August 12, 2019

Dieter Rams is best known for the products he created at Braun. Search his name
on Google images, and you’ll see radios, lighters, clocks and record players.
Many are in permanent collections of art galleries around the world and are
considered design classics.

While these household objects are his most celebrated creations, he designed
some quite ubiquitous products that he rarely gets credit for.

Braun SK 5Braun SK 5, also known as Snow White’s coffin·
Photo Credit:

While watching the San Francisco screening of Gary Hustwit’s
Rams, I noticed a razor laying on his desk.

As soon as I saw it, my mind filled with thoughts: “That razor must be something
Dieter designed. It’s obvious he penned it!”, “I didn’t know he designed cheap
things like razors.”, “I think my dad had one of those.”

When I went home from the screening, I found out it’s the Gillette Sensor
from 1990. I started my research online and found surprisingly very little about
its design and inception. There has been plenty written about the hundreds of
millions of dollars Gillette spent developing and marketing it and the billions
of dollars it made selling it. Surprisingly little-to-nothing has been written
about who designed it.

What little I did find was a passing mention in a Wired article from 15 years

“Surprisingly, one of the shelves holds rows of Gillette safety razors and Oral-B toothbrushes. These familiar objects are among the least known but most ubiquitous of Rams’ designs – the razor was only recently discontinued, and the toothbrush was his best-selling product. They were both designed for Gillette shortly after the American giant acquired Braun in 1967.” [1]

The arrival of the Gillette Sensor

In 1967, Gillette, the American company that had cemented itself as an unrivaled
purveyor of cheap, disposable razors and pens, acquired Braun, the smaller
German manufacturer of home appliances. Over decades, Dieter Rams and the rest
of the design team at Braun built its reputation for timelessly designed

Later, in the 70s, Gillette was the leader in the shaving space, specifically in
market share of the then-growing, disposable razor segment. However, in the 80s,
Gillette starting to see the warning signs of a looming slowdown. Sales of
less-profitable disposable razors started displacing cartridge razors.

“The trouble is that there is little profit in the quick-to-the-trash-can razors. They were expensive to make. Moreover, growth in unit sales of disposables has slowed in the last three years to 1 percent or 2 percent a year, and dollar sales have been flat, if not even declining slightly.

‘If the whole marketplace all of a sudden converted to disposable razors,’ said
John W. Symons, the president of Gillette’s North Atlantic Shaving Group, ‘then
you’d see a serious, serious decline in the shaving business.’”

To combat the potential slowdown, it launched a ten-year effort and spent
hundreds of millions of dollars to design its next shaver. The Sensor launched
with plenty of fanfare. Gillette aired a Super Bowl advertisement and filled the
pages of many magazines with advertisements.

Even though Gillette spent hundreds of millions on the marketing, the execution
wasn’t up-to-par with the quality of the industrial design of the Sensor. I’ve
pointed out just a few of the multitude problems that exist with the magazine
advertisement below.

The vast difference between the quality of the advertisement and the product it
features is proof of how little Gillette’s leadership valued design. Unlike
Braun before the acquisition, Gillette was a company concerned with profits
first and foremost.

The Sensor in Hand

Even though Gillette discontinued the original Sensor handle more than ten years
ago, compatible Sensor cartridges and redesigned handles are still on sale.

I didn’t want a new handle, though. After some searching online, I found an

At first glance, it has the telltale signs of something penned by Dieter —
something conforming to his
Ten Principles for Good Design.
The most apparent principle that it, like most of Dieter’s work, represents is
the third.

“Good design is aesthetic

The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because
products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only
well-executed objects can be beautiful.”

The handle is a rounded cylinder with a series of semi-circular rubber grips
along its length. They serve an essential purpose — making a wet handle easy to
hold onto — but also contribute to its aesthetic balance.

The buttons used to disengage the cartridge are set apart from the handle with a
black border. The ridged surface makes it instinctually obvious that they are
meant to be pushed. They are an ideal example of principle number four.

“Good design makes a product understandable

It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product
talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.”

The buttons are delightfully tactile and have the right amount of resistance. I
couldn’t think of them working any other way. The mechanism they control is
ingeniously designed. Two clips both hold the cartridge to the handle and allow
it to rotate.

It may be made of injection-molded plastic and stamped metal. However, there is
a feeling of heft and quality that would be expected from something handmade and
expensive, not from an object that is mass-produced and affordable.

The Sensor would never be mistaken for something disposable. Simultaneously, it
doesn’t scream out or draw any more attention than it deserves, conforming to
principle five.

“Good design 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.”

I tried using the Sensor with a new cartridge. While it didn’t provide as close
of a shave as modern razors, it was nearly there. I suspect that an improved
cartridge could provide a smoother shave.

The only unsightly characteristic is the prominent Gillette logo. That has a
good explanation.

Dieter was famous for resisting higher-ups in Braun when they insisted that
their products should have prominent logos on them. Dieter would instead include
a small Braun logo on the back or in another unobtrusive manner such as aligning
it with other visual elements.

The logo on this Braun RT 20 is
aligned with its controls · Photo Credit:

The presence of such a large Gillette logo on the Sensor is a symptom of Dieter
no longer having the final say in his designs.

“Rams and his five designers are getting more work from Gillette. Its new Sensor razor bears their imprint — though Rams hates the U. S. changes to his design, including a prominent nameplate.”

I can only imagine what Dieter’s first proposals looked like before being
modified to include the logo.

Progress Since the Sensor

Compared to what came before it, the Sensor is, according to Dieter’s
principles, better designed.

It also successfully fought against the tide of completely disposable razors and
became a commercial success. That success propelled Gillette to more profits and
an even more commanding lead in the shaving market.

Fast forward two decades and Gillette is still a major contender. We have even
more model lines and even more blades per cartridge. However, have we made

Place it next to a modern Gillette Fusion razor, and it’s difficult to believe
that they come from the same brand. Current Gillette products are made with
thoughtless curves and arbitrary colors. They are in clear violation of Dieter’s
tenth principle.

“Good design 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.”

The Fusion is so ugly that I hide it in a cabinet. Why must a razor scream for
so much attention? The Sensor, on the other hand, could be placed out on a
bathroom countertop and quietly blend in when not in use.

The Sensor doesn’t seek more
attention than it deserves · Photo Credit:
Michael Dant

Let’s say Gillette was to do some soul searching and go back to the magical
design of the Sensor. I’d still have one significant doubt, namely, the blades.

The Sensor may be a beautiful, well-designed object. However, it is at its core
built around a damaging model. The concept perhaps made perfect sense in the
early 90s. Customers come for the well-made handle, and then the company has a
recurring revenue stream because of disposable cartridges.

Today though, it’s clear that this model violates Dieter’s ninth principle.

“Good design 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.”

Each cartridge may be small, but at the scale at which Gillette produces them,
the impact is immense. These cartridges find themselves in landfills, never
biodegrading, and returning to the environment.

It’s a classic case of the tragedy of the commons. No one owns the environment,
so no individual player is incentivized to devise a way to create razors with
less environmental impact. Cartridges are affordable because of a mispriced
externality, the environment, isn’t factored into the cost.

What would Dieter think today?

I wish I could ask Dieter what he thinks of the Gillette Sensor today. It’s one
of his most ubiquitous designs. Yet, he is seldom credited for it. It was
tremendously successful for Gillette, but it has also likely has had an equally
tremendous impact on the environment.

In Rams, Dieter said that he is so concerned about the environmental impact of
design that he wouldn’t even be a designer if he were to start again today.

Dieter in 1990 · Photo

I wonder if he regrets creating disposable toothbrushes, pens, and razors at
Gillette. Braun never explored the profitable model of disposables. Its products
designed during Dieter’s tenure only require replacement parts when they

Many of its products, like clocks, calculators, and juicers, have not been
improved upon in the decades since their release. They don’t need improvement.
They truly are timeless.

While the Sensor is beautifully designed, the waste it creates makes it and
other razors like it, products that deserve reinvention.

The people of today understand environmental-impact. As Apple says on
its minisite about the environment, “Truly innovative products leave their mark
on the world instead of the planet.”

Respecting the environment is not just right; it can bolster a brand as it does
for Apple. In the long term, this will lead to business success.

So, if Dieter were to design a new razor today, how would he go about it?

Thanks to Q for reading drafts of this.