Form follows Function

"Form follows Function. Function over Form. Form over function."

I remember always getting confued in the interplay of these words. Form follows Function is one of the famous design cliché which is sometimes so overused that the undelying meaning is lost entirely.

Let's try to break down the two words:

Form is the outer surface of an object. It is what people see and interact with.

Function is a reflection of requirement or purpose of the design which comes from human needs and wants.

The term Form follows Function was coined by an American architect Louis Sullivan. He published an essay in 1896 titled The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered where he set out to define the principles of designing buildings - in the right manner.

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, 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

The independent thinker believed that architectural design should not be based on the past, but should originate from the intended function of the building. In other words, the purpose of a building should be the starting point for its design.

Frank Lloyd Wright, apprentice of Sullivan, adopted the phrase “form follows function” and further promoted it.

Sullivan’s ideas had widespread influence on contemporary architects and industrial designers. He is often referered as Father of Skyscrapers and Father of Modernism.

Form over Function

Have you ever bumped into a glass wall while you are busy on the phone or talking to someone? This can be considered a classic example where the form takes precedence over the function.

The function of a "wall" is to seprate 2 regions. But if one makes this division transparent, you are simply focusing more on the form of the design rather than its function.

Its ironic that the astehetic appeal which thse glass wall bring, then have to be marked with Sticky notes to prevent these crashes and filed with lawsuits!

Do beautiful things function better? Always?

People spend more time with products that they find beautiful, and they claim they are easier to use. Human beings have an attractiveness bias; we perceive beautiful things as being better, regardless of whether they actually are better. And this has been proven many times.

Its interesting to see when designers focus too much on the form that thay forget the functional aspects of the things.

One of my favourite examples is the Juicy Salif - a lemon squeezer, by the famous french architect, Philippe Starck.

Juicy Salif and its Instructional Manual

The juicer came with an Instruction manual to get optimum juicing abilities. Its usability as an everyday kitchen utensil are quite controversial.

To clear up the confusion on the usability, Starck himself says

It’s not meant to squeeze lemons, it is meant to start conversations.

- Philippe Starck

And boy, it did start the conversations by making its place in Museum of Moder Art.

When I think of Beautiful product design, there is one word which comes into my mind - Apple. It's pretty clear that Apple has something of an obsession with form over function. So much so that I have to use an external keyboard attached to my Macbook because the keys do not work

But sometimes Apple takes it too far.

Form follows function gone bad

Form and Function are One

So here's the final twist.

Frank Wright, who was an assistant to Sullivan, realized that people were misusing Sullivan's idea, reducing it to a dogmatic slogan. He took the words of his lieber meister and slightly extended the meaning by changing the phrase to “form and function are one.”

Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.

Frank Wright