August 26, 2022

Where form follows…

You hear Louis Sullivan’s maxim (which has remarkable staying power, given it was coined in 1896) ‘form (ever) follows function’ trotted out whenever people are looking for a snappy means of attributing an elevated sense of design purpose (usually in products) to what they’re making.

And it’s a neat rubric for a team when faced with making decisions around how to ’shape’ the engineering challenges faced when looking to improve things, to use less material, energy, space, whichever.

My problem with turning the phrase ‘in general’ and applying it to the whole thing (or indeed to the whole businesses activity that results in the product) is that it’s patently false.

For all the good focus ‘form following’ can bring to bear on the parts, to the sum of them, how the overall thing looks is rarely ‘all function’. In fact, now I come to think about it, maybe outside of medical devices or the instruments used to make cold fusion experiments, there are almost none. But do call me out, I’d love to see more.

What actually happens almost all the time is that Form Follows Fashion.

How could it be otherwise? If function was the end game, every product in the category would look exactly the same. We’d all be using pencils. Sure, some might be red, some yellow and some ‘differentiated’ by being artisan hand-sharpened in New York and couriered to you; but a pencil’s form? Pretty much set.

Without fashion’s ability to create differentiation across categories and within them, how would we be able to style our lives?

Form and function and fashion are all things that are harnessed by designers and the mix of these – and the questioning of the narratives of them and the re-setting of tropes and traditions – is what makes for great products.

So perhaps it’s time to retire Sullivan’s deterministic three ‘f’s and add the ‘and’s. Because less is a snore.

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About Richard Hill

Creative director, writer, designer, illustrator based in the UK with global project experience and consulting skills across sectors.

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