Dieter Rams, Spring 2013 commencement speaker and recipient of an honorary doctorate from ArtCenter.

Dieter Rams Urges Graduates Toward Responsible Design Ethos

“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,” Dieter Rams told graduating ArtCenter students during the 2013 Spring graduation ceremony on April 20.

Generations of designers have been inspired by Rams’ work. As chief of design at Braun from 1961 until retiring in 1997, Rams was responsible for innovative design in radios, record players, watches, coffee makers, shavers and other objects that continue to influence functionality and aesthetics in many of today’s most popular products. Apple's head designer Jonathan Ive said Apple products could be seen as an homage to Rams, who created “surfaces that were without apology, bold, pure, perfectly proportioned, coherent and effortless.”

There is a very urgent and necessary need to minimize the physical and visual pollution,” said Rams. “It makes a huge difference if we use our products for one year, five years or 10.

In a large white tent under clear and sunny skies, Rams was warmly introduced by Product Design Chair Karen Hofmann (BS 97 Product) and accepted an honorary doctorate of arts from ArtCenter President Lorne M. Buchman. In his address, delivered in German and translated live by an interpreter, Rams thoughtfully reflected on his past, sharing lessons gleaned over a long and influential career as both a designer and an educator, while also voicing concerns about the future.

“Today’s main challenges are the protection of the natural environment and overcoming mindless consumption,” he said, urging graduates toward “a design ethos that goes way beyond complacency and arbitrariness.”

For Rams, the very meaning of design is at stake. “The word ‘design’ is increasingly associated with a growth-oriented consumer society,” he observed. “Instead of being degraded to a lifestyle term, I wish for [it] to stand for something that really helps human beings come to grips with our world, to get along with each other and also to better our environment. We want to contribute to the preservation of this planet. In addition, there is a very urgent and necessary need to minimize the physical and visual pollution. It makes a huge difference if we use our products for one year, five years or 10. That’s why we need less and less products whose manufacture or use squanders resources or whose existence harms the environment.”

Good design, he reiterated, is as little design as possible. “We want to go back to the pure and to the simple. And simplicity is the key to brilliance.”

He presented five essential dimensions of design—functional, communicative, aesthetic, temporal and ecological—along with his formula for sustainable production: “Less but better! Much, much less, and much, much better.“

And he concluded with the famous precept attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “We must be the change we want to see in the world.”