Redefinition of Function

Function is a word you hear come up a lot in design conversations and we all seem to agree on what a product’s primary functions are. A cigarette lighter lights cigarettes, a CD player plays CDs, etc, etc. So when we sit down as designers and say “what does this product need to do?” these are the type of answers we come up with. However these answers miss a crucial element in the functions of these products. A cigarette lighter cannot light a cigarette on its own, it requires human interaction. The function of a cigarette lighter is not to light cigarettes, it is for a person to use it to light cigarettes. This may seem like semantic foolery but it greatly expands our pre-existing definition of function. This new definition means it is also part of a product’s function to entice the user into interacting with it and making that interaction easy. Thus the emotional response a product elicites from the user to make it desirable to use is a crucial element of its function. We see that a cigarette lighter should do much more than just light a cigarette; perhaps of even more importance it whould make me want to use it to light a cigarette. Do you agree/disagree…comments…opinions?

I’m with you,

I wrote an esay for the IDSA on a similar theme, The Function of Form. To be able to communicate the function of the product to the user and to create desire in the intended consumer. essentialy I think this is what separates good design from great design.

what happens when the culmination of your definition of function actually lies in between what is tangible and what cannot be touched or precieved?

there are many tools/ products in our world that are not so cut and dried.

Is Function a percieved phenomenon? if so, is it subjective?

is it possible to truly define a function of an object to all beings the same way?


A guy uses a wrench to pound in a nai because it’s all he hadl. A kid uses a refridgerator box as a fort becuase he had an idea. A teen in NYC wears Timberland 6" feild boots because they look cool, a soccor mom drives a Chevy Blazer because she thinks it makes her kids safer.

No matter how well we do our job, the consumer is allways going to out smart us and appropriate what we do to some degree. What the consumer perceives a useful function to be, in terms of use, fashion, style, or misuse is totally up to them. How many times have you walked the aisles at home depot looking for something to misuse?

yo- could you post a link to your essay?

original poster-

you should check out some books by christopher alexander, donald norman

there is danger in trying to easy something feigning philosophical wisdom.

there is a very clear fact evident in all products affected by industrial design contributions. They were made to be more appealing to someone who buys that object/service. the associated artifactual elements of ‘ease of use’ and function meeting form’ are the rsults of the capitalization on efficiencies for the sole purpose of maximizing profit. Industrial designers are not altruistic, no matter how we like to think so.

As the post above suggests, the main function for almost any product is to sell. That function is very complicted to simplify.

true, not easy to simplify-

Designers are trained to simplify complexity.

A goal of the activity of simplifiyng is creating the best fit interface between the user and the object, within the assumed usage scenario that the object/service operates.

In the march to simplify, designers must remember to also use another tool we are taught. Divergence and convergence. We focus down to the details of designing the object. BUT, we must also step back and understand the global issues affecting our contributions and the reasons for them.

in a nutshell…
we are not the boss…

It was from like 3 years ago, it’s not online anymore, I can paste it in here, but it is a little lengthy.

a person named yo posts a crappy comment he thinks he’s in twilight zone.

form does not equal function


function= function

it also could be that

form + function + deliberate execution= a designed object

whether it’s good design or not is irrelavant.

I guess I got to respectfully disagree. Form should serve some sort of function.

The form of a motorcycle grip throttle serves a pretty delberate function, as does the head of a hammer. A lot of form is an artfull combination of semantics, egronomics, and manufacturability.

not looking to disagree… semantics are what they are…maybe the form of my little logic statements did not carry out thier function???

The functionality of any hammer varies due to the SUM of its elements and shape of each element (handle, neck, head). It is not the shape of the head that carries out the function. It makes the function performed more affective and efficient. As stated before, misuse of an object can still be used to perform a function.

The shape of a car hood can vary wildly, but what function does that difference in shape serve save for the result of some other reason like, the engine location, the wheels, windshield angle, seat height etc etc? what real function does a car hood serve, to protect the engine? why not use a piece of plywood like the russians did in rockets in thier space program? because it doesn’t look good? so maybe the only true function form carries out is visual communication…

Form is related to function in suggesting functionality through visual semantics. But form can very easily be separated from the function an object serves…

form without any visual clue to it’s function? bad design? or really clever design, as some dorky dork designer might try to make you believe is better?

I think we are in essence agreeing. Let me attempt to to put it another way…

Kind of making this up as I go along so bear with please.

I would just say that visual communication is a function, just as a performance feature is also a function. A broader deffinition I guess.

Whether a design visualy indicates the function of a performance feature, or hides that feature, it is still a functional effect of the form.

I dunno, what do you think? Does that make any sense at all. I shouldn’t type on Saturday nights after I get home from having a few drinks anymore.

In reply to the original post… I think you go some way towards opening up a discussion of what function could be, but you can go much further. The best illustration of this that I have seen actually comes from a marketing book: a manufacturer of drill bits thinks that what his customers want is a better drill bit; he is wrong, what his customers want is a hole.

You can decide that the function of a cigarette lighter is to light cigarettes, or that the function of a cigarette lighter is to allow a person to light cigarettes; either way, you will only ever design a cigarette lighter. If you decide that what the person wants is a nicotine hit, you can design a box of matches, or self-lighting cigarettes, or nicotine patches, or even a way to help someone give up smoking.

“We all seem to agree on what a product’s primary functions are” is very often just a way of saying “none of us bother to question the existing assumptions.” This is what leads to many (I would say most) ‘new’ products being nothing more than re-styled versions of old ones.

good post.

I read an interview with the founder of Starbucks in which he states that Starbucks doesn’t sell coffee, they sell a sense of community that you rent for $4.00 and you just happen to get a beverage with that, if you get it to go, you get a portable communication device that shows you belong to that community, that happens to hold coffe in it. And if you by Starbucks Ice cream, or ground coffee at the grocery store, you are bringing that feeling home, and sharing that with your family.

It sounds like cheese, but it apparently works when you comapre the growth rate of Starbucks over lets say Dunkin Donnuts.

do i hear an echo in hear, or is it just me?

what’s interesting is we haven’t driven any deeper into other meanings of function, as the first post suggested.

are designers just as close minded and egocentric as we sometimes think other, non-designers are?



… well what do you have for us then …

no offense intended to anyone here, I always feel a little dirty writing on these posts….like over ripe fruit.

Insert Webster definitions of function here… ehem…

Philosophically, it might be useful to scope down on what our working definition is. IMHO-I see no definition in Webster’s that quite fits what we need.

we seem to be trying to ride two horses… form AND function…(you could actually ride two horses if one horse is riding the other,and then you ride the one on top)

As we have heard from Matt_ and yo, the intended function of an object or service may not be the function that is perceived or carried out. Since we are dependent on our senses, things are of certain value due to their sensual impact. so and so forth.

• So, if form is so closely related to the purpose of an object, is there ever a separation of this? where does it happen?
• is form itself codified already? (why doesn’t anyone sell a phone that looks like pacman? or wait…i had one of those)
• Is the funciton of an object different from launch to end of life, and should this be illustrated in its form? OR, would this somehow take away frmo teh brad of the object…i.e keeping it shiney bright makes me wanna buy it more…

Is the funciton of our respective jobs to give form to objects based on thier meaning and purpose, or based on OUR meaning and purpose as designers? Can I get an honest answer here?