Rams – documentary by Gary Hustwit

Braun T3

One of the treasures of my digital movie collection is Helvetica, Gary Hustwit’s documentary about the world’s most ubiquitous (and my second least favourite) typeface. So when, a few years ago now, I saw the publicity for a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary about Dieter Rams, the influential product designer, I signed up.

Last week, I finally got a secret code that enabled me to watch it.

Rams was born Weisbaden, Germany in 1932, and studied architecture in the period of post-war reconstruction. You can see in his work and the others he worked with the influence of Bauhaus: that no-frills, clean lines philosophy that still has such a hold over our modern world. In 1955, he was recruited by Braun, the German consumer electronics company, and he remained their chief design officer from 1961 to 1995, when the   company was sold (to his chagrin) to Gillette.

All I really knew about Rams when I signed up was that he was a key influence for Jonathan Ive; there’s a clear line between the Braun T3 radio and the original iPod. His designs for record players, music systems and radios still take your breath away. Braun were a but like Philips: not just music systems but mixers and shavers. And Rams wasn’t solely responsible for many of their iconic designs: he had a talented team around him, but he nevertheless became the public face of their design philosophy.

And of course, philosophy is why we came. At the beginning of the documentary, Rams is shown fielding questions from aspirational designers and others, one of whom seems asks him about automotive design. Rams shrugs off the question: no particular interest: all the car industry ever wanted was to make things go faster and we don’t need cars to go faster. “What about Tesla?” he’s asked. “Aren’t they trying interesting things?”

Tesla is something of a shibboleth for me. If you’re the kind of person who thinks Teslas are cool, you go down in my estimation. Their huge, shitty, expensive cars are just another way that the rich have of shitting on the poor, and they’re a perfect example of making something that can go unnecessarily fast, solving problems that aren’t the problems our society needs to solve. 

Once again, Rams shrugged off the question. Tesla isn’t doing interesting things, he said. We need to be thinking about what transportation needs to be. What will transport look like in 50 years?

As well as consumer electronics, Rams applied his architectural training to home furnishings, and you can find designs he created in 1960 still for sale by furniture company Vitsoe. Hand crafted, modular furniture that you can keep adding to. You can start with a single (astonishingly expensive) chair and then add another to make a sofa when you can afford it. Or a small shelf unit that can grow with your requirements. I like this kind of modern stuff, but it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste.

What I found interesting about the film was that, while Rams’ influence on Jony Ive was mentioned early on, Ive himself doesn’t appear, and Rams makes no comment on Apple’s work. But there is an implied criticism made of excessive consumerism, the inherent wastefulness of insisting on new designs every year, and the ways in which the digital is taking over. He speaks of how sad it is that people walk around with their faces pressed to their screens these days. In not so many words, then, Apple and Jony Ive get short shrift.

While I’d have liked the film to have dwelled more on some of the Braun designs (the lovely watches didn’t even get a mention), it is (probably rightly) more interested in the man himself and his principles, and his slightly grumpy take on the modern world he helped to create.


32 Short Films About Cycling Stuff


  1. It says a lot about my Shimano commuting cycling shoes (http://amzn.eu/24kXhZ0) that I sometimes don’t take them off for an hour or so after arriving home. This is the first shoe/pedal combination that hasn’t left my feet screaming agony after a 10-mile ride.
  2. Maybe the pedal-assist electric bike is a help with that, but well done Shimano for making a shoe that’s both comfortable on the bike and comfortable to walk in.
  3. One of the things I love about my Kalkhoff Integrale Limited Edition is that it is (until the next time I buy the very latest iPhone model) pretty much State of the Art as far as its category of things (electric commuter bicycles) go. To whit:
  4. The carbon belt drive, which means no chain, no oil, no ruined work trousers.
  5. The low-maintenance hub gears.
  6. The combination of smart battery, motor, computer, bluetooth linked app.
  7. The battery integrated into the downtube.
  8. The integrated lights, with smart ‘parking’ feature for safety first.transparent_csm_kh16_integrale_ltd_white_updated_eb74974ee4_34cb567afb
  9. My one continuing qualm about the bike is its weight, which there is no getting away from. The truth is, I blast through the 16 mph assistance limit pretty easily, but then my legs are pushing along an absolute beast of a bike.
  10. Momentary sideways instability, as I discovered, can quickly result in a spill. Hurt my ankle in September (?) and I still can’t run on it.
  11. If I could have a word with my past self, I would advise him to get the size below. At 1.83 metres, I’m borderline between Medium and Large, and the Medium would have been a bit lighter.
  12. You live and learn.
  13. I’ve deleted Strava, Cyclemeter, etc. and have stopped measuring time, distance, speed – even when I’m on my normal road bike.
  14. Partly it was to do with the electric bike – it was trivially easy to get into the top ten for the KoM on some Strava segments.
  15. Which was funny for a while.
  16. But in the end, it’s an empty achievement and I don’t care.
  17. More importantly, I want to just ride the bike and be in the moment, not worrying about how far and how fast and challenging myself and pushing myself.
  18. A lot of people enjoy this, I know.
  19. I don’t, though.
  20. Is this what they call mindfulness?
  21. Anyway, riding between fields of rape and enjoying the feeling of being immersed in yellow and feeling the slight warming of the air coming off those fields, that’s where I want to be.
  22. I don’t think people who use Strava are bad people.
  23. But being the loner I am, the idea that I’m stacking up all these stats is kind of pointless. I don’t care about myself, and I don’t know anybody who would be remotely interested to hear my average speed for a ride.
  24. My cycling shoes, the comfortable ones, are a size bigger than my normal shoe size.
  25. It’s a compromise.
  26. Actually, I have odd-size feet, which means that one of the shoes is two sizes too big.
  27. But here’s the thing. It’s almost a universal rule that cycling gear is too small for normal people. You always have to buy a size bigger than you think you need.
  28. So if you’re an L for a t-shirt or shirt, you need the XL.
  29. If you are an XL, you need the XXL.
  30. But here’s the other thing.
  31. Many cycling gear manufacturers don’t do the XXL.
  32. Which is why I look ridiculous on my bike.

Designing a cover for The Obald.

The Obald is available for Kindle (and in paperback form from CreateSpace – although that’s an expensive option, because the CreateSpace costs balloon as page counts increase). By the way, it’s not that I’ve written two novels in a couple of months, but that I wrote this one four years ago and inexplicably forgot about it. Over the Easter holiday, I fired it up and polished it off. If it has a genre (and it’s hard to say that I can properly write genre – much as I’d love to), it’s slightly more science fictiony and espionagy than French Blood, which is a bit more murdery and mystery.

The cover of The Obald can be seen on the right:

The Obald 2014 cover
The Obald 2014 cover

I designed it relatively quickly, using Pixelmator, which is all I have now that I no longer work in an environment where Photoshop is freely available (I do have Photoshop at work, but I obviously do this kind of personal stuff at home). I was just messing around with ideas, trying to come up with something abstract and simple, and I hit upon the idea of cogs (as in ‘the works’ or clockwork, or time) and an eye (as in surveillance). It came together very serendipitously, and although I could have worked longer on it and tweaked it some more, I kind of like the way it turned out as an original concept, and decided to go with it. The original, by the way, was on a white background. As I do so often, I just inverted the image to get the final design. I usually find that the inverted version works better! (See left for original design.)

the obald try 3

It’s very hard to say something meaningful about a book with a cover, and in this case, I think it works. The book involves a bit of time travel, a bit of spying/surveillance, and a bit of dystopian lid-lifting. It’s also something of a romance, though of course men aren’t supposed to admit to writing romance.

It was originally written four years ago, at which time I also experimented with some cover designs. Here are some of the others I came up with.

The first is a stark white background with a London Underground-style original obald covernameplate and the words “a novel”. The author’s name was originally done, like the title, in Johnston Underground, but here it’s in the similar Gill Sans. I then developed this idea further into the eventual proof paperback copy I had printed at CreateSpace, which I did in Illustrator, with a more complex scribbly background, using some of the ornament glyphs from the Johnston Underground family.


I quite like it, still, but grew concerned I’d get hassled by London Transport for taking their corporate identity in vain. If you read the book (and why not, at £1.02?), you’ll get the Underground connection, but it’s less significant in the 2014 version of this novel than it was in the original 1983 version. In the end, I think my final design (the one at the top) works better.

But wait! There are still more designs that I tried and rejected.

obald_coverThe worst of them uses a photo with some terribly amateur perspective applied to the text, and a font called Sinzano, which I purchased, but decided not to use. At the time, I was trying for something simple and effective. This is simple, but not effective. I then tried to do something using the Scrivener software I used to write the book.


I still quite like this one (left). I like the idea of a cork board and various graphics which bear some relation to the plot.

Finally (!), there’s one more design which didn’t make the cut. This last one was me trying to do something “classic”. The font you need for this kind of thing is Univers, which I don’t currently have installed, so (because I didn’t keep a JPEG of the original), it has been re-rendered today using a different font. If you know your book design, you’ll know what I was trying to do with this.obald cover 2

I still quite like it. You’ll note that it evokes the idea of surveillance quite successfully, but says nothing else about the story. And anyway, it’s masquerading as non-fiction by ripping off the Pelican design.

So, I’m happy with the one I went with, but have a fondness for a couple of the others. I won’t ask you to vote on these, because the decision has already been made.

(If you do read the book, I’d appreciate a review posted to Amazon. I think books with reviews stand more of a chance.)