Is it me, or does the phrase “form follows function” appear to hold less importance in today’s design process, than perhaps it did when it was first uttered?
As a proponent of “form follows function”, I question why it now appears less evident in design thinking, than it did in the early part of the 20th Century, when it was so liberally bantered.
Often wrongly attributed to Gropius and his buddies (of Bauhaus fame), in their quest for pure functionality and their dismissal of applied ornamentation. The phrase was actually first penned as a line in a poem, by the architect Louis Henry Sullivan, where he said “That form ever follows function. This is the law”.
Sullivan, not opposed to ornamentation, obviously felt very strongly about the importance of this “law”. Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked as Sullivan’s Chief Draughtsman for 6 years, later qualified that “form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union”.
My apologies for the history lesson, but I tend to agree with Mr. Wright, there should be an equal balance between both considerations; however, I am inclined to throw another force into the mix, and that is one of constraints.
Design is the process of solving an identified problem, but in order to develop a successful design you must first understand the constraints set upon it, before you start the process. These constraints can be any number of factors, such as legal, political, social, environmental, economic, or time; the last two being the usual suspects.
In the new mechanical world of Sullivan’s time, where it was so easy to understand the marriage between form and function, it must have been impossible to believe that this relationship could ever be questioned. However, with the dawn of microelectronics, it would appear this relationship is indeed in question.
The best example of this is the smart phone, probably one of the most powerful adornments of modern man. Although smart phones possess what appear to be an infinite number of functions, their form has in no way been influenced by these functions (apart from the need for a display). The function that smart phones fail to accommodate (in their form) is an ergonomic one. These objects require direct human interaction, yet this simplest of functions appears to have been totally ignored. I have no doubt that failing to accommodate this function has resulted in many dropped phones. The more cynical amongst you may be muttering “planned obsolescence”.
While some of these smart phones are truly beautiful to look at, with exquisite detailing and are beautifully manufactured, they have failed to solve the number one design problem; how do you hold it?
With the constant development of technology, I suspect this problem will not be solved, just simply bypassed, as we transition to some form of hands free solution.
This apparent back turning to functionality, in our appreciation of our designed world, can be seen everywhere. We often hear the term “designer” when referring to some products, or “design classic”, when they have been around for some years, but often the products receiving these labels are objects that fail to deliver on their most fundamental functional promises. For example, juicers that don’t juice, or chairs that aren’t comfortable. Surely if a chair isn’t comfortable it fails to be a chair? Referring to them as sculpture perhaps would hold more truth?
It is easy to scrutinise the functionality of products of a human scale, as we have a very personal interaction with them, but there are also examples of form taking precedence in many of the “iconic” architectural schemes that have sprung up across Asia in recent decades. Schemes which, although they look interesting on paper and perhaps from a distance, have been difficult to deliver in reality. This is no doubt due to the design process ignoring the constraints; the big one being “buildability”.
As technology continues to advance, allowing us to design ever complex forms and apply the latest in “physics defying” materials, let’s not lose sight of the fundamentals.
Functionality is still our friend.
By: John Denton (Lead8 Co Founder & Executive Director)