This is the second article in my series looking at Dieter Rams's Ten Commandments of Design. Read the introduction and the first article.
Rams's second principle of good design is that it 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 emphasises the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.''Usefulness' is, in a sense, too simple a term to capture the nuance of use; it is a term from another age. It cannot hope to imply the multiple interests now at stake in a piece of design. Branding has, in many ways, replaced usefulness as a criterion for successful design. The values or emotions created by a design are now more important than their utility.
Sneakers are a prime example. What is the best sneaker? The one that is most comfortable? The one that is best for your feet? The most durable or weather-resistant? All of these questions are beside the point of sneaker design.
The best sneaker is the most desirable, gives a positive branding to the wearer. The usefulness of the sneaker comes from its ability to reflect consumer identity. This usefulness is not necessarily in the best interest of the consumer; although it is certainly in the interest of sneaker manufacturers.
Much design is, in fact useless. It is neither integral to the product nor does it enhance it in any tangible way, but rather furthers the product's brand in some way. This is the molding of emotional content, but it is far away from what we think of as design, where form serves function.