How Form Follows Function In Digital & Product Design

How Form Follows Function In Digital & Product Design

There was a time in history when the concept of minimalism was not even conceivable — a time when there was no relationship defined between form and function in design terms. In the late 1800s when the architectural industry was in search for a new design perspective, Louis Sullivan came up with the phrase ‘the form ever follows function’ in his article titled ‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered’ which talks about the architectural purpose of buildings. He spoke about the functional aspect of designing buildings rather than only relying on ornamental models which would merely be pleasing to the eyes. So, what was Sullivan talking about? What is Form? What is a Function? Moreover, the bigger question is how do they influence product designs?

What is Form?

A form is the outer surface or structure of an object. It is what people see and interact with. A form is the first thing that anyone notices about an object. It is the foundation of design of the product based on our perceptions and attitudes to things that we come across in our daily lives. The primary goal of product form is the achievement of the intended function. However, that’s not the only thing the form of a product is responsible for.

What is Function?

A function is the objective of form. It explains what a particular product needs to do to fulfill its aim of existence. It is a reflection of requirement or purpose behind the design of the product. Functions of the product are determined from what the consumer needs or wants. It is more than just fulfilling the expected goal.

From a designer’s perspective, it might look like an excellent prospect to create designs which purely rely on the functional aspect. Although the product will be efficient concerning productivity, it will struggle to appeal the consumers. Hence, the product will fail when you look at it in a commercial sense. So, as Sullivan said, ornamentation is acceptable as long as it serves a function to support people's needs (i.e. appealing).

A function can take various forms, but a form cannot have multiple functions. This statement holds from the point of practicality. When a function is hidden, there is scope for variation in the form of the object. However, one function could be shelled into multiple forms. Here’s an example in support.

Consider a product that everyone uses in his or her day-to-day writing tasks, pen. The primary function of the pen is to help in writing something on paper. The primary objective is writing, so a single style of the pen should do the job. Still, we see pens of different shapes and sizes and even different ink color. Why? Why do we find so many variations in designs of a pen? What factors influence these variations and the bigger question, why do people prefer different pens?

As you might be seeing, there more than what meets the eyes. Functions are complex. Products have more than one purpose. One is the primary function that helps in achieving the objective for what a product has been made (ex. Watch has to show time; the phone has to make a call). The other hidden goals (ex. Ergonomics) help an object to appeal to the user. The functional objective process results in everlasting design but are uninspiring and straightforward. Functional designs are suitable for large-scale projects (ex. manufacturing and production), but not when you have a business depending on it.

So, what is a good design?

A good design is easy to use and interpret. We humans have an attractive bias. It makes us claim that beautiful things are simpler to use, though it might not be the case. We like an association with exquisite entities. You can say it is how we have evolved. Good design incorporates temptation and practicality together.

Functions follow needs and form follows behavior. Form acts as a catalyst for our behavior towards something while functions and features help to interact with the object in question. We have to consider people's understanding, thinking and practice necessary to design better products. What people think about a particular notion, what do they know about it? These are some questions to keep in mind when we start upon a new or existing design. A little bit of insight into consumer’s mind pays dividends in making products more intuitive.

Forms and functions even in a digital design

Digital designs play with user visual senses more than anything else. Hence, the way a designer implements the form-function formula will vary from that of when he/she designs a possible product. Digital design, be it the design of a website or blog, focuses on two things – visual and experience. Visual appeal gets them to the site; the user experience is what keeps them on it.

To provide an engaging user experience, designers need to understand people. They need to gain insight into their mindsets to know what users want while keeping the design’s objective at the back of mind.

o, the first step in the process of creating that people magnet design is gathering requirements. Collect information about potential users and clients. The service could be handling advertisements or generating leads to sell a service. All intents will have different blueprints on how to go about the business. Hence, the design will integrate similar aesthetics to match the notion.

The emergence of minimalism has seen the importance of simplicity rise in design. The internet things now have to be fast, responsive and charming. Hence, there is more emphasis on functionality in design, i.e., function dictates design. Layouts have to work around theme while highlighting the purpose.

The quest does not end here. Just questions about requirements won't do it. Consider the success criteria. Success criteria are a set of conditions that evaluate the design intent. Here’s an example to clear things. Consider the case of a watch. A watch’s primary objective is to tell time. While digital ones are accurate, the real aesthetics of watch lies in the rotating hands of minute and hour hands. Before embarking on the design process of designing a watch, we need to set our intent. Consumer feedbacks will play a significant role in determining the direction of design progress. Do you want aesthetics with the rotating hands or accuracy with digits? Answers to such questions will build our success criteria.

Success criteria determine functionality and form any design should take. Both form and function play a significant role in shaping digital designs. One needs to consider the relative importance of form and function as criteria for success making design decisions. There is the need for maintaining a balance between form and function while letting success criteria guide the decisions related to design.

Forms follow function. But do they? There are cases where function follows form too. Here's a simple example. Think of any machinery in a factory. I know they are appealing but not in visual sense. Any component on those huge metal machinery is meant for either of two things – operational or safety. One won’t find a hint of visual aesthetics on these. In this case, functions are king. So, designs are straightforward. In the Internet world, the best example is Craigslist. The layout is highly functional with total concentration on trading with minimum fuss.

Up until now, we looked at designs from a designer’s point of view. Let’s consider the consumer’s point of view.

So, what kind of design appeals to users?

Although the design preferences will vary, there are some factors that help the user decide if they like a design or not.

Perception. It is a pre-conceived notion about something. Perceptions influence how we see things. It evokes emotions and attitudes. Perception helps create a mental image of any element (designs included) when dealing with unknown or insufficient information. Hence, you can expect perception to impact the way users view the presented content.

Aesthetic judgments and emotions. Whenever one comes across something, the eyes are the first thing to sense it (i.e. visual sense). Hence, we are kind of hard-wired to judge unknowns by visualizing it as it is. If it charms visually, people develop an affinity for it. We have been culturally conditioned this way. However, the tough part is that this aspect of our working is hard to measure, else we would have cracked the code to eye-catching designs.

Then there’s user motivation and interest. There’s no point subjecting someone to dogs when they don’t like them. Interest orders how user gathers information about something. It also controls how much involved a person is with the corresponding topic. High involvement products (ex. cars) require a large amount of information seeking and consciousness. Examples are buying a house or a car. Since the risk is high in such cases, we look into the matter with full involvement while dealing with rational decisions.

On the other hand, low involvement products have low stakes, hence, guided by effective purchase motives. One doesn’t put much thought into buying chewing gum. In such cases, users mostly go with gut feeling. The situation is similar when involving motivation. Highly motivated users will acquire detailed information while lowly motivated users will mainly intend for entertainment and could be persuaded easily.

Complexity of design. It is clear. A user won’t associate to something that they don’t understand. Complexity affects the effectiveness of communication and perception of users. The key to designs is keeping things simple. However, there’s a degree to this simplicity. Higher complexity would be concrete while too much simplicity would fail to gain attention. A medium complexity design garners optimal results.

The design process would become more simple if we could find relations between factors. However, upon researching, we received mixed results for the relationship between perceptions of aesthetics and usability. As such, there’s no correlation between usability and aesthetics; however, usability is more important to users. However, the thing is people are unable to distinguish between usability and aesthetics. As mentioned earlier, humans suffer from an attractive bias. The halo effect sets the tone of the way we perceive products by their appearance.

There is something users realize later in their interaction with the product. Although aesthetics make them come close to an object, its usability is what keeps them attached. This behavior becomes imminent after a user spends some time with a product. Usability becomes an essential factor of product design after a limited interaction. Aesthetics guides the initial phase while both aesthetics and usability guide later phases.

The solution

After 1700 words, I think we have learned quite a bit about how forms, function, and design could be correlated. Let’s discuss the pointers to keep in mind when inducing forms, functions, and designs together.

Achieve a balance between form and function. We started with how form follows function, then we knew function follows form too. The critical point that we learned is that the form-function relationship is a variable.

Integrate aesthetic design with usability. Visuals are useful to attract users, but it is the combination and balance of both visual elements and usability that counts for the overall user experience. Here’s where the minimalist design will come to the rescue.

Design with experience. Akin to aesthetic-usability relation, designs should portray same experience to every user. Moreover, designs need optimizing to draw and engross users based on the provided experience. So, prevention of elements like feature creep or software bloat is a must.

Remember, functionality relies on the visual economy. How you expand space and features in conjunction with each other realizes if form follows function or function follows form.

author: patrick algrim
About the author

Patrick Algrim is an experienced executive who has spent a number of years in Silicon Valley hiring and coaching some of the world’s most valuable technology teams. Patrick has been a source for Human Resources and career related insights for Forbes, Glassdoor, Entrepreneur,, SparkHire, and many more.


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