Form Follows Function No More

There’s an old saying in Industrial Design: “form follows function” which, loosely translated, means a really well-designed product (or system) instantly conveys its function to the user via its appearance. For example, in considering the affordances of doors, door hardware can signal whether to push or pull without signs1, thereby instantly conveying its intended operation to users.

For decades this design philosophy has embodied countless mass produced objects and consumer products. Look at any noteworthy product created during the golden age of Industrial Design throughout the industrial revolution leading up to the information age and you’re bound to see this axiom represented.

Form Follows Feelings
Fast forward to the information age. The past decade has seen a dramatic shift in how products are designed and manufactured. In particular, the proliferation of digital products and screen-based applications have given industrial designers a new set of challenges in terms of effectively communicating a device’s functional attributes given the increasing complexity of digital technology.

How people feel about a product or system has now become largely independent from the physical form of an object or device. Just look at modern smartphones. The optimal form tends to emphasize the screen causing most phones to generally adhere to the same  rectangular exterior form —a glass slab of sorts. However what lurks beneath the surface (on the screen) then becomes the focus of the user and ultimately what distinguishes one brand of smartphone from the next.

In the user-iIllusion of the world Norbert Bolz sets forth the compelling idea that form now follows the feelings of consumers and not the function of things.

Perhaps the most holistically motivated evolution of the form follows function axiom is the idea form should now follow evolution. This is best espoused in the 2002 book Cradle to Cradle written by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

In my mind chapter 4: Waste Equals Food, best epitomizes the thesis of the book:

A World of Two Metabolisms
If humans are truly going to prosper, we will have to learn to imitate nature’s highly effective cradle-to-cradle system of nutrient flow and metabolism, in which the very concept of waste does not exist. To eliminate the concept of waste means to design things—products, packaging, and systems—from the very beginning on the understanding that waste does not exist. It means that the valuable nutrients contained in the materials shape and determine the design: form follows evolution, not just function.

1 The Design of Everyday Things, 1998. Donald A. Norman, Page 10 Affordances.