Great form and Great function

Hey guys.

Im writting a paper based on whether form or function should be considered first in the design process. Discussing the merits and de merits on one taking more importance over the other. In an ideal world obviously both would have the appropriate time given to both.

Im classing the word “form” as considering asethetics and ergonomics and the word “function” as mechanical systems and electronics.

Im discussing the deisgn process when form is considered first and the design process when function is considered first.

I pose the following questions to yourselves as proven succesful professionals in the design world:

  • If you consider form first how would you go about designing the product
  • if you considered function first how would you go about designing the product
    *What advantages\disadvantages do you see of considering one over the other within a design practice
  • Any examples of products which are iconic in great for or great function and visa versa

Any response would be fantastic!

why does one have to be considered first? Why can’t they be developed simultaneously?

Your right neither one does have to be considered first and should be considered at the same time. How ever it is evident from my research a large amount of products are developed soley with one or the other in mind.

The juicy salif by stark great form love the shape of the lemon squeezer but the juicer doesnt juice very well… mising the point of it being a juicer

the E kindle , electronics functionailty work well behind it but it looks terrible and the user interaction i.e ergonomics behind operating it as stark highlighted it.

Of course there are products out there that combine the two brilliantly i.e the rabbit wine cork screw lovelly looking and fantastic functionality

So this made me think deisgn consultancies and designers out there are considering one over the other. So why are they doing this? Do they see any clear cut advantages in development to considering one first? I am also trying to acertain the deisgn process when either form or functionaility is dealt with first. I.e with form was it straight to pen paper getting an emotional feeling from a design and then heading to ergonomics. Or wth fuction was it case of getting out the engineers handbook looking at mechinical advantages in pivots strengths in materials etc…

Its really a case of getting from professionals who have to do precisely that sacrifice one for the other and trying to get feedback from them.

I am a stage of simply trying to qualify my statments with creditable comments from professionals on products they have undertaken. What i am trying to qualify with hard evidence is:

*What you as professionals would class under the headings function and form (e.g aesthetics, ergonomics mechanics electronics, anything i’ve missed)

*Your deisng process when considering either form and function- how would you design a product with these in mind

  • What advantages\disadvantages are there when considering either form or function first in the design process.

*Any iconic design examples of where function is spot on yet form is dreadfull

Any help would be fantastic and i am extremely grateful for any time taken out of your day to provide any answeres

ergonomics im quite sure should be under function, not form.

that being said, as Yo mentioned, i think both are intertwined. I believe function in a sense needs to be addressed first however, but its a complimentary process, not one first than the other…

as a start, i had a professor once who said a great line i still believe is true-

“fix in space the bits you need, then work around those”

that is, there are some things are always must have’s. this could be a function or ergonomics (no sense making a handheld device 8" wide), or more engineering (ie. a electronic bit A needs to connect to bit B physically), but aside from that both factors are worked both independently and together.

this is my approach at least, for the most part.

i think the results you mention of “designers considering one over the other” may more likely be a function of higher pressure from one internal/external group (ie. power of design vs. engineering in some companies or vice versa), or just an imbalance in the skill/approach of a designer. the ideal results are of course a balance/optimization of both.


  1. I would consider it’s function and play with the attributes of the form: what variables can I tweak? Size, proportion, color etc.

  2. I would consider all the ways it can be realized as form… This is primarily how I design since we always start with a functional problem to solve (ie. user needs.)

  3. I see disadvantages to the form-first approach. Consider:

Make the function of a house in the form TBD
Make the form of a leaf function as TBD

Make the function of a chair in the form of TBD
Make the form of a shoe function as TBD

…I just see the form issue as unnecessarily limiting and nonsensical. I think that “form-first” can yield creative results, but are very rarely the most “practical.”

  1. Great examples of function over form:
  • tools
  • transportation
  • language
  • the human body
  • healthcare

Great examples of form over function:

  • art

Great examples of a mixture of the two:

  • ockham’s razor & the concept of elegance

I think you just defined form first design… in my experience the practical designs are often forgotten. It is the impractical ones that are remembered and treasured. It has nothing to do with logic, and everything to do with human nature and our need to personify all that is around us. The family dog is not very practical, but totally irreplaceable.

It comes back to this:

For me, there is only one keyboard in that entire thread woth talking about, and it is the one with the least features. Impractical? It’s got QWERTY and a USB cord and is beautiful, everything else is superfluous.

I think the best designs prioritize each in moderate amounts. The Stark Juicer representing one end of the spectrum (it’s not even really a juicer, lets be honest) and an MRI machine, or robotic assembly machine representing the other.

I came across one ppt which was suggesting about ID role as well as some thoughts regarding form & function.

In that keyboard, Apple didn’t design a beautiful thing that just happened to look like a keyboard, they started at the keyboard and made it beautiful.

90%+ of its attributes are functional: It’s wide enough for two hands, deep enough for fingers to reach, keys are finger-sized, layout is QWERTY, key-labels guide the user. Even the technology and mechanics are 90% similar to other keyboards. This is all functional.

Give me a keyboard that looks like a clarinet and we’re on our way to FORM-first design… But are we really there? It’s still a keyboard, providing a function. Now hang that clarinet-keyboard on the wall as a piece of art…Closer still, but not quite there. Now its art, providing a function of emotional response.

I really struggle to find things at the FORM-first end of the spectrum.

“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”

-Louis Sullivan, Architect (1856-1924)

Just because something has aesthetic priorities does not mean it cannot be functional or abide by simple functional guide lines.

I think their form language (super clean simplification) led to the features (or lack there of). Yes it looks like a keyboard, but a hyper normal keyboard. There is no articulation, no wave for cross section for better wrist placement or faster typing, no track ball in the center or any wiz bang shiny buttons that say “EMAIL” “WEB” or whatever all the other keyboards in that discussion have. Aesthetic prevailed. In this case the aesthetic and the singular function are closely tied.

Computer geeks who hack a system into their recumbent bikes use keyboards that look like clarinets.

ergonomics im quite sure should be under function, not form.

We may have moved on from this point, but it occurs to me that ergonomics, and the study of such, has been so successful for many designers because it can be the “function of forms” and is forcing the integration of these two sides of design. I like to think that moderation is the key to success. Ergonomics can be a way to think about both the form and function at the same time.

I’d love to see what that looks like – got a link?

saw it on the discovery channel awhile back. A computer programer was biking across the country and he put a small HUD unit into his helmet, strapped a CPU and battery to the frame, incorporated a flywheel to charge the unit and invented a new keyboard that integrated into the grips. It used modified cell phone keypads and some predictive text programming I believe… it was hyper function first design… but a unique form factor.

Who’s to say the current layout is the best. It is a hold over from typewriter mechanisms that is kept because of its familiarity, so the current form of keyboards does not truly follow function, so is it form first?

maybe not strictly speaking ergonomically, but for sure i think the fact that its so well adopted for the majority of users already familiar with QWERTY is just another aspect of being functional. There’s always function in theory (ie. maybe another key layout is faster), but there also reality (overcoming the practical functional requirement like sales, user adoption, etc.).


I’ve been reading the Rowena Reed “Elements of Design” book and thought to post this excerpt that I’m still trying to digest for myself:

“And in response to the Bauhaus dictum that form follow function, he (Alexander Kostellow) declared, ‘I have never agreed with the premise that function as such gives birth to esthetic expression. I feel that function is an expression of a time and that esthetic reactions influence man-made form, and we in turn are influenced by them’.”

He’s saying that form is also influenced by fashion. I totally agree.