Form Follows Function, Right? Not So Fast.

In my first week of studying industrial design in college one of my professors turned to the class, and while holding and pointing to a hammer, he said "form follows function." That was the first time I heard the phrase but certainly not the last. Form follows function is one of the first rules or "laws" of design that all design and architect students learn and they pretty much carry it with them through their professional careers. It's difficult to argue that this is not a true statement.

But for me it's like the chicken and the egg—we have to ask which came first, the form or the function? If you go back to the early existence of humans you might have to reverse the order and emphasis of the words to "function follows form." Before we started to build our own stone tools we almost certainly scrounged around for existing natural objects (stones, bones, sticks) that could help us perform tasks. A stone that fit neatly in the hand could be used to apply sharp blows. A pointed stick worked well for jabbing holes in things. So in these cases the form actually existed before the function. It was the form that stirred the imagination and the idea of use, which then led to the function.

Let's face it, the same is true today. Technically you can't have the function until you have finalized the form—you can only have the idea or imagination of the function. Let's say you were designing a coffee cup that would be the world's most comfortable coffee cup. Well, you would have to imagine how to achieve it and then build the form before you could experience the function, which leads me to the statement... form follows imagination and function follows form.

Okay—so what does this all mean for all those cool technology products we fill our lives with? You know—the cell phones, the cameras, the laptops and those big flat screen TV sets. The idea that form follows function carries little weight here, especially when it comes to consumer electronics (aka CE). With these products the form is based on efficient containment of internal components such as circuit boards and displays. Circuit boards and displays come in rectangular shapes so an efficient way to contain them is in a box.

box design

Depending on the type of product (cell phone, TV etc.) the box size and proportion can be adjusted to fit the stuff that has to go inside. Gee, I wonder what form the next iPod will be?? With CE products we could say: form follows function… as long as it's a box.

It is for this reason that traditional product design for CE has been primarily relegated to detailing boxes through subtle variation, material use, and color. And, let face it, usually those colors are black, white, or silver. Sure, some have rounded corners and the occasional curved line but for the most part they are still boxes. The expression of function no longer resides in these forms, it resides in the way that we use them, the interface, the interaction and the experience. So, this is really the new frontier for design and function… and I'm not really even sure if traditional notion of form exists anymore…at least for this category.

box design

Hey industrial designers—don't be bummed out. We could still work on the world's most comfortable coffee cup or maybe even a better hammer. Let me know what you think…or if you even care.

Tom Dair, co-founder and president of Smart Design, runs the company's San Francisco office. He directs the firm's Insights and Strategy discipline, where he has pioneered techniques for achieving better design through an understanding of user behavior, business factors, and technology trends

Dair holds 19 patents for products ranging from complex medical devices to children's toothbrushes. His designs have won a variety of awards and are featured in a number of museum collections.

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5 Comments

  • Joe Borg

    I disagree with the function follows a given form argument. You ngelect to evolution and your arguments disagree to maturity. For example the first mobile phones were big chumps and nothing you can can realy use for daily work. Since they imagined the function of a "handy" mobile phone, they gave the mobile phone a smaller design that fits human hand. 
    I guess, since they can imagine a "cybernetic" after some more work over the years, they will follow the function by a design of something like brain-adaptept communication cells.
    There  is no chicken without an egg in technology.
    Regards,
    Joe

  • Avrami Rakovsky

    I loved how you simplified the world of electronics to boxes. The photos with the captions made me laugh. 

    I think that working on things that are not electronic is just as important. I'm a student at NJIT and my thesis project that I'm currently working on actually has a major basis in what you are referring to. In my research I divided objects into two categories. A) Objects that implied function but were only about form. Like a bottle with 10 screw-caps. B) Objects that implied form but were completely functional. I decided to go down the path of the second category. I am currently designing a hammer with the intention that it will be sculptural enough for people to mistake it as such and display it rather than hide it in a tool shed, while also being completely functional for use as a household hammer.The question of form vs. function is an age old design topic and either side can make reasonable arguments depending on specific case.

  • Larry Jebsen

    yeah thats totally true i was trying to find a explanation but then you came out with your chicken-egg example thanks

  • Ivy Chuang

    ah - the age old dilemma. There is something to be said about the loss of communication that we see in CE products these days. It's not as simple as a knife, or a pair of scissors anymore.

    We are designing in an age where functions are increasingly virtual. It's no longer necessary for the object itself to communicate in its shape what it's suppose to do. Experience is the real form, and it always leads - no need to be bummed out - at the core, we're designing life - and it doesn't get much more interesting than that.

  • Michael Smythe

    Back in 1980 I attended a design conference in Sydney (I am in New Zealand) at which Mark Brutton (ex-editor of Design) said that electronics could make all products a 'black box' with push-button inputs and some sort of display output. He saw form-follows-function as moving from expressing how the object did its job mechanically to what it did for us electronically.
    In 1998 Helen Schamroth wrote in her book '100 New Zealand Craft Artists':
    Even the notion of functionalism ... has expanded. By including physical, social, emotional, cultural, spiritual, narrative and iconographic functions we gain new insights into the concept.