I’m not sure why people get so engaged or so enraged by the suggestion that, in good design, form follows function. Maybe people assume it implies a hierarchy but it doesn’t actually mean that function is always more important than form. It is simply a reminder, particularly for industrial or product designers (or their bosses), that the starting point for any design is what the final product has to do or what you want it to do. Get that right and then start thinking about how it is to be made; the materials to use and what it should look like.
It’s not even saying you need to fix all the function side first and you never need to return to that bit of the design process because obviously as a design is refined then it might present opportunities to add functions or simplify functions. It is also a reminder that because something has always functioned in that way and been designed like that, and everybody already has one anyway, it might still be worth just double-checking the function part again in case … before you decide that all you really need to worry about is some fancy new colours to make people buy yours rather than their’s. Everyone thought the best way to sell milk was by ladling it from pail to jug until someone came up with cheap strong bottles in glass and if designers thought that was as good as it could get and all you could play around with was the design of the lettering on the foil cap then the Rausing family might still be wondering what they should do to make a bit of money.
Before designers send me emails asking why I am stating the obvious then remember I’m writing this blog for an interested reader who wants to find out more about design and might have heard the phrase or seen it in a magazine article but not stepped back to think about what it might actually mean.
Having said that of course it is worth pointing out that designers (or people working in design) can take opposing views. Some critics accuse Apple of placing appearance above everything but it is interesting that Steve Jobs is quoted as saying:
“Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.”
But then very recently I came across an interesting quote from Sven Lundh of Källemo:
‘If a piece of furniture is used day and night for two years without showing any sign of wear, but you cannot bear the site of it anymore, then it is bad quality …. good quality is visual quality.’
Another problem with talking about a design being functional is that often people leap to the assumption that you are talking about functionalism and then quickly move on to imagine designs that are starkly industrial and potentially brutal and certainly uncomfortable. But then tennis balls and knitted woollen hats get pretty close to being perfect designs for the job that they have to do.
Sometimes designers make their own lives difficult by trying to combine functions. One obvious example is the “spork” so either a broad shallow spoon shape but with tines or even more messy a single handle with a fork at one end and a spoon at the other.
Another combination piece is when a furniture designer combines a stool or a chair with a set of steps … for grand library steps for those with high enough ceilings and enough books to need them or more pedestrian kitchen steps for getting at something stored away in a top cupboard. Some combined functions in modern technology have surprised manufacturers and designers by the speed at which they have been adopted - so the camera in their mobile phone is for many people the only camera they use.
45/90 by Salto & Sigsgaard and Møbelsnedkeri Kjeldtoft shown at the Cabinetmakers' Autumn Exhibition at Øregaard in 2015
With other everyday household items people are remarkably conservative so although square or rectangular plates are OK on a plane or train and plastic is OK for a picnic, most plates are still round and made from fired clay.
After graduating I spent a year on the museum diploma course in Manchester that was then directed by Alan Smith, who had worked at Liverpool Museum and with several other major gallery collections, and as a ceramicist he centred much of the practical work of the diploma course around what was then usually called the applied arts. In one lecture, and using a priceless 18th-century porcelain teapot to demonstrate, he pointed out that the way to decide if a teapot was well designed and well made was to pour out every last drop of tea. The spout should be set high enough up the pot so that tea leaves do not come out into the last cup but above all you should be able to tip the pot far enough over to drain it without the lid dropping off.
However beautiful the teapot do you really want to buy it if the lid drops off when you pour out the second or third cup? That’s about as simple as it gets to show that form should follow function.