Does Form Follow Function?

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You’ve likely heard the phrase “form follows function,” but have you really thought about what it means or what it implies about Web design? On the surface, “form follows function” seems to make a lot of sense. The way something looks should be determined by its purpose. Is this really true? Does the phrase hold up upon deeper inspection?

In the context of designing a website, “form follows function” is often taken to mean that the designer should first gather the website’s requirements from the client and then determine the aesthetics of the website based on those “functional” requirements1. While that’s certainly good practice, is “form follows function” really being applied? Are client requirements the “function” of a website or something else?

As you read through this post, keep these questions in mind. Think of your own process for designing and developing websites, and consider whether and how “form follows function” applies to it.

Historical Background

While sometimes attributed to sculptor Horatio Greenough, the phrase “form follows function” was coined by American architect Louis Sullivan. In his 1896 article, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered2,” Sullivan wrote:

“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.”

At the time, technology, tastes and economics were rapidly changing. The forms of late-19th century buildings were still being worked out, based on innovation going all the way back to ancient Greek and Roman architecture. It was clear to Sullivan that a new form for buildings was needed, and he thought that form ought to come from the function of a building, not historical precedent.

This new form became the modern structural steel skyscraper.

wainwright-building

Frank Lloyd Wright, who was then Sullivan’s assistant, adopted the phrase “form follows function” and further promoted it. The Guggenheim Museum is a good example of Wright’s application of the principle. It’s spiral shape was intended to allow visitors to easily view the artwork within.

guggenheim-interior

In 1908 Austrian architect, Adolf Loos proclaimed that architectural “ornament was a crime” (PDF)3. Modernist architects such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe adopted both “ornamentation is crime” and “form follows function” as moral principles and applied them to design.

The two phrases do not mean the same thing though. “Form follows function” allows for ornamentation as long as it serves a function.

Still, modernism in architecture emerged from both principles. Its goal was to determine the form of a building solely from functional requirements and not traditional aesthetics.

Bauhaus Ideology and the Future of Web Design4

View more presentations5 by Simon Collison6.

Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus7, a school of thought and movement in art that espoused that an object’s design should be dominated by its function. The Bauhaus was in some ways a reaction against the emotional expressionism of the time, and its design aesthetic was based on simple forms, clean lines, rationality and, of course, functionality.

Gropius’ goal was:

“to create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist.”

The Bauhaus was eventually closed under pressure from the Nazi regime, which branded the school, and modernism in general, as un-German.

Several members of the Bauhaus found their way to the United States. Mies van der Rohe migrated to Chicago after the school closed, bringing the ideas of the Bauhaus with him to the city that epitomized “form follows function.” Walter Gropius among others began teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Both influenced American architect Phillip Johnson8.

Johnson was a strong proponent of modern architecture and helped assemble the show “The International Style: Architecture Since 19229” at the Museum of Modern Art. The design principles identified by the International Style were:

  1. Expression of volume rather than mass,
  2. Balance rather than preconceived symmetry,
  3. Expulsion of applied ornament.

Johnson’s work was often a balancing act between minimalism and pop art. He later introduced the work of both Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol to the Museum of Modern Art. Johnson belonged to the post-modernist movement in architecture10, which was a reaction to Modernism and Functionalism11.

Plaza de Castilla (Madrid)

Johnson claimed that the profession of architecture has no functional responsibility whatsoever, saying:

“Where form comes from I don’t know, but it has nothing at all to do with the functional or sociological aspects of our architecture.”

Further Resources

The following articles offer additional perspective on the history of the phrase “form follows function” and the Bauhaus.

Interpreting “Form Follows Function”

There are two ways to interpret the phrase “form follows function”:

  • Descriptive: beauty results from purity of function;
  • Prescriptive: aesthetic considerations in design should be secondary to functional considerations.

Descriptive Interpretation

The descriptive interpretation favors simplicity to complexity. It states that beauty results from purity of function and not from ornamentation. This ideal derives from the belief that form follows function in nature. Is this really true?

Actually, the opposite is true. Evolution passes on genetic traits to subsequent generations without any rationale for their purpose. Each generation of a species then finds a use for the form it has inherited. Function follows form in nature.

Applying functional elements to a design is generally a more objective process than applying aesthetic elements. A functionally objective process results in designs that are timeless but may be perceived as simple and uninteresting.

Prescriptive Interpretation

The prescriptive interpretation prioritizes functionality over all other design considerations, including usability, ergonomics and aesthetics.

Aesthetic considerations in design should be secondary to functional considerations. Is this interpretation problematic? Does it lead designers to ask the wrong questions about a given design?

This interpretation would seem to lead to designers to ask what should be omitted from a design. What elements of a design do not serve a function and thus ought to be removed? Should the form of a design be determined solely by its function?

Taken to the logical conclusion, every element would ultimately have the same design. Every functional item would have one and only one design. Before an object’s form could be changed, it would need to serve a different function.

Better questions come from your criteria for success. What aspects of you design are critical to success? When time or resources is limited, what design trade-offs would least harm the design’s success? Sometimes, certain aesthetics will have to be abandoned, and sometimes certain functionality will have to be abandoned. Sometimes both aesthetics and functionality will need to be compromised.

Further Resources

The following articles argue that the form of a design should follow its function.

The articles below argue that “form follows function” is not an absolute rule.

How To Design A Clock

If we were to follow “form follows function” as a hard and fast rule, what would a clock look like. It’s function is to tell time and nothing else. A designer might conclude that the simplest, fastest and most accurate way to show time would be on a digital display. Digital clocks are not particularly beautiful, though.

clock collage

Analog displays are more aesthetically pleasing to most people. They aren’t quite as accurate, and people usually need an extra moment or two to tell the time, but they are generally nicer to look at.

Which clock above is best? Would you feel the same about either clock below if its display was digital?

clock collage

Rather than use “form follows function” as an inflexible rule, a better route would be to design our clock based on success criteria24. If speed and accuracy are most important to the clock’s success, then a digital display would be best. If aesthetics are more important, then an analog display would be the better choice.

Success criteria25, not function, should determine form.

How do you determine your success criteria? Ultimately, you have to define them yourself or ask your client to define them26 for the given project. Either way, they would likely do the following:

  1. Identify everyone with a stake in the project,
  2. Determine the goals of each stakeholder,
  3. Prioritize and harmonize those goals,
  4. Decide how success will be measured.

What will determine the success of our clock?

Is the clock that sells best the most successful? What if fewer clocks sales could bring greater profit? Who is the market for our clock? Is being able to tell the time at a quick glance more important to our target buyers than making a statement on their living room wall? How much are they willing to spend on a clock?

Looking within your own company, how will the clock affect your brand? Would you be proud to put your name on the clock? Are sales figures irrelevant because the clock will mainly serve to get people to buy your line of wrist watches.

Will your clock be mass produced, or is this a one-time project, like some of the clocks in the images above? If it’s one of a kind, who is to benefit from it? The client who commissioned it or the audience that will view it?

The answers to these and many more questions will be specific to the project. Ultimately, you have to determine the goals of your clock and how you will measure the success of those goals. What you come up with will lead you to your success criteria and design objectives. You could decide on an accurate digital clock for mass consumption or a work of art hanging in the terminal of a major railroad station.

Perhaps your clock will need to be both beautiful and accurate.

big-ben

Beautiful Things Function Better

People spend more time with products that they find beautiful, and they claim they are easier to use. The products seem to function better because they are beautiful.

Human beings have an attractiveness bias27; we perceive beautiful things as being better, regardless of whether they actually are better. All else being equal, we prefer beautiful things, and we believe beautiful things function better. As in nature, function can follow form.

Most marketers knows that our purchasing decisions are based primarily on emotion. We use logic to rationalize those decisions. We are emotional beings. Aesthetics influence our opinions of products, and we typically find aesthetically pleasing products to be more effective simply by virtue of their aesthetic appeal.

Steven P. Anderson speaks of the importance of aesthetics in design in his post on A List Apart, “In Defense of Eye Candy28.” Drawing on an example in the book Emotional Design, he notes:

“Researchers in Japan set up two ATMs, ‘identical in function, the number of buttons, and how they worked.’ The only difference was that one machine’s buttons and screens were arranged more attractively than the other. In both Japan and Israel (where this study was repeated) researchers observed that subjects encountered fewer difficulties with the more attractive machine. The attractive machine actually worked better.”

Perhaps this can be explained by the “halo effect,” whereby we carry over previous judgements of certain products to future judgements of similar or related products. A beautiful product triggers positive emotions that inform your judgment of its usability. The product does not necessarily function better, but you perceive it as functioning better because of its looks.

You can define aesthetics in many ways, but it comes down to connecting thought, emotion and beauty. How something looks affects us emotionally and influences what we think about it.

If pure aesthetics influence our perception of a product’s functionality, if we’re willing to take an extra second to learn how to use things that we find beautiful, and if we think objects function better because they’re beautiful, then does form follow function or does function follow form?

Further Resources

The articles below deal more with the connection between aesthetics, emotion and usability.

Applying “Form Follows Function” to Web Design

What’s the function of a website? Does a website have a single function? The function of a blog is to communicate information. It might also be a means to deliver advertising or to generate leads to sell a service. An e-commerce website also communicates information. It also exists to sell products.

“Form follows function” might dictate that all e-commerce websites should look the same. But would you design a website for computer networking hardware and one for children’s toys to look exactly the same? Obviously not.

At the start of this post, I described the well-known scenario in which you gather requirements from a client33 and then proceed to design the website. Are those requirements “functions”? Some no doubt are. How many pages will the website have? Will the content need to be updated often? Is a shopping cart needed? What are the goals of the website in the context of the overall goals of the business?

If you’re asking merely for functional requirements, you aren’t asking the right questions. Better questions seek to define what success looks like for the website. Should the e-commerce website serve to generate leads to draw people into the physical store. Will all of those pages help drive sales, or are some plain fluff?

Define your success criteria first. Think of our clock example. Will success come from function or aesthetics. What would make your website successful? What is most critical to achieve that success.

The principle of “form follows function” assumes that objects exist because of their function. That’s simply not true. There could be any number of reasons why something exists, from chance to some broad aesthetic value and anything in between. An object can exist for reasons other than function.

Mother Ann Lee (1736–1784), founder of the Shaker movement in America, proposed another idea. “Every force evolves a form.” Dynamic forces shape eventual forms. These forces could be functional or could be aesthetic, spiritual, communal or random.

“Every force evolves a form” is a more useful guide34 for designers to follow:

“Function alone does not drive form. Form evolves from the holistic forces of the project—audience needs, client desires, ethical obligations, aesthetic inclinations, material properties, cultural presuppositions, and yes, functional requirements.

“For working designers, “every force evolves a form” is a more useful rule. The design process actually begins with something that doesn’t yet exist but needs to exist, and it moves forward toward a formal result. Function alone doesn’t drive the resultant form. The form evolves from the holistic forces of the project—audience needs, client desires, ethical obligations, aesthetic inclinations, material properties, cultural presuppositions, and yes, functional requirements. “Function” is rightly seen as a single, isolated, quantifiable aspect of the overall “force” driving the form.”

Does all of the above mean that you should ignore “form follows function” completely? Not at all. Use the descriptive interpretation of “form follows function” as an aesthetic guide. Beauty often does come from function. A building should not look like a boat or a magazine. Each has a different function, and that function helps to define what makes it successful.

Objects with different functions should look different aesthetically.

However, don’t apply the prescriptive interpretation of “form follows function” as a design rule. Pure function may not be the most important factor of success. Focus on the relative importance of both form and function as based on your criteria for success when making design decisions. Balance form and function as needed, while letting success criteria guide your decisions.

Further Resources

The articles below take a balanced approach to “form follows function.” They regard form and function as working together, with both following the design’s objectives.

Examples

Google

Google’s home page is little more than a search box. Over time, links have been added, but the page has clearly been designed around its primary function, which is search. The sparse design is likely a key factor in Google’s early success. Other search engines at the time did not have pages that communicated a single clear function.

google-home-page-2

Function, no doubt, guided Google’s success criteria. The only thing the company wanted a visitor to do upon reaching the home page was to type a query in the box and click the “Search” button.

Craigslist

Craigslist is perhaps the poster child for subordinating form to function. Many think the website could use a redesign42, but the Craigslist faithful see no reason to change. The website’s design, while not aesthetically pleasing, is functional.

craigslist-denver

As with Google, Craigslist’s success was based on functional considerations. Beautiful it is not, but the website does work. It doesn’t take long for anyone who stumbles on the website to learn how to use it. Would aesthetic considerations have made the website easier to use and made Craigslist even more successful?

Tweetie

The Twitter application Tweetie lacks some features that other desktop and smart-phone Twitter apps include. Tweetie users claim not to care. The program has earned its loyal audience through its beautiful design. It does what it needs to do, and some functionality has been deliberately left out to stay true to the design objectives.

atebits-tweetie-mac

One of the early goals of Tweetie was to embrace the iPhone interface. It was built for people who already use Apple products and who appreciate aesthetics for the sake of aesthetics. Form in and of itself was an important success criterion.

USB Necklace

Most USB drives are essentially the same. Their functionality differs little from one drive to the next. Some hold more data, some transfer data faster, some include encryption and some are more rugged.

USB Necklace

If you were to buy either of the USB necklaces above, would it be because of the specs? Or because of the function of the drive itself? It’s doubtful. You would likely have purchased it based on looks and your emotional response to it. You might glance at the specs to make sure the drive meets your minimum needs, but you would be using the specs to justify your emotional response to the aesthetics.

Summary

Does form follow function? Function certainly influences form in many designs, but does it have to? This post should have enough examples to show that function sometimes follows form.

“Form follows function” works well as an aesthetic guide. Many designers, me included, believe that beauty arises from functional considerations. Functionality is important to design, but it isn’t the only thing that should be considered.

Both function and form can guide design. More often, both follow something else. Ultimately, you need to define your criteria for success, from which the design will evolve.

Success criteria helps you determine the functionality needed in your website and the form it should take.

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/08/05/7-essential-guidelines-for-functional-design/
  2. 2 http://academics.triton.edu/faculty/fheitzman/tallofficebuilding.html
  3. 3 http://www.combergrex.com/school_site/hu254/course%20site/downloads/ornament.crime.pdf
  4. 4 http://www.slideshare.net/collylogic/bauhaus-ideology-and-the-future-of-web-design
  5. 5 http://www.slideshare.net/
  6. 6 http://www.slideshare.net/collylogic
  7. 7 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/08/02/bauhaus-ninety-years-of-inspiration/
  8. 8 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Johnson
  9. 9 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Style_%28architecture%29
  10. 10 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_architecture
  11. 11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Functionalism_%28architecture%29
  12. 12 http://janmichl.com/eng.fff-hai.html
  13. 13 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Form_follows_function
  14. 14 http://www.humanitiesweb.org/human.php?s=g&p=a&a=i&ID=578
  15. 15 http://www.art.highlandschools.org.uk/links/movements/bauhaus/bauhaus.html
  16. 16 http://www.graphic-design.com/DTG/dickson/form_follows_function.html
  17. 17 http://www.bunnybeth.net/ambition/rant2.html
  18. 18 http://www.grokdotcom.com/formfunction.htm
  19. 19 http://www.digital-web.com/articles/form_follows_function/
  20. 20 http://www.creativity-portal.com/articles/otoh/form.function.foolishness.html
  21. 21 http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/view/13493
  22. 22 http://bokardo.com/archives/form-doesnt-follow-function/
  23. 23 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/01/arts/01iht-DESIGN1.html?pagewanted=all
  24. 24 http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/rational/library/2950.html
  25. 25 http://knol.google.com/k/analysis-of-project-success-criteria-and-success-factors
  26. 26 http://boagworld.com/business-strategy/success-criteria
  27. 27 http://www.vanseodesign.com/web-design/faces-in-images/
  28. 28 http://www.alistapart.com/articles/indefenseofeyecandy/
  29. 29 http://www.usability.gov/articles/062009news.html
  30. 30 http://www.webcredible.co.uk/user-friendly-resources/web-usability/aesthetics-usability.shtml
  31. 31 http://hot.carleton.ca/hot-topics/articles/usability-aesthetics-emotions-user-experience/
  32. 32 http://www.kurtz.ws/research/aesthetics.html
  33. 33 http://www.vanseodesign.com/online-business/8-tips-information-clients/
  34. 34 http://www.peachpit.com/articles/article.aspx?p=1353612
  35. 35 http://www.peachpit.com/articles/article.aspx?p=1353612
  36. 36 http://www.digital-web.com/articles/form_vs_function/
  37. 37 http://creativity-online.com/news/form-follows-function/137037
  38. 38 http://www.ecomresourcecenter.com/archives/websitedesign.html
  39. 39 http://www.weberratica.com/2007/09/24/web-design-form-follows-function/
  40. 40 http://fadtastic.net/2006/10/12/what-came-first-form-or-function/
  41. 41 http://desktoppub.about.com/od/graphicdesign/a/formfunction.htm
  42. 42 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/03/11/redesigning-craigslist-with-focus-on-usability/

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Steven Bradley is the author of Design Fundamentals: Elements, Attributes, & Principles. He's a web designer and WordPress developer who moved to Boulder, Colorado to be near the mountains. He blogs at Vanseo Design and owns and operates a small business forum helping people learn how to run and market their business better.

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  1. 1

    Good Article!

    FIRST!

    -1
    • 2

      Probably slightly out of context, but anyway…
      In reality, about 50 percent of my customers come to me with webdesign assignments where I’m the one ending up creating the content, hence functional elements and text blocks for them. What this comes down to is that I have no clear idea of ‘function’ as I start working on wire frames or mock-ups. This leads to a chicken-egg scenario where form can follow function as well as vice-versa. Conclusion: Not everything is mapped-out for you to just go and apply form/design to it. Many cases will require you to do both, and let’s be honest, not always in the right order, allowing you to be consultant on function as well as designer on form.

      1
  2. 3

    Good article and some interesting points made. I would agree that success criteria should be a determining factor when developing form…

    …However, it can be argued that the “function” of any product is to be ‘successful’ within it’s purpose, otherwise there would be no point in creating it. Therefore “Form follows Function” is still a reasonable rule to follow in design.

    I would also challenge your suggestion that “digital clock displays do not lend themselves to aesthetics as well as analogue ones do”
    Check this link out;
    http://www.toxel.com/tech/2009/02/10/modern-clocks-and-creative-clock-designs/

    …granted, they’re not all digital, but I think you would agree that the digital clocks featured in this list are just as creative and aesthetically pleasing as the analogue ones.

    Thanks for writing / sharing this article, it provoked some interesting discussions here in my office.

    1
    • 4

      Definitely some nice looking clocks on the other side of that link and yes some of the digital clocks are aesthetically pleasing. I guess it wasn’t fair of me to imply that no digital clock could be beautiful. That wasn’t my intention, though I would say analog clocks tend to be more aesthetically pleasing.

      “However, it can be argued that the “function” of any product is to be ’successful’ within it’s purpose, otherwise there would be no point in creating it.”

      I would have said the same before writing this article. I think what it comes down to is defining what is the function of something. If you design a thing solely for aesthetic purpose are the aesthetics then the function? Take art. Granted art isn’t the same as design, but does there have to be any function in the art other than to be aesthetically pleasing? There could and probably should be, but does there have to be?

      0
      • 5

        I agree with bchild, “Form follows function” is still valid — you have just decided that the function (of the clock, to use that example) is to “be aesthetically pleasing while useful.”
        There’s no contradiction there. As a programmer, one just needs to keep in mind that the technical aspect of an interface is not its purpose/function/success criterion (whatever you want to call it; to me those are synonyms), or at least that it is not limited to it.

        “Every functional item would have one and only one design.”
        Yes—assuming that the function is *exactly* identical, which is impossible (?).
        There are several clocks in my house: Living room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, as well as on my wrist, computer, etc. Some of those are obviously different, others have more subtle differences in function. My living room clock, for example, may look bright and cheerful; my office clock sleek and professional.
        All of these directly follow its respective function.
        If you’re thinking, “I didn’t consider any of this when I got the clock, so how can it possibly be its function?” — Well, maybe the function of your clock is that it was easily available at your local store and not too expensive. That’s still a valid function though frowned upon by a die-hard interior designers; to him, it would have another function, an aesthetic function presumably, that the clock may not fulfill.

        3
  3. 6

    Honestly, I didn’t have the courage to read it all but the part I read made sense. “Success criterias over functional criterias” I think is what you wanted to say but you did it in around 3242 words…!

    0
  4. 7

    Great article! In the most used products, the form follows function very close. But as you’ve said sometimes the form defines a new way of approaching function, and maybe creates new functions. That reminds me of “you don’t need eyes to see, you need vision” quote.

    0
  5. 8

    Though I don’t agree with all points of this article, the argument is presented very thoroughly and has many very valid points.

    I especially liked the success criteria wording, and success criteria, as you said, is not always based on function alone. Would webkinz.com have been successful if it looked like Craigslist? No.

    Great work Steven. You’ve got my vote.

    0
  6. 9

    Excellent article!
    I loved the TED talk, and now you’ve given me endless links to check out pertaining to this idea.
    Just in time for a redesign I’m doing.
    Thanks!

    0
  7. 10

    Just a quick clarification about Frank Lloyd Wright. He did not further promote the “form follow function” mantra. Instead, he integrated the two, and believed that “form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”

    0
    • 11

      I agree with you (and of course Frank Lloyd Wright), it’s not about choosing between form and function, but making the functional elements pleasant.

      0
    • 12

      Mike I meant it in the sense that the phrase gained prominence through his work. Is that fair to say? It was through reading about Wright years ago that I first heard the phrase.

      My bad if I’m misstating things.

      0
  8. 13

    I think it’s less of which one leads the other.

    While the Functional requirements (of anything) can affect the Form and vice-versa, it seems that both Form and Function stem directly from a defined Purpose. Purpose is what blends the two together. I can’t think of an example where you would find Form or Function independent of each other (or that either must come first), but for any example both have roots in a common Purpose and the result is the proportion of the perceived dominance of Form or Function. Ultimately, without Purpose well defined, the result will have varying levels of success.

    In websites, the Purpose is usually defined by business goals, and those break out into Form goals (Brand, Communication, Design) and Function (User Needs, System Requirements, etc).

    0
    • 14

      That’s pretty much what I was trying to say Darrel. I think the phrase has often been interpreted as function leading form, but I agree with you that both work together and are led by other things.

      0
    • 15

      This is all a question of definition/interpretation. I’m convinced that the quote equates “function” to “purpose” and “form” to “design” (both in terms of technology and aesthetics).

      What a website does and how it does so are both part of its “form,” while its function may be to communicate a certain brand image, to satisfy the user needs, and to meet certain technical requirements.

      0
  9. 16

    You have to, as well, consider the context for exactly what ornamentation was when it was considered a crime. I think that most of us would still agree what the modernists considered a crime was, in fact, just that in comparison to the bold beauty of the modern ideal.

    http://www.victoriana.com/VictorianHouses/images/homeremodeling-3.jpg

    can we say that design is empty without good content?

    0
    • 17

      True. Context is important. The ornamentation they were thinking about was a bit much for my taste as well.

      0
  10. 18

    These are the kinds of amazing articles that make Smashing a cut above the rest. Bravo!

    0
    • 19

      Thanks Nick. By the way I enjoy watching the videos you and Jim create for Doctype.tv each week. Great stuff.

      0
  11. 20

    Top notch article, Steve… lots of well-put info and opinions

    0
  12. 21

    I really enjoy these in-depth reads. Thanks so much for taking the time to put this together!

    0
  13. 22

    Interesting article. Great topic. Loved the TED Talk!

    0
  14. 23

    i always make it like “form follows function” and if that works is make it good-looking. it’s the best for me. when i began with webdesign ten years ago i first made the beautiful parts and pastet the usibility and content in it. that was often frustrating.

    0
  15. 24

    Goes to show that as we uncover the priorities of a design project, we all end up knowing that its evolution into a final instance is taken on by considerations of ‘everything’ and back onto itself again, til all things align or trade off from each other.

    0
  16. 25

    To me it seems the author never really grasped what “form follows function” was meant to convey. At least, certainly not what I’ve always understood it to mean. The “function” of a USB necklace jewelry item includes being unique, beautiful, and/or cool in a feminine or masculine way (since that is what jewelry is for), being wearable (since you have to wear it), and being able to actually connect to a computer and store data (since that’s what USB devices do). “Form follows function” does NOT mean form is limited to function (i.e., it does NOT mean austerity or doing the minimum to complete the function). The key word is “follows.” Form has a lot of leeway in the perimeter of function to express itself in creative and interesting ways.

    Most often when designers have aggressively broken the “rule” (actually “guideline”) of “form follows function,” the result is sometimes cool to look at, for a few minutes. But in the long run you end up with pain. This is literally true with a lot of modernist/postmodernist furniture. It looks all trendy and hot, until you try to sit on it, and realize it was never meant for humans. The same happens with experimental typography. Yes, it’s cool when you first see it. But then you realize that if someone tried to print a lengthy book that way, you wouldn’t want to read it; you would have a headache after the first chapter. These are just a couple examples. A postmodernist designer may end up with a chair that is comfortable, or a typeface that is easy to read, but in that case they have really followed “form follows function” in spite of themselves, whether they will admit it or not.

    In some cases breaking the rules may not matter, because maybe the chair was never meant to be actually used, or maybe the book of bad typography is so short that people wouldn’t mind bearing with it for the novelty of it. But even in these cases, form is following function. It’s just that the function is highly unconventional: to make a statement, to rock the boat, to show off in some trendy breaking-the-rules sort of way.

    1
    • 26

      Michael prior to writing this article I would have agreed with what you’re saying. After researching it came across to me that the phrase was meant to imply that form comes solely from function. I don’t think that means that it can’t also be aesthetically pleasing, but rather than any form should come solely out of function.

      In the case of the USB, is being beautiful and unique truly a function of the USB. Maybe here since it’s also a necklace you could argue that it is, but with the USB itself I wouldn’t include the pure aesthetics as a function.

      I agree with everything you said about being trendy. I hope I didn’t imply that you should favor trends over function. I still think the most aesthetically beautiful designs arise out of function.

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    • 27

      Well said, Michael. I agree entirely.

      I propose rewriting history and changing the quote from “form follows function” to “design follows purpose” — many people misunderstand the meaning of “function.”*
      Then again in the altered version, people might misunderstand “design,” as it’s often used to refer to the aesthetic aspect only.

      (* That’s my interpretation of the quote anyway; don’t want to “offend” anyone who prefers another interpretation.)

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  18. 29

    Appreciate your efforts in putting this together.

    Cheers

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  19. 30

    To me, form follows function, but this in NO WAY indicates that one is superior to the other. Many times people have a narrow mindset and will think “Function OR Design?”, to which I always tell them.

    “Function AND Design”

    Each is worth $0.50, so would you rather have $0.50 or $1?

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  20. 31

    A very solid piece with loads of good and interesting information. The only major gripe to be had is the bit about evolution. One could dissect that section into very small pieces and break down how so many are wrong, but this isn’t the place. You’re hardly the only person to misunderstand the principles of evolution and natural selection, so don’t sweat it, but I might recommend avoiding such references in the future to avoid further muddying the waters of that particular issue.

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    • 32

      Ben you’re probably right that this isn’t the place to discuss evolution, but I don’t mind talking and learning. Feel free to follow the link back to my site and contact me through it. I’m not 100% sure where I’ve misunderstood things, but I’m happy to learn more if you want to share.

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    • 33

      Considering that many scientists themselves vehemently disagree with one another on the principles of evolution, I hardly think Steven can be blamed himself for misstating anything. Is the theory of evolution the same today as it was 20 years ago? What about 50 years ago? What about when Darwin first introduced the idea? And why is it still called a “theory”, if it’s a fact? Could that be because people are still “theorizing” about it?

      Anyhow, like you said, this is not the place for that, but I guess my point is that Steven shouldn’t necessarily be faulted for offering a non-mainstream view of evolution considering how that theory itself has, ironically, evolved to the point that if Charles Darwin were alive today, I think he may just deny his own findings.

      Great article, nonetheless, Steven. Definitely a lot here to consider and dissect.

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  21. 34

    Good article. A bit extense though but recommended reading.

    I started my career on web design and development thinking in aesthetics first and then function. Soon enough I found that form does follow function and my projects began to be more coherent.
    Lately I’ve been in the middle. Sometimes I find myself removing some functionality for the sake of look and feel. Bottom line (for me) are projects that work well for the user and that are pleasant to use.

    Cheers and keep up the good work

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  22. 35

    About your clock example, I really won’t agree with you. I still think “form follows function” should drive the process of designing a watch.

    You see… the watch isn’t always a simple watch. The watch in my car or in my computer should be digital as it will only be used to tell the time. I want it simple and fast.

    But the watch in my wrist or the watch in my living room, that one will have to be analogue and, therefore, beautiful! It’s an ornament to myself and to my home! Hence, being beautiful is part of the clock’s function… in this scenario, being beautiful IS following the function.

    Avoid thinking that simpler = more functional.

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    • 36

      Is being beautiful really a function of the clock or watch? I think that would be more based on the criteria you define for success than function. I think the function of either clock or watch is to tell time and nothing more. The aesthetic considerations come from something else and it’s that something else (success criteria) that drives the design process.

      I guess it comes down to what you consider function and how you define that term. I don’t think simpler automatically means more functional. Hence the section on beautiful things functioning better.

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      • 37

        Think about Breitling creating a new wristwatch. Don’t you think the “looks”, the inherent “status” will be part of the function? Of course, it can fit in the success criteria. But it’s part of the desired functions. A designer working on the watch will have that as a purpose.

        Mainly… I wouldn’t say that telling the time is the only function of such a luxurious wristwatch, at all. I mean… it has to be more :)

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        • 38

          I think we’re kind of agreeing, but calling the same thing by a different name. To me the looks with the watch aren’t function. They’re success criteria. The aesthetics are definitely important to the design and the purpose of the watch, but I don’t see it as function.

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  23. 39

    Great article. But what and where are the pair of tilting buildings in the third picture?

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    • 40

      Thanks Eric. The buildings are Puerta de Europa in Madrid. If you click the link for Phillip Johnson a paragraph or two above the image it’ll take you to the Wikiepedia page on Johnson, who was the architect.

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    • 41

      Maybe not so important information, just because you asked about the buildings: they actually don´t look that tilted. The wide angle photography has increased that sensation. You can notice that in the buses at the bottom.

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      • 42

        Oh yeah. Funny. I hadn’t noticed that when I first came across the image, but you can clearly see it looking at the buses like you say.

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        • 43

          Actually, I’d wondered about that, just because the structural verticals in the middles of the towers appeared to want to be pure verticals, but were also tilted in. Thanks!

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  24. 44

    Interesting topic, but I feel the author completely missed the point himself. The posting was lengthy and overwritten. If “Every force evolves a form” or “Form follows function” then the post should have been focused on it’s application to web design with minimal words. In general I think smashing should consider shortening all their postings to more precise information.

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  25. 45

    I’d have to disagree with some of the underlying tenants of this article. I believe that that the best designs in fact do result from applying “form follows function” to it’s fullest. In fact, it’s in properly defining your “function criteria” that you gets you the most success (and the type of success you are looking for as well). The “success criteria” you mention is *part* of the functional criteria, not separate from it.

    For example, a piece of art may not have a *utilitarian* function but it usually does have an function nonetheless. Much of the time that function is to convey some thought to emotion to the viewer of the work (the form) … even if that emotion is simply one of “being pleasing to the eye”. I’m guessing you probably would have defined “being pleasing to the eye” as a “success criteria”.

    To further your earlier example with respect to site design, if we only went as far to define the “function” of any given e-commerce site to “advertise/sell products to potential consumers” then they would in fact probably all look the same save for differing products and company names/color schemes. On some level many of these sites in fact *will* be exactly the same … especially if the site uses an underlying framework with functionality geared to dynamically generate pages for e-commerce sites.

    If we further define the function of the site to be to “advertise/sell *toys* to potential customers” then our form should naturally adapt to follow what ever functionality is specific to selling toys (which in part would be to appeal to the age group for which the toys are geared toward). We can still use our nice PHP framework, but the layout and style should be predominantly “kid-friendly” … except for perhaps the “checkout” area which is where the parents will likely be making the purchases.

    To use a couple phrases from this article, I think that, every force (i.e. needs/wants) evolves a function (not form). To put it another way, “function follows force” and therefore “form follows function follows force”. Only when you fully understand the “forces” involved can you most fully define the function and thus create the most optimal form (or perhaps one of the most optimal should the definition allow for a range). If you only partly understand the force, then you will have a less than optimal function definition and; therefore, your definition will not lead to the most optimal form.

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  26. 46

    Great article!

    >>>The descriptive interpretation favors simplicity to complexity. It states that beauty results from purity of function and not from ornamentation.

    Can you stand one more quote from an architect?

    Beauty is a consequential thing, a product of solving problems correctly.
    – Joseph Esherick, architect

    I like the idea of “success criteria,” although even that can be abused.

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  27. 47

    I think in web design, form and function go hand in hand. You can’t think about form without considering function and vice versa. When I design a website, I don’t simply design it then think “okay, now how am I going to make this function” I do the function as I create the form.

    In other concepts form could follow function or the other way around but I feel that in web design if you don’t think about it together then you can’t design a proper website. Because I feel if you spend your time doing the form, then later do the function, you’re basically a graphic designer then you finally realize you have to flip the switch to be a web designer. You can’t really do that, your mind has to be thinking form and function at the same time to create a site that both looks fantastic and has excellent usability.

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  28. 48

    Madrid on the frontpage, woot!

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  29. 49

    Everything is fine with that principle, just look at things like a http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hammer , a tool has been working for thousands of years mostly unchanged in its form. The problem nowadays might be the fact, we live in a saturated market, every company is fighting for market shares, lots of consumers are blended by a “stylish” design. And well, it works, products are sold indenpendently of their function. Just look at the whole automotive industry, the core is hardly changing, “futuristic” designs help to establish the special kind of company´s image. Up to the point you notice you can hardly see anything through the rear window of your brand new car for example. The list of such awful examples is endless.

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    In any practical endeavor, function is the starting point. The carpenter, the speaker, the architect, and the software engineer have something in common: their creation must work. The chair must fit, the speech must convey, the building must accommodate, and the code must carry out the task. If this first criterion is not met, nothing else matters.

    For the artists among us, liberal and otherwise, function is not enough. We agonize over materials, proportions, words, strategies, and a thousand other details. We invest a part of ourselves seeking to marry form and function.

    We owe an enormous debt to those who understand the principles of form and function. Because of them, the Chrysler Building is not a box and the Gettysburg Address is not just another speech.

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  31. 51

    Someone please get old Jakob Nielsen to read this article. Excellent article.
    Thanks very much

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  32. 52

    Great text.
    I especially like the part regarding the ATM machines.

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  33. 53

    I think that given that most designers are also developers the area concerning form over function is vastly becomming a dead area. Designers and developers are more than capable of looking at a clients specs and formulating a desired schematic that covers the form and function.

    Regarding your problem with your financial status, you should look at your original business plan and trace back where you have gone off track. Given that your business plan would have changed over the time your key goals would have remaind the same.

    I wouldn’t want this site to disappear as it seems to have established itself.

    p.s do some radical cost cutting….

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  34. 54

    I like the idea of breaking off symetry, adding balance and create a synergy between the design and usability. when it comes to web design, i want my site to look good, but the same time to be useful, so visitors enter, look for what they want and leave. It does make sense with your arguments. Very good article!

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  35. 55

    It’s scary to think that emotion drives our decisions. I know people do fall into the trap of choosing things based on emotions but we have learned over time that reason is a much better guide and reigns in our emotions, or validates our emotional desires against our value system. That’s what makes product design interesting, product makers, designers, and marketers consciously or subconsciously drive their approach to the emotional appeal or the rational appeal based on their goals, values, and experiences.

    I think in the end what makes a successful product is the balance of emotional attraction to rationalization of functional need.

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  36. 56

    Nice article!

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  37. 57

    Great article. I was introduced to this concept nearly 10 years ago by my old boss – who wasn’t a designer – but a project manager (at the time).

    Been using this mantra ever since and it’s a major contribution to my success so far too in my career.

    Well done SM.

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  38. 58

    “Attractiveness bias”, absolutely. As in all things, we are in search always, for the easiest path. For some beautiful reason, we have chosen beauty as our bread crumb. Beauty is easy?

    Attractiveness is an acquired skill? Maybe but what if you have this ability from the beginning of you, perhaps it is written in your DNA, as in mine. Searching for beauty is nothing new, neither is the result, the pleasure response. For some beautiful reason, when choosing, we chose to reward ourselves with pleasure when we decide that we have chosen correctly.

    “Function alone does not drive form. Form evolves from the holistic forces of the project—audience needs, client desires, ethical obligations, aesthetic inclinations, material properties, cultural presuppositions, and yes, functional requirements.”
    Mother Ann Lee (1736–1784)

    Ah, Mother, all things in forward motion, growing themselves a form from what comes along the way combined with what they had to begin. Beautiful.

    I more than liked this article. Well done. I find the links daunting but, I believe, only with this particular article. I could very well see myself venturing off and away with a clear ability to find my way back to you, when the topic is more in-depth. I felt that you answered my questions, even the natural questions that arose while reading. I will remember the collective (which I appreciate to no end) of links and refer back if necessary.

    Thank you for the education. I learned that I love Mother Ann Lee like she were my sister or left brain. I also learned about the clean pristine line that my brother Louis Sullivan believed in, much like my right brain, it is one of the most important statements of all time. The simple functioning line.

    Mary C

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  39. 59

    I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with some of the major points of this article.

    First and foremost, the reference to evolution as an example of nature putting form before function is dead wrong. Proponents of evolution believe that random mutations are responsible for change in living organisms and that the mutations which are beneficial in a given environment are propagated, though the details vary from there. We as designers, in a word, design. That is, we make conscience decisions with the intent to arrange information. Therefore comparing a designer’s intent with blind mutations is fundamentally flawed. Neither “evolution,” nor “nature” are sentient beings that “decide” to make forms that are pretty which subsequently turn out to have utility in a specific environment. Indeed, even if one were to accept the analogy, the conclusion one must draw is that form follows function because it is only the mutations that are of utility that are propagated and therefore endure.

    Second, I’m almost certain that no historical figure who chose the axiom “form follows function” meant it in quite the way you have described. Even those that discarded heavy ornamentation still believed in producing aesthetically pleasing work. The Guggenheim is not the way it is solely because it is the most efficient means to present artwork. I can think of numerous ways of creating a space that is more conducive to that function. Rather, most, if not all proponents of “form follows function” simply mean that the form of a designed object must not be hindrance to its function. In other words, if you make a pretty website that nobody can use, you have failed as a web designer.

    The one point you make that I do agree with is that the beauty of things sometimes enhances it actual or perceived utility. However, I would argue that is only true if the beauty of the thing does not hinder its function.

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  40. 60

    Well, naturally it has to be easy on the eyes, and comfortable to navigate otherwise users lose interest fast.

    Lu

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  41. 61

    I love Tweetie’s interface, I don’t know of anything more that really /need/ . No matter what app I use for twitter (Desktop or iPhone) I always come back to Tweetie.

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  42. 62

    The author’s conclusions are reasonable only if you subscribe to his premise, and his comments about “form follows function” reveal that his grasp of that concept is lacking.

    The phrase goes back to areas of disagreement between the original design professions. Engineers focused on the function, perhaps a bridge to bear heavy loads, emphasizing cost-effective achievement of the goal, and were scornful of appearance. Architects wanted to make a visual statement, but perhaps at the cost of durability, efficiency, longevity. Arguments raged, with each side convinced of the purity of its position.

    The phrase we now discuss was truth, simply stated. And both sides agreed. For example, the purpose of an airplane is to slice through air. That is the function. Thus, the form must reduce drag; it must be aerodynamic. Just one form for the function, one design for an airplane? Of course not. How absurd. “Form follows function” does nothing more than state the principle that you need to know the purpose of a thing before you design it.

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  43. 63

    The part about evolution to me It’s mistaken, When an animal is placed in an enviroment that has for example air and the animal is a water animal and to survive it needs to get out of the water to search for food so he needs to developed through evolution some sort of organ to breath so he adapts to the enviroment, his body (Form) follows and changes to be able to breath so he develops a breathing organ so it can breath and search for the food (Function).

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  44. 64

    @ Brett Agreed: In web design, form and function go hand in hand.

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  45. 65

    Have you read the book “The Evolution Of Useful Things” by Henry Petroski? He is saying that design does not follows fuction, but rather “form follows failure”. Everything is redesign and an improvement of products that had a fail with it.

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  46. 66

    The design of the Guggenheim does not follow function as stated. One of the biggest problems being that the circular form of the museum does not provide flat walls onto which paintings can hang. Also the descending ramp does not provide a level ground for works to be apprecited for extended periods and the ramp is only 10 or 12 feet wide, which means viewers cannot view the works from greater distances. The architect should never overshadow the art at an art museum.

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  47. 67

    ” ‘Form follows function’ allows for ornamentation as long as it serves a function.”

    I’m not sure Louis Sullivan would have exactly agreed with this interpretation.

    Other Chicago architects of that time, like Holabird & Roache and Burnham & Root, built skyscrapers that helped to elevate functional design over historical consideration, but part of what makes Sullivan’s buildings so remarkable is the originality and attention to detail in his ornamentation. This ornamentation is one of the defining characteristics of his work. The breathtaking decoration added to the cornices of most of his buildings in Chicago would seem to violate his own statement under this interpretation, as they do not serve any specific function (assuming beauty is not a function). These additions follow function in the sense that they do not impede or compete with the utility of the building.

    In Sullivan’s time, the prevailing attitude was that large public buildings needed to have a certain set of neoclassical features, such as Greek columns, even though they were no longer necessary to the actual structure. Even most skyscrapers were still built with columns and arches at the bottom levels; the rest of the building just rose out of them. The main function of a skyscraper is to fit many different people and organizations on a single valuable piece of land. The Chicago architects removed the lower columns and arches and let beams run up the side of the building uninterrupted to emphasize the building’s height (function). The old forms were distracting from the function.

    Sullivan did not believe that every feature of a building must serve a function, but only that function should be considered before form, that historical forms did not need to be present if they no longer served a function.

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  48. 68

    “Which clock above is best? Would you feel the same about either clock below if its display was digital?”

    But you have totally misunderstood the meaning of the principle. By saying “Which clock above is best” you are implying that “being a clock” is the only function of the device that is important, that’s like saying “Which is best a short rope or a long rope?”

    “If we were to follow “form follows function” as a hard and fast rule, what would a clock look like?”

    It depends on what the function of the clock is. Its way to shallow to say:

    “It’s function is to tell time and nothing else.”

    because there are so many more dimensions to the function of a clock than to just tell the time. That’s like saying:

    “The function of a house is to keep us warm and dry, therefore the best way to build a house is to smack together four walls of concrete” – your definition of function is to shallow.

    “A designer might conclude that the simplest, fastest and most accurate way to show time would be on a digital display”.

    A clock is a device that tells the time – yes, that is true, but if we are to follow the principle to a meaningful extent we must look deeper than that. For example: 1) a marathon runners clock, 2) a physicists clock, and 3) my wristwatch are all clocks – yet they haven’t got the same function. Their function is to 1) tell relative time, 2) to be accurate and 3) to be convenient. I couldn’t care less if my clock weren’t accurate to the millisecond – its function is not mainly accuracy, it is to be a convenient way to tell (about the right) time.

    “Success criteria, not function, should determine form….

    “…Identify everyone with a stake in the project,
    Determine the goals of each stakeholder,
    Prioritize and harmonize those goals,
    Decide how success will be measured.”

    So lets say we have a design job for a firm that wants to erect a tower clock in the middle of a citiy’s public square. Our biggest stake holder is a lady with a very unflattering fetish for pink fluffy accessories, and she of course wants the clock to have a pink background and that each hour should be clad in light-pink fluffy hair. This ultimately makes the time very hard to tell and is emarising for everyone but our biggest stake holder. You can’t really “harmonize” away the goals and values of your biggest stakeholder can you?
    So there it stands a year later a pink clock from which no one could tell the time. And we all say – thank god we followed our holy design principle “Form follows Success criteria”, this is true beauty!

    And one last thing…

    “Digital clocks are not particularly beautiful, though.”

    It’s at this level the principle acquires a whole new depth. Why don’t you think that a digital clock is beautiful? Your answer would (based on what you wrote about analog clocks) be: “because most people don’t think so”. Now I know that the definition of beauty is a well-traveled subject – but I don’t believe (and neither does any artist with integrity) that the majority has anything to do with it. The genius of the principle “form follows function” is that it allows the definition of beauty to be based on objective reality rather than pure whim or trend.

    The answer to the article title is: Yes, form follows function.

    I end with a quote from a hero of mine:

    “Rules? Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn’t borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window, and stairway to express it.” — Howard Roark, The Fountainhead.

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  49. 69

    Shocked that nobody thought of ‘V’.

    Who? Who is but the form following the function of what, and what I am is a man in a mask.

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  50. 70

    Thanks for the thoughts on the subject as well as the great examples and sources you put together.

    Now I will be lost writing my blog about SharePoint and intranet design as I follow your functional endeavor to provide samples, examples, and perspectives.

    Much appreciation – Toby

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  51. 71

    I have still yet to read it, in Pocket for now. But, I have to say, that your argument about function following form in biology is exceptionally arguable, frankly, quite the opposite is correct. Over generations the unfunctional “turned on” genes (ones which resolve in a phenotypical trait) have been eliminated from the genetic pool eventually. Which is understandable, an unfuctional trait, based on a such a gene is a loss because of the energy spent on its maintenance. If the trait does not return a benefit for the survival of the gene carrier, the survivability of the genes, all of them in a carrier, is compromised.

    The question of how the gene came to be initially is a different question alltogether, and here, we will need to get into a discussion of potential valleys for object, basically energy-stable chemical bonds within a molecule. But that is a different thing altogether.

    In conclusion – in biology, actually form, as everything else, follows function, which is defined by lessened energy spend = increased survivability. At the end of it all, the minimisation of the potential energy of objects.

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