After last week’s post, we’re straight back into the discussion of applying Dieter Rams’s 10 Principles of Good Design to guitar-making. Onto number 4!
4. Makes a product understandable.
Rams suggests that a product should require no further explanation past it’s appearance; it’s purpose and message should be clear without investigation. If Dieter Rams designed a guitar, perhaps, it would be a soundbox made from readily available materials, without ornamentation or inlay; see his ET 66 calculator for Braun (pictured) and you’ll get the idea. Here, Rams uses bold colour to indicate function; perhaps, if we transfer this to a guitar, key elements of the instrument might be indicated with use of bold colour; perhaps the tuning machines, the scratch plate, or the bridge. Forms may be more rectilinear as opposed to free flowing and organic. It’s an interesting thought experiment.
In the case of the acoustic guitar, we must also leave room for the fact it should serve in it’s own right as an aesthetically pleasing object. It should be both functional as a musical instrument, but within that design it must indicate value as an attractive addition to the room it sits within. This hybrid function complicates things, and for Rams perhaps the achievement of a minimalist functionality serves as it’s own breed of aesthetic triumph. Such thinking could perhaps been seen in Ken Parker’s archtops (see below)- there is nothing superfluous, everything is geared towards the performance of the machine; the story told by the materials and their application.
5. Is unobtrusive.
To be ‘unobtrusive’ is to be discreet, but also not to overpower. In the context of a responsive acoustic guitar, when thought about in terms of being a recording instrument, we must think about balance, an instrument that has a harmonious sound, and which doesn’t jar when set aside another instrument, voice or indeed when recorded solo.
According to Rams, a product that serves a function is merely a tool; never a work of art. For Rams, to embellish a guitar with ornamentation would be detrimental to the objective of it’s function; but what where does one draw the line at a ‘modest amount’ of sound?
6. Is honest.
With this principle, Rams suggests that good design does not attempt to make the product more valuable, impressive or innovative than it actually is. That is, there is no manipulation involved in terms of unrealistic expectations guaranteed without the promise of fulfilment.
We may take the concept of honesty one step further to actively display how the guitar is constructed. Some would argue that a sound port gives a player a more honest aural experience but it also gives them a more veracious insight into the construction of the instrument. When you can see exactly how an instrument has been constructed, there is nowhere to hide. The inside must be as beautiful as the outside.
There's holistic philosophy of honesty throughout, a pride taken on making every element perfect. Soundport or not, care bestowed upon parts of the guitar that will never be seen creates this thorough sense of honesty, such as mitred purling underneath a fingerboard; covered by subsequent components but nonetheless a part of a whole.
It's kind of like painting the back of a fence. Steve Jobs famously took such pride in the beauty of the inner workings of the original Apple Macintosh, and had the entire Macintosh team sign the inner casing. This was subsequently included into all the case forming machines. Michi Matsuda take this idea one step further and actively highlights the construction of the instrument, as can be seen here with the flying buttress style neck supports. It is reminiscent of Le Centre Pompidou in Paris or the clear engine cover on the Ferrari F40 that allows you to see it’s inner workings. This is product honesty at its finest.
With guitar making, so much of the process is now documented through forum build diaries and Instagram feeds, that honesty is at the forefront of what we do. There's only so much you can obscure with clever angles and filters. It's an honesty I really appreciate as it serves to drive the quality of work industry wide ever higher. When consumers are more informed than ever before, if you can’t be honest, you'll soon be discovered.
Next week, we’ll be discussing 7, 8, 9 and 10. Check back then, and we’d love to hear your thoughts in the meantime.