Art Center College of Design Graduation Address, 2013

Dieter Rams urges graduates toward a responsible design ethos

Last Saturday was a typical spring day in Pasadena. The sky was clear, the sun was shining, and a dry 90-degree heat was whipping up a brushfire in nearby Monrovia. But underneath a large white tent on Art Center College of Design’s Hillside Campus the graduating class of 2013 was fired up by a different force of nature. Dieter Rams was in the house. Rams, the legendary industrial designer who spent three decades heading up design for the German company Braun is the man responsible for the creation of a wide range of iconic devices, including the ET22 Calculator, the T41 Radio, and the SK4 Music Center. He was here to receive an honorary doctorate of arts from the college and to deliver the graduation address.

Mark Breitenberg, special assistant to the president, looks on as a fan waits for an autograph from Dieter Rams

The excitement on campus was palpable, with many alumni returning to their alma mater just to hear what the man behind the “less, but better” approach and the “back to purity, back to simplicity” philosophy had to say to the newest generation of artists and designers. After being introduced by Karen Hofmann, chair of the college’s Product Design Department, as “a legend in the industrial design field and a design hero to many in the audience,” Rams delivered his address in his native German, which was translated live by an English-language interpreter. His address was equal parts cautionary, reflective, hopeful and forward-looking.

Dieter Rams delivers the keynote address at the Spring Term 2013 Art Center College of Design Graduation ceremony to a crowd of  approximately 1,500 including 134 graduates.

“Tomorrow’s world will be designed by the design students of today—by you—and while this is a great opportunity, this is also a great challenge and a great responsibility,” Rams told the assembled audience. He then explained why the protection of the natural environment, overcoming mindless consumption, and adopting a design ethos that “goes way beyond complacency and arbitrariness” are the main challenges facing today’s designers.

Dieter Rams urges graduates toward a responsible design ethos.

Rams presented his five dimensions that are essential to design—the functional, the communicative, the aesthetic, the temporal, and the ecological—and used them as a jumping off point to share his thoughts on pitfalls that designers must eschew and urged the graduates to be mindful of the products they introduce to the world. Among the highlights: On built-in obsolescence: “That’s really a deliberate waste of money, of materials, of energy and time. Developing products nobody needs is often easier and quicker than developing products we actually need.” On the mere appearance of functionality: “It has become easier for clever designers to create illusions with design … We must not allow ourselves to exploit the manipulative potential of design.” On the environmental impact of products: “Many of today’s products are often bought at a high price to the environment, but they are of little use. They don’t last long. They don’t age gracefully. They are so wrong that it is difficult to remain on good terms with them.” On a product’s ability to shape our mood and atmosphere: “We are surrounded by a seemingly unlimited supply of products that is not exhilarating in its diversity but chaotic, exhausting, and even paralyzing in its excess.” Rams wrapped up his address by emphasizing the important role that companies and entrepreneurs play in bringing good design to light, pointing out the examples of Peter Behrens and Emil Rathenau early in the 20th century; Adriano Olivetti with Marcello Nizzoli, Mario Bellini, and Ettore Sottsass in the mid-’50s; his own relationship with the Braun brothers and Niels Wise Vitsœ in the ’50s; and, more recently, Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive at the turn of the millennium. He also argued that competition today is evolving from competition between products towards a competition that involves communication, utility and sustainability—and that means honesty will continue to be the best policy. “Consumers will be more critical in the future of the corporate philosophies and aesthetics that are behind the brands,” Rams said. “The credibility of a brand will depend on its real, qualitative, and useful content and not on its media-projected image.”

Photos by Art Center College of Design/John Dlugolecki

Mike Winder is a senior writer at Art Center College of Design. His work appears in the college’s Dotted Line blog and Dot Magazine. He has worked as a communications specialist at the J. Paul Getty Trust and has  written for the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles CityBeat and LA Alternative.

Recent Programs