Masters of Principle

Is your design good? How can you be sure?

by Robert Nieminen

Every designer has a vision, but assessing its value can be difficult in a field that is so subjective on the surface. In order to critique, learn, and grow as a designer, there needs to be a foundation to measure against.

We begin below with some of the most iconic sets of design principles of the 20th century from Dieter Rams. His ideas have gotten closer to the platonic heart of “good design” than few designers before or since, but along with the universal ideal, exploring individual tenets can be just as rich and insightful. Many designers will spend their entire career honing a personalized approach that helps define their own universe of design—and there is much to be learned when we compare ideas.

To do just that, we picked the brains of a handful of designers from diverse backgrounds including fashion, film, photography, and art, as well as industrial and interior design, to see what they have to say about modern principles driving their own work. The four designers that follow present a wide range of perspectives—and leave ample room for debate. It is here, in between the ideas that conflict with our own, that we can put our stance to the test, reflect on how we might improve, and hopefully get one step closer to a personal universal “good” in design.

Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles of Design

Dieter Rams is one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. A minimalist, functionalist, and protégé of the Ulm School of Design in Germany, Rams has created innumerable iconic works since he began his career in the 1950s. Case in point: the iOS calculator is based off of Rams’ 1987 Braun ET 66 calculator.

Jhane Barnes
Owner/ Founder, Jhane Barnes Inc.

Background: I started my fashion design company 39 years ago when I was 21. I left Maryland to attend FIT in NYC, and after getting rave reviews at the FIT year-end fashion show, I borrowed $5,000 from a professor to start my company.

Kevin Walz
Principal, Walzworkinc

Background: I studied fine arts at Pratt Institute and the New York Studio School while I continued to make art. I had a need to design a raw 4,000-square-foot loft my wife and I purchased in 1976, so I taught myself to design interior spaces.

Adam Jackson Pollock
President & Director, Fire Farm Lighting

Background: I originally became interested in light and space through photography. My father is an accomplished image-maker and architect, and my mother is an artist as well.

June Grant
Director of Design, Steinberg Architects

Background: I must have been five or so when I became glued to the window of life. We live our lives surrounded with one constant—change. Fascinated by construction sites, accumulating yesterday’s completions until one day, the result of much effort and materials, something is created … and delivered.

Bryan Collins
Art Director, Unvisible

Background: Like many designers of my generation I was deeply inspired by music packaging, skateboarding culture, MTV's 120 minutes, David Carson, the designers Republic, Tomato, V23, and so on.

Ty Parr
Co-Founder, Chief Designer, and Builder at True Emporium

Background: I was an artist my whole life growing up, and went to school for fine arts. At some point I actually started building boats. (I’m from Maine.) When you work on boats you work with a lot of different materials, so there are a vast number of disciplines that are involved.

Julie Baird
Senior Designer, PacifiCrest

Background: My background is textile design. I studied textile design at Philadelphia University. In high school I took a textiles-based art class and fell in love with an art form called batik. Fueled by this passion, my artwork went on to win several awards at the state level.

Chris Stulpin
Creative Director, Mohawk Group

Background: One of my first jobs was in visual merchandising when I was in high school. It was that experience that guided me to my first job in New York City working as a materials expert for a design firm specializing in retail.