Friday, January 06, 2012

In Time, "Form Follows Function"

In Louis Sullivan's classic statement, "Form Follows Function" it is function that is usually seen as the dominant member of this design duality. It was one of the first design tenets that I learned in college and one that remains a core part of my design philosophy to this day. That said, I can't think of a single design project where the opposite wasn't true at least some of the time. The truth is that we are visual beings. We are often quick and astute judges of form. We know when something looks right and when it looks wrong, even if we haven't studied design. On top of this, function can rarely be judged at a quick glance. By definition, you must use the object, building, shirt, service before you can truly judge it's functional quality. The net result of this is that many designs are judged based on their form first and function second… despite Sullivan's admonition.

In my experience, most designers remain faithful to one camp even as they evolve to see both sides of the coin. I see many function-minded designers create mockups that address many of the requirements but result in a design that is awkward and ugly. I also see many form-focused designers who are almost incapable of creating an ugly mark on a page but who excel at ignoring or forgetting key user needs. The best products are the result of hard work at addressing issues on both sides of the fence.

I also notice this dialog happening in my own design process. I remain focused on function in my heart but I've acknowledged how often this has resulted in a proposal that, though more functional has lost out to a more stylish alternate proposal. I find myself removing details from concept proposals to postpone discussions of thorny requirements. As I was pondering this issue while reading some of Don Norman's teachings, I realize I am not the first functionalist to come to this understanding.

I remember hearing Don Norman speak at TED about his revelation that function was not everything. If I remember it correctly, he talked about a response to his concerns about light switches and burner controls on a stove. In both examples, the mapping of the controls usually relates poorly if at all to the mapping of the actual lights or burners. So, in order to prove his point, he redesigned the light switch for his living room so it featured a floor plan with the switches placed in close relation to the light switch it controlled. The result was highly functional but one of the most ugly light switches I've ever seen. Apparently his wife agreed and told him she hated the switch and wanted the old, less functional one back. I remember seeing the light switch in his book and thinking it a monstrosity of design. I recall a similar scenario with train schedules in Edward Tufte's first book, "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information".

Mies Van der Rohe was such a big proponent of "form follows function" that he is often credited with penning the quote. Mies is famous for his simple, Germanic designs both in elevation and plan. Details are all thought out but as minimal as possible. A skyscraper is a series of vertical I-beams with Windows in between each I-beam. Mies' belief in this tenet was so strong that he broke his own belief on his design of the Seagram Building to make the point. Though I-beams are a basic element of every skyscraper, it is rare that the beams are left exposed. Most of covered in fireproofing and then hidden behind a cladding or wall. Mies Van der Rohe's answer to this on the Seagram Building was to basically add a decorative I-beam to the outermost edge of his facade. These I-beams are pure decoration… no different than the heavy rustication used in Renaissance villas or the highly ornate terra-cotta tiles on many of Louis Sullivan's early skyscrapers.

All of this makes me think of the original statement. Mies started the building with the best of purely functional intentions. But he knew in his heart that there was an aesthetic to what he was proposing and that he sometimes needed to stray into the realm of form to make his functional ambitions clear. Sullivan's early skyscrapers are known as much for the heavy use of ornament… maybe as a way to soften the shock of the sudden appearance of tall structures in the urban landscape. Perhaps his strong belief in his own statement took for granted that ornament (one type of form) would always be present. As one element of a building, ornament should be applied in a way that follows the lines (function) of the building rather than in an otherwise unrelated pattern.

Since I am grounded on the functional side, I can not speak for the process of those that are on the form side of the equation. For me, I start with function, then proceed to adjusting the form to make a more visually pleasing solution. So, from a scheduling perspective, form does follow function. My success is for others to decide but that is my process.

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