Everyday arithmetic looks and feels better with this classic calculator designed by Dieter Rams.
If we’re talking the intersection of finance, technology, and design, there is only one place to start: the abacus. A close second point of departure? The Braun ET66 calculator.
Minimalist to the core and thoroughly modern, this iconic design helped transition the handheld calculator into an everyday personal item. Today, it is a cult favorite for reasons beyond practical usage. Designers, aesthetes, and arithmetic agnostics alike sing its praises, often centering on the apparatus’ utilitarian, nostalgic, and tactile qualities as the basis for their adoration.
Designed by Dieter Rams and longtime collaborator Dietrich Lubs, the Braun calculator available for purchase today is a reissue of the 1987 ET66. An evolution of three earlier, collaborative designs, the ET66 is considered a pinnacle of Rams’ “less, but better” design philosophy.
An inspiration at Apple and elsewhere, the calculator features in the MoMA’s and Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collections — a testament to its influence on international design, as well as a testament to the influence of Rams in general, which is — by nature of the man himself — larger than life and understated all at once.
Viewers of Gary Hustwit’s 2018 documentary Rams quickly recognize just how unfazed the famed industrial designer is when it comes to the scale of his own influence. When asked about renewed admiration for his “Ten Principles of Good Design,” Rams expresses his continued hope for a world without unnecessary objects and overconsumption — in a sense beckoning people to finally and truly take these matters seriously. In many respects, the principles he enumerated in the late 1970s are more immediately important now than ever. This is not lost on him.
And apparently, nor is it lost on a large number of people who aim to lead minimalist lifestyles — a mode de vivre undoubtedly influenced by Rams’ “Ten Principles.” A growing population is eschewing pejorative stuff in favor of objects that function well and predictably, that stand the test of time — both physically and figuratively.
Despite this growing cultural desire for simplicity in the face of excess — and a renewed fascination for basic technology in the wake of overwhelmingly rapid technological development — it would be easy to make a predictable argument against an item as technologically “obsolete” as the ET66 calculator. It’s plastic; it’s poorly integrated; even 2021’s most rudimentary cell phones exceed its mathematical capability. In other words: it's another dinky object for another cluttered junk drawer.
The thing is, these assertions — valid or not — miss the point entirely. The ET66’s biggest selling points have nothing to do with 21st century expectations or advanced technology. It’s really about the simple pleasure of holding and using a simple object — an experience lost on many of us via touchscreens, smartphones, and general distance from the physical objects that surround us.
There is something satisfying about pressing on real, convex buttons — kind of like the under-appreciated pleasures of popping bubble wrap on purpose, or pressing “DIET,” “COLA,” and “OTHER” one after the other on a soft drink lid. The user is aware of every number because they must manually press it, thereby existing even infinitesimally closer to an abstract numerical concept than they would have otherwise — to the invisible, physical mechanics that dictate our universe.
Rather than present its users with a million means for distraction, this calculator — clean, complete, good down to the last detail — does not insist on its own presence or distract from the task at hand. Instead, it exists for the sole purpose of confirming that 12,654 divided by 50 equals 253.08, or that the square root of 869 is 29.49, rounded to the nearest tenth.
In this sense and by virtue of its streamlined design, the ET66 does not pretend to be more innovative, powerful, or knowledgable than it really is. On the contrary, its features (e.g., compactness, intuitive functions, slim size, and neatly separated keys) act like shows of respect for the user, whose life does not need to become unnecessarily complicated just because the world says it should or can.
From a more philosophical standpoint, this calculator serves as a perfectly functional reminder that we have — over a very short period of time — become increasingly distanced from our physical reality: less aware of what we buy and why; less involved with our purchases. Less aware of how and why we use them. Today, it’s become clear that society cannot afford to be as indifferent toward everyday items as it has been. Selectivity is now a scientifically based categorical imperative.
The Braun ET66, plus Rams’ design principles more generally, support a worldview wherein stewardship and thoughtfulness are non-negotiables. Concrete solutions to existential problems do not lie in this calculator. But philosophically, it — and objects like it — might offer symbolic insights into the issues of our time. Take one step back, though, and there’s the surface-level fact that the device feels inexplicably good to use — real, tangible, and present. This alone qualifies as sufficient reason to love it.
Made to spend.