Form ALWAYS Follows Function?

In a recent discussion (a positive way to say a “tongue-lashing”) with my boss, the idea of “Form Follows Function” came about. His background is very deep in ID (30+ yrs) but seems to be narrow minded in his approach to styling. There were aesthetic details that were in my designs that he said were useless because he said “Form should ALWAYS follow function.” (This was a styling re-design project). The question that I posed was that “if form ONLY followed funtion, then why are there styling details in products that have nothing to do with the function of the product, only to distinguish itself from others in the market?” I look at viewing the phrase “Form Follows Function” alot like the way different people view the bible. You can read it either literally or as a way to influence what you do but not dictate what you do.

How do you all feel about “Form Follows Function” and what is it’s influence on your designs?

tailfins, chrome tits and lace underwear (on the right woman) all non functional but a lot of fun.

tailfins, chrome tits and lace underwear (on the right woman) all non functional but a lot of fun.

I’ll pass along that comparison to him and let you know how it goes.

Just in case it doesn’t go over well…is anyone hiring?

I’ve just written a paper on this for uni.

My conclusion was that form follows function is not a golden rule, the reason ebing there are 3 scenarios in which a product is developed.

Styling - form follows function
concept- where form =function
concept - where function follows form

Styling is where for example functionaility has been engrained through the years i.e watches, keyboards

concept were form= function in my mind should always apply to any new product dvelopment

concept where function follows form is that tied into the automitve industry i.e the gorgeous sketches they do and then set about sorting about how it is to be made.

From the place i am at currently it just shows when your developing a new product that not considering form and function together as equals it will give you awful headaches later down the line

“a paper for uni”… :laughing: your opinon will carry some weight in oh about 10 years…

Instead of getting into the form following function debate (one you can’t win with a function believer, it’s like a cult), talk about the function of form.

First, start looking into semantics and what you can convey to users (i.e. shapes like such and such visually impart strength, or safety, or whatever). A lot of work has been done here on things like MRI machines where the operator interface has to be functional and user friendly, but the patient end has to be visually friendly, and the intimidation of getting stuck in a huge machine has to be played down.

Second, start doing some informal consumer research. i.e. these are other things in this consumer’s life, from his watch, to his car, to his backpack, and this is why I made this concept look this way.

Third, draw on macro trends. Right now things are tending to fall into several large buckets, super-simplicity, retro/crafted/authentic, and such. Colect images of products, sort them, and show how your concept fits.

This kind of logical approach to form can calm some of those function nuts down a bit. Give a context to what you are talking about instead of just saying “I like it better this way”. He’s the boss, so he wins the battle of opinions automatically. By having this support structure of thinking you back your ideas up.

Good luck!

I’d also try to think in wider terms what “function” is. As yo says, there is pragmatic function: an MRI uses big frickn magnets to make a 3D picture of your brain to find the cancer the doctor thinks you may have. …and there is emotive function: which is to reassure the patient that they are in a safe environment inside a perfectly safe machine, getting the best possible advice from a long time family doctor or expert.

So which side should you design from?

When someone pulls the 30 year (old?) experience card, I always find it beneficial to prepare for the next conversation. In this case, a quick dive into the origins of "form follows function’ can help prepare you for an engaging dialog with “the boss”. Afterall, to introduce another quote “knowledge is power” Sir Francis Bacon.
The actual quote by the American Architect, Louis Sullivan was “form ever follows function”
"It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.”

Bauhaus designers effectively adopted “form follows function”, with the specific focus on “ornament is a crime”.
Even Frank Lloyd Wright weighed in: “Form follows function - that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”
You could always take the Hartmut Esslinger and Frog Design’s dictum “Form follows fun”, but even that seems so 80’s.
James Rait’s cites “form follows communication” on his blog, and has yet another perspective from KarimRashid:
“Remember, we live in a world where beauty is finally appreciated again and innovation, technology, are shifting our social life. A bottle is no longer a just a stylized bottle but an artistic instrument for engaging brand, a philosophy, and an experience, in our new global lifestyle.”
Whatever your position is, continue to believe in it.
My take: “Form is…function does, now lets focus on experience!”

Good stuff guys/gals.

I think Yo hit it on the head with the functionalists being a cult.

This is really the first time I have had a boss that was SO entrenched in this philosphy. We are all taught “Form Follows Function” in Design School but we are also taught that you have to use it to influence your work but not dictate it.

I will definitely you some of the advice from the previous posts and see where it goes. For all I know, I may be able to convert him, or at least loosen him up a little.

here it is in a nutshell, any damn form you get a woody over AS LONG AS IT WORKS!!! NO UNOBTAINUM, NO HAND WAVING, NO BULLSHIT…make sure it works, nothing worse that designed crap that works like crap.

Visual appeal is a function. If a detail of your designs has no other purpose than to delight the viewer, that is enough. Beauty is useful.

Great quote!

First tel your boss that he is correct (to end the discussion).

Then, explain that aesthetics also have symbolic functions.

The “look” of the product is directly related to perception and how it will be interpreted by different market segments, how it will affect branding, and how it will be used by the end users to differentiate themselves.

What happens is that the product doesn’t tell anything itself… but is the users who put different values on objects. This values will heavily depend on cultural perceptions and conventions.

We, as designers, do our best to understand those cultural codes, and trough a correct implementation of the product language, try to evoke specific values that will create an emotional response from the user and society.

I love this topic :smiley:


Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Something to really wrap your head around…

As a student who probably knows less than all who have posted prior to my post, I have to agree with what Yo said.

Also, “By Design” by Ralph Caplan, addresses ‘form follows function’ in quite a clear way. Really good read.

for better or worse, sometimes brand differentiation is the function

see thread on redesigning crappy products…

I found this quote today, I think it has an extra part we don’t see too often:

Less is only more where more is no good.
Frank Lloyd Wright

And my favorite:

“In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This is really an interesting and never end topic. I prefer to say form should always follow value, which is the point that customers would buy. In value management field, value=function/cost. But function here has a broader definetion. It contains aesthetics aspect. And for different kind of projects, the aesthetics plays different role—the importance varies from one product to another:)


However “works” is a very broad term. “Works” translates to “functions”, and the function could simply be to provoke an emotional response, sometimes form is the best way to accomplish that function. Emotional responses can evoke perceptions of value that are sometimes so powerful in the user that the quality of other functions is oft overlooked.

Form and function working in seamless symphony in order to satisfy and/or delight the user is the over-arching goal of design.

Challenge your boss to design something that functions without form.

Call him out on the car he drives and explain that a well tuned and maintained Yugo can get him from point A to point B just as sufficiently.