersive designers consider ourselves to be, it’s very easy to take a break-all-the-rules mentality when approaching our projects. And to be sure, that mindset can be a strength for pushing into new territories of art and design. But in the same way that the best rules breakers know the established rules inside and out, it’s valuable and arguably essential that we take into consideration the base rules of design when creating immersive experiences. And for those principles, we turn to one of the most important industrial designers of the 20th century, Dieter Rams.

Let’s examine how each of Rams’ “Ten Principles For Good Design” apply to immersive design.

Good Design is Innovative: The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

In immersive design, it’s fun to make expected actions cause unexpected results. These are great opportunities for applying innovation to established designs. When you see a crank music box, most everyone knows how to make it turn out music. What if it also opened a locked cabinet? A closed book on a lectern begs to be opened — and maybe once it does, audio and video are triggered tells you the story. These are examples of innovative design.

From the more holistic perspective, it’s easy to look at something we really love, make something exactly like it, and then look at what we’ve made and call it good. However, it’s the elaboration on that inspiration that makes a truly good design. Always try to answer the question, “What sets my work apart?”

The great thing about innovation in both these cases is that it doesn’t require you to reinvent the lightbulb — instead, you’re challenged to find a new design, or maybe a new way to use it. Putting together known parts into previously unknown configurations is a great way to innovate. It could probably be argued, in fact, that this is the base notion of the entire field of immersive design: known parts combined in previously known ways.

Good Design makes a product useful: Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

Every part of your design should contribute to the goal, not distract from it. Set pieces that perform no function beyond atmosphere setting are always appropriate. However, when they beg to be engaged with but perform no actual design function, they become a distraction.

When translating this to our field in general, we should consider if our experience is useful to the participants or community at large. Let’s take a minute to consider what usefulness is when talking about our lives. Usefulness can span the spectrum from intellectual learning or skill building, to rich emotional experiences or expanded connectedness.

Good design is aesthetic: The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

Let’s not focus this principle on the experience’s content aesthetic, that is, as with all art, subjective. John Cage’s music is no less aesthetically pleasing than Danzig’s to the fans of either. The focus here is on the phrase well-executed, and so this principle is almost an afterthought for consideration. If the experience is well-executed, then it will be aesthetic, whether the experience was purposefully cacophonous or harmonious.

Good design makes a product understandable: It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.

This one is the hardest to achieve and the most important for which to strive. The mantra, “self-explanatory” should always be the goal. Now that doesn’t mean that instructions are not a part of the design. Good instructions are one with the design. The simplest example we often use is this: a door plate asks to be pushed and a knob or handle asks to be pulled. The most aesthetically charming design in the world will quickly lose its appeal as soon as it proves needlessly difficult to use.

Zooming out… Remember to ask the core questions early and often. Is it clear how to begin your experience right out of the gate? Is it clear when it has ended? Once a certain step is complete, is it reasonably clear when and how to move on to the next one? The strongest designs flow organically in ways that make intuitive sense to the user.

Good design is unobtrusive: Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

In immersive design, objects and environments create the world, so the aesthetics actually ARE serving a very specific communicative function. The issue we’ll focus on here is obtrusiveness. An Arco floor lamp is a beautifully designed and minimal object that is unobtrusive in itself, but if you force it into a Victorian-styled room, it instantly becomes obtrusive to the overall design. Unless, of course, the intention is for the participant to specifically notice and engage the out-of-place item, which they WILL do with all things that seem out of place.

When thinking about experience as whole, we don’t want to use this principle to suggest that experience must be overly subtle, opaque, or even secret for it to be any good. To focus on the end phrase, “leave room for the user’s self-expression.” This is suggesting that a well-designed experience creates enough room that any person from any walk of life can step into it and find a way to have their own worthwhile experience.

Good design is honest: It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

In the spirit of this one, let’s be honest with ourselves. As you lead participants through an experience, there is no need for dishonesty. Obfuscating some details for narrative purposes is part of good storytelling, of course, but directly lying for the sake of a plot twist is no good. Red herrings that cause your participant to waste time, energy, and goodwill are not an honest way create depth. Though exceptions probably exist somewhere, we’re just going to say it here: red herrings are bad design.

And as far as the nature of the entire experience itself — be honest about what it is. If it is an intimate, meditative excursion, prime people for that experience. If it’s just very fun advertising, be very honest about that and let it be what it is. Don’t lead people to think they are getting a super secret message, just to give them an ad for Ovaltine, and send them on their way. This is not to say that immersive design for advertising or brand identity or awareness is an inherently bad thing, but if it’s trying to hide what it is, it’s being dishonest.

Good design is long-lasting: It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years — even in today’s throwaway society.

If you had designed an immersive experience for Google Glass, you would be very disappointed today to find that no one could engage your experience anymore. Those were fashionable for a short while, then very quickly became VERY unfashionable, and now are all but dead. What is in today could go away quicker than you might think. It’s hard to spot these things ahead of time, so be smart about how designs will age, both the individual elements within environments (from physical dead drops, to software that requires a very specific browser version), and the overall creation’s legacy.

Good design is thorough down to the last detail: Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process shows respect towards the user.

Read what it said again… Really; take a moment right now and read that statement once again.

Why is this part here? What about this one? Is everything someone might try to do here accounted for? Have we tested that? When engaged in the art of world building, it’s imperative that you line up and account for all the details. Assuming that people will not try to do a certain action with your design, and deciding that if they do they will simply be met with nothing, leaves “holes” in your world and doesn’t give due credit to the user.

Good design is environmentally-friendly: Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

Before even thinking about the larger ecological implications of a design in materials and processes, take into consideration the IMMEDIATE environment around it. And by environment, we don’t just mean the natural world. Streets and neighborhoods are environments, too. As are cubicles, homes, the supermarket — all potential environments. Is this part noisy? Perhaps even a nuisance to the neighbors? Is the amount of traffic we’re creating going to disturb the locals, or possibly break the server? A good design lives in harmony with the environment around it, not in conflict with it.

The fashion designer Natalie Chanin gave a talk in New York where she stated that the future of fashion design was not what clothes looked like, but what they were made of, how they were made, and how you got them. Along with always striving for sound ecological practices, we encourage you to attempt to support your local community in any way you can with design and production process. Your local artists, designers, fabricators, and techies need interesting gigs!

Good design is as little design as possible: Less, but better — because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

We often trick ourselves into thinking that a design needs so many different things and moments, but the truth is that over design creates an excess of both of these, and that’s when things go awry. The simpler it is, the stronger the design. Period.

By learning and practicing these principles, we can be sure to make our designs solid at the base level. Furthermore, we can even begin to learn how to employ the occasional and conscientious “breaking” of one of these rules for maximum effect.

Want someone to notice an item in a room? Make it something that is obtrusive looking and seemingly out of place. Attempting to create an environment of absurdity or insanity? Build a door that opens to a wall. Attempting to create a meaningful, one time experience? Make sure that engaging with the experience ultimately “breaks” the mold, thus rendering one’s personal experience fleeting, therefore unique, precious, and truly special.

By ingraining these principles as part of your practice, you’ll create stronger foundations, and ultimately more satisfying and powerful designs. We return to them often because while trends come and go, the fundamental principles of good design never go out of style.

Foma Labs is dedicated to the art and science of experience

We are Uriah Findley and Anthony Rocco.


Edited by Kat Meler and Eleanor Thibeaux