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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.
“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.
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.
In 1908 Austrian architect, Adolf Loos proclaimed that architectural “ornament was a crime” (PDF). 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.
Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus6, 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 Johnson7.
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 architecture9, which was a reaction to Modernism and Functionalism10.
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.”
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.
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.
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.