Skip to main content

Form and Function in Design

Form and Function in Design

By Tojin T. Eapen

Form and function are two fundamental characteristics of design that work together to create a successful and aesthetically pleasing product or system. Form refers to the visual appearance or outward design of an object, while function refers to its intended purpose or behavior. 

In design, form and function must be carefully balanced to create a product that not only looks good, but also performs its intended function effectively. A product with a visually pleasing form but poor function will ultimately be unsuccessful, while a product with excellent function but an unappealing form may not be as well received.

In this article, we discuss three principles that relate to the relationship between form and function in design. The first principle is "form follows function," or in its original form, "form ever follows function." This principle suggests that the form of a product should be designed to support and enhance its function. The second principle, "function follows form," suggests that in some cases it may be advantageous to design the form of a product first and then design the functions to fit within its constraints. The third principle, "separation of form and function," recognizes the importance of designing form and function independently and in isolation, and then combining them in a loosely coupled fashion at a later stage in the design process.

Form Follows Function

"Form follows function" (FFF1) is a principle in design that suggests that the form or appearance of a product should be determined by its intended function or purpose. This principle is often used to guide the design process, ensuring that the product is not only visually appealing, but also highly functional and effective. The principle originates in the design dictum "form ever follows function" which was coined in 1896 by American architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) in his essay, The tall office building artistically considered. According to Sullivan:

Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling workhorse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies in a twinkling.

Sullivan argued that a building's form should be determined by its function, and that any ornamentation or decorative elements should be derived from the building's structure and purpose. This principle became a guiding principle for the modernist movement in architecture and design, and it has since been widely adopted in various fields of design.

Function Follows Form

A paradigm that inverts the traditional thinking of "form follows function" is "function follows form" (FFF2), or "Form Leads Function" (FLF) where the goal is to design a product with a novel or superior appearance and then design the functions within the limitations imposed by the form. There are at least two situations where this dictum may be sensible to apply.

The first situation is when the primary goal of the design is the aesthetic itself. For example, for many products, the determining factor for their value is their appearance. Handbags, jewelry, watches, and even expensive cars are sometimes able to command a premium price due to their visual appearance that distinguishes them from less expensive items. In these cases, an implicit assumption is that the constraints imposed by the form are not sufficiently limiting, and the core function can be provided independently of the form itself.

Another reason that the FFF2 paradigm may actually be a more pragmatic approach is that it can be challenging to design the form around optimized functions. This can result in products that are designed primarily with function in mind appearing drab and unattractive. By starting with the form and designing the functions to fit within its limitations, it is possible to create a product that is both aesthetically pleasing and functional.

The "function follows form" principle may also be a powerful tool to avoid biases that can arise during creative thinking, such as functional fixedness and design fixation. By starting with a novel design and then designing the function to fit within its constraints, the designer is challenged to think creatively about how to incorporate the function into the form. This approach can help to break free from preconceived notions about how a product should function and allow the designer to consider a wider range of creative solutions.

Moderate levels of constraints have been shown to be associated with higher levels of creative production. Therefore, the constraints imposed by the form on the function may actually result in superior functional designs compared to designing for function without any constraints. By using the "function follows form" principle, designers may be able to generate more innovative and effective solutions to design challenges.

The "function follows form" principle also finds application in design when generative artificial intelligence (AI) technology is used in the first stage to create raw concepts. In these cases, the AI is better suited to identifying novel forms when no constraints are imposed. These novel forms can then be used as a starting point for designing novel functional features that may not have been recognized without the form imposing the demand for such thinking.

For example, a designer may use generative AI to create a collection of novel form concepts for a new type of chair. The AI may generate a range of concepts that vary widely in their appearance, from simple and minimalist to complex and sculptural. The designer can then choose a form concept that inspires them and use it as a starting point for designing the chair's functional features, such as the type of materials to use, the size and shape of the seat and backrest, and the type of leg or base structure to support the chair.

The "function follows form" principle is particularly useful in these cases because it allows designers to break free from preconceived notions about how a product should look and function. By starting with a novel form, designers are forced to think creatively about how to incorporate the necessary functions into the design, given the constraints imposed by the form. This approach can lead to more innovative and effective designs that may not have been possible with traditional design approaches.

Separation of Form and Function

The "separation of form and function" (SFF) principle is a design approach that suggests that form and function should be dealt with independently and in isolation, and then joined together in a loosely coupled fashion. This approach allows designers to focus on each aspect of a product independently and optimize it before combining them. The form of a product can be designed separately from its function, and the two can be brought together at a later stage in the design process, once they are both completed.

One example of the application of the SFF principle is in the design of physical products. In this case, the functions of the product might be contained within a "box," while the form of the product is designed separately and then applied to the box. For example, a designer might design the form of a phone as a sleek and slim case, while the functions of the phone (such as the display, processor, and battery) are contained within the box. By separating the form and function in this way, the designer is able to optimize each aspect independently and create a product that is both aesthetically pleasing and highly functional.

In software design, SFF is encapsulated in the "Separation of Concerns" (SoC) principle. This principle was coined was coined by Edsger W. Dijkstra in his 1974 article, On the role of scientific thought. One well-known example this is the use of HTML/CSS in website design. HTML is used to define the structure and content of a web page, such as the headings, paragraphs, lists, and links. It is responsible for the underlying function of the web page, but it does not dictate its appearance. CSS, on the other hand, is used to define the visual appearance and layout of the web page, such as the font, color, size, and positioning of the elements. It is responsible for the form of the web page, but it does not dictate its underlying function.

Resources


To learn how leading Fortune Global 500 companies such as ABB, Bosch, Google, Samsung, and NetApp have used Innomantra's Functional Innovation Methodology to turbocharge their idea management process, schedule a meeting today at calendly.com/innomantra.

Comments

Popular Posts

Camelar: AI Product Ideation for Camel Inspired Cars

By Tojin T. Eapen We used AI tools ( chatGPT and Stable Diffusion ) to generate concept cars ("Camelars") that are inspired by camels, which are known for their exceptional ability to survive and thrive in rugged and challenging environments.  We wanted Camelars to ideally include features and capabilities that would allow them to perform well in conditions such as rough terrain, extreme temperatures, and limited resources. For this, we generated the following description of the Camelar, a bioinspired car that borrows from the appearance and characteristics of the camel. Generate an image of a car inspired by a camel, designed for long distance travel through harsh or remote environments. The car should have a spacious and comfortable interior with amenities like a built-in kitchen and sleeping quarters, as well as storage compartments for supplies and equipment. The exterior should feature a rugged and durable design, with features like high ground clearance, all-terrain ti

Empathy and Confrontation in Idea Generation

By  Tojin T. Eapen Successful innovation often involves two key factors: empathy and confrontation .  Empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is important in both art and science. In art, empathy with human subjects allows artists and writers to create relatable works. In science, empathy with non-human entities and abstract concepts allows investigators to understand them deeply and intuitively. The second key factor in innovation is confrontation, or the clash of ideas , perspectives, or reference frames. While empathy and confrontation may seem contradictory, both are essential for successful innovation, and one often leads to the other. According to MIT professor Edward Roberts , innovation is the combination of invention and exploitation. Theresa Amabile defines innovation as the successful implementation of creative ideas within an organization.  The term innovation can be seen as a portmanteau word that encapsulates its own ingredients: in spira

Generative AI for Bioinspired Product Ideation

By Tojin T. Eapen The design of products, processes, and organizations guided by principles observed in living systems can be referred to as " Bioinspired System Design ." In a series of posts, we delve into the potential of generative artificial intelligence (AI) to generate bioinspired product design concepts as a part of the idea management process. Specifically, we will look at how living organisms can serve as inspiration to redesign common products and human artifacts including bags, cars, bags, pens, tanks, trains, and umbrellas. In each of these articles, we will examine how the unique characteristics and behaviors of a particular living organism can be incorporated into the design of the bioinspired product. Elephantcopter: AI Designed Elephant Inspired Helicopters Camelar: AI Product Ideation for Camel Inspired Cars Koafa: AI Product Ideation for the Koala Inspired Sofas Paradiso: AI Product Ideation for Birds-of-Paradise Inspired T-Shirts Tigoes: AI Product Ideati

The Efficiency-Resilience-Prominence (ERP) Framework

Consider any living organism and its struggle for survival in a changing environment. Three crucial factors are common to all living systems: resource management, especially energy resources; coping with environmental forces such as heat, wind, and currents; and managing relationships with other entities, which can range from friendly to predatory.  These three factors are referred to as survivability concerns. To increase survival, an organism must adapt and manage these concerns, either through biological means like specialized organs, or behavioral means such as action and strategy. Organizations also face these same concerns of resources, forces, and relationships in their quest for survival.  Each living system has three corresponding capability factors: efficiency in managing resources, resilience against environmental forces, and prominence in attracting or evading attention. These three capabilities are collectively known as the ERP factors.