The Power of Restraint, Redux

by David Heitman

In an earlier blog post, we looked at the importance of showing restraint in marketing. Saying less, not more. Standing for one thing rather than a dozen. It is the marketing equivalent of a individual whose personal gravitas and authenticity can’t help but be noticed the minute they walk into the room, even as he or she says very little.

One dimension of marketing where restraint is crucial is design. An ever increasing emphasis on design is all around us. We live in a design-savvy world where Michael Graves toasters can be purchased at Target and where the credits after a movie are cinematic works of art. The temptation for marketers and artists is to over-design things. To try to do too much.

That’s why I was so impressed by a man whose body of work expresses this restraint in design, Dieter Rams.

Though he was a product designer, his 10 Principles of Product Design apply to the design of a everything from a logo or website to an entire ad campaign. Good design, according to Rams:

  • 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.
  • Makes a product useful – A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.
  • Is aesthetic – The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.
  • Makes a product understandable – It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Is thorough down to the last detail – Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.
  • 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.
  • 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.

These are words of restraint and confidence. They speak to that wonderful virtue of simplicity. It’s why, when I’d use the dinner table as an uncompensated focus group, my wife and young kids could immediately pick out the best logos when I came home with a stack of art boards.

The greatest teachers, coaches and organizational leaders have this simplicity thing down cold. It’s why many of the greatest political and social leaders made an impact while they lived, and why they are remembered when they die. They demonstrate how you can be passionate about what you want to communicate while showing the restraint required to move people to really listen.

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