Does Form Follow Function?

I have grown up hearing the phrase “form follows function.”  I have even heard it on and off before ever taking a design class or anything of the sort.  I do not recall why I have heard this before, but it is still a familiar term for me.  And yet, even as I read “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered” by Louis Sullivan, the man who unwittingly coined the phrase “form follows function,” I am hesitant to say that that is indeed what I take away from that article.

Reading Jan Michl’s “Form Follows What?” argument against this formulaic maxim, as well as a few other articles that have gone back and forth on the issue, I believe that, in most cases, the point is missed altogether.  I do not believe that “form follows function,” but I also do not believe that function follows form, nor that they are separate and must come together.  The two, the form and the function, are intertwined in a symbiotic relationship, so that one does not survive without the other.

The closest I found was a combination of the articles “Form, Function, Foolishness” by Bruce Price and “Form vs. Function, Finding the Balance” by Nick Finck.

Price talks about, and it is apparent throughout Sullivan’s article as well, how we have succumbed to the belief that function is the most important thing we should focus on, and the form should follow suit.  With this, there is only one function for each design, and so, therefore, can only be one possible solution, or form, to effectively be used.  This is a preposterous claim.  If this were true, then every office building would be identical, every car insurance logo would be the same, and the industry of design would be filled with factories of entry-level push-button workers with not but a high-school diploma and a willingness to automate their function.

Instead, our streets are filled with a colorful array of many different styles of advertisements, logos, brands, T-shirts, pens, hats, et cetera, et cetera.  In essence, there is not, as Price points out, one function for each form.  Therefore, there is not one solution.  Even with this, form does not follow functions.

But you also cannot ignore the functions.  They do exist.  There is a reason for them.  To ignore them would be to fall for what Gary Dickson argues against in his article “Function is Dead, Long Live Function.”  The form cannot exist simply because you “like it.”  There does indeed need to be reason for it.

In there, Dickson brings up the example of designing a wine label, but using soda labels as inspiration, because, he likes soda packaging.  After all, “many people who purchase fine wine also happen to drink soda pop and some of them may even like soda-pop packaging.”  But what he fails to address is how did soda packaging end up with one style, and wine with another?

This is where we come to my point.  I repeat, form and function are symbiotic.  You must have a mind on what the function is before you can design it.  But you cannot think of just the one function.  You must also use the design to attract people to the function.  Sometimes, the form is part of the function.  To attract, draw in, and even fascinate those that may not have otherwise seen the function.  But you must, as Finck points out, find the balance between the two sides.  You must keep both the Yin and the Yang in mind in order to create a form that helps the functions, with functions that help the form.


Xander Gamble

About Xander Gamble

A little about me: I am from Austin, Texas, mostly, but have grown up and lived in many parts of the United States of America, as well as Europe. I am currently a Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Petty Officer in the United States Navy. I work at the Defense Media Activity in Fort Meade, Maryland as a broadcast journalist. I have served for 7.5 years, and have served as a nuclear Electrician's Mate on-board the USS Charlotte, a nuclear-powered submarine, as well as working as a staff journalist at the Commander, Submarine Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia, as an Operations Manager at American Forces Network, Souda Bay in Souda Bay, Crete, Greece, and as a Social Media Editor for the US Navy Social Media team. I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies in 2011 from the University of Maryland University College while stationed in Greece. I have also attended Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, and received my Associates of Science in 2004 from Dixie State College in St. George, Utah. The opinions I share are my own and are neither endorsed nor reflective of the United States Navy nor the Department of Defense.

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