— Dieter Rams, Ten principles for good design
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.
— Vitsœ expanding on their former designer’s minimalist statement
Honest design is tricky to define. Dieter Rams doesn’t elaborate, as is his style. His objects explain what he meant, and hopefully mine do too, but minimalist statements may not make my thesis readers happy. In this context, it’s not about ethics. So what is an honest object?
It is what you think it is. Its form and materials indicate its nature. Well-defined affordances indicate functionality clearly. A streamlined car indicates its mobility; a streamlined pencil sharpener does not. Chrome is a fine finish for a metal bumper; plastic utensils with a chrome finish are a lie. 1
It does what you think it does. Interactions are as much a part of honesty as materials are. Something that looks like a dial or button should turn or depress, and you should understand the effect of that action. Exposed hinges let you know how an object operates. Don Norman’s famous example — the handle or push plate indicate which way the door swings.
Braun SK4 record player, 1954. Pioneered the transparent cover when other gramophones were made to look like furniture.
Good design does use white lies to serve a greater purpose. Learning from Rams’ electronics designs for Braun, Apple’s product design has become monolithic (you may know it by its marketing term, unibody) to belie the complexity within. Because humans cannot perceive circuitry in operation, electronics must abstract their functions to “access the Web” or “play records,” while retaining the transparency in interface.
The iPad feels like a solid element, like there’s no machinery inside. The story that Apple is suggesting, that Braun electronics suggest, is that it really is that simple. This is a tightrope: The whole experience has to support the design story for it to be believable. That’s all an honest object is — an object that you perceive as having a consistent model of interaction.
Noted by my friend Jordan.