Forget Form Follows Function
‘Form follows function’ is a meaningless platitude that professional designers should avoid
One of the most irritating and misleading things that were ever said about design is ‘form follows function’. It is an inaccurate and deceptive aphorism. And yet it has shaped the public debate on design for decades. This is surprising, considering the fact that it is now 125 years old and was made by a fairly unknown architect.
Ironically, its success is entirely based on form. ‘Form follows function’ is memorable because it is a catchy alliteration and not because it is particularly meaningful.
But why is it so bad? Why do I dislike it so much? Let’s have a look at both sides of the aphorism — the historic sources and the current use and understanding of it.
‘Form follows function’ is usually attributed to Louis Sullivan. In his influential essay ‘The tall office building artistically considered’ from 1896, he develops a conceptual model for designing office buildings and introduces the idea that form and ‘function’ have a special relationship.
Here is the full quote:
‘Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, 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.
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.’
This is surprisingly wrong in many ways.
To start off, Sullivan draws parallels between design and nature. This is not a strategy I would particularly recommend as I consider nature and culture as something very distinct. But if we follow Sullivans line of thinking, it is very easy to prove him wrong. He claims that in nature ‘form ever follow function’. Ever since Darwin, we know that the exact opposite is true. In nature, function follows form.
One of the fundamental principles of evolution — as we understand it today — is the concept of mutation. Nature plays. With every generation, new forms and variations appear. If an organism with new characteristics is successful and adapts well to its environment, it survives and procreates. If it is not successful, it perishes. The mind-boggling diversity of life on this planet is proof that in nature, form does not follow function. Rather, form precedes function.
Sullivan’s way of looking at nature is pre-darwinian. 200 years ago, it was a widely believed that characteristics of an organism were acquired and passed on to the next generation. In this sense, individual life forms adapt to the environment and pass on these new adaptations. Although Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was not the first to publish these ideas, this particular evolutionary theory is often referred to as ‘Lamarckism’. Sullivan does not explicitly mentions Lamarck — but his idea of ‘function’ in nature is clearly Lamarckian.
So what does Sullivan actually mean with ‘function’? What relevance has this aphorism in the year 2021? When reading Sullivans essay, we should keep in mind that in 1896, Le Corbusier was 9 years old and the first moving assembly line in a Ford factory was still 17 years away. So back then, the meaning of ‘function’ was very different from the one today.
Sullivan’s analogies are more poetic than precise. And while his buildings were certainly innovative and daring at the time, they are much more ornamental and playful than the austere designs of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Clearly, his idea of ‘function’ is very different to the one that was developed in the modernist era. So — again — what does Sullivan actually mean with ‘form ever follows function’?
My take on his essay is this: Every task, every challenge has a unique aesthetic answer. In this sense ‘functionality’ is not a list of user requirements, the steel skeleton of a building or a marketing agenda — but a unique shape for unique concept. But this is not the way ‘form follows function’ is used today. So let’s have a look at that.
If someone brings up ‘form follows function’ in a discussion or a design critique, it is often an awkward attempt to disguise unfamiliarity with the design process or with design qualities. It’s like mentioning ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ while talking about medicine. Not entirely wrong — but neither insightful nor articulate. A harmless platitude.
Much more problematic is that the aphorism portrays design as a deterministic process. ‘Form follows function’ conveys the impression that there is a methodology for automatically generating form based on a clearly defined function. It implies a superiority of ‘function’ — whatever that is — over form. This is clearly not the case. All professional designers know that form cannot be derived directly from ‘function’.
The most intriguing challenge of design work is that we — as professional designers — are constantly dealing with ill-defined problems. Even if a client thinks that everything is precise and clear, we know that this is never the case. Design is full of uncertainties, dependencies, unintended consequences, compromises, misunderstandings, implications, iterations, positive and negative surprises and so on. We don’t talk about ‘functions’ — we think about goals, opportunities, flows, activities, use cases, attachment, beauty, understanding, properties, preferences, situations, and choices. Following the evolutionary line of argument from above, designers work in a ‘darwinian’ way. We experiment, explore, and create variations. We test, assess and evaluate. In this sense, ‘function’ is an authoritarian concept from a long gone and best forgotten era.
However, the worst case of using ‘form follows function’ is in an anti-design sense. In my professional life, I have encountered situations where ‘form follows function’ was used against design and against creativity. It was used to deride a specific design, not to support it. It was used against original, unusual, experimental and innovative solutions. ‘Form follows function’ was brought up in order to justify preconceptions by pretending that they are ‘functional’. On these occasions, the use of ‘form follows function’ revealed a deterministic, authoritarian and Lamarckian understanding of the design process, demonstrating how destructive and obscure the aphorism actually is.
As professional designers, we should not take ‘form follows function’ too seriously. It is part of our design heritage and it should be remembered and discussed in a historic context. But for our current design practice, ‘form follows function’ is neither meaningful nor relevant. It was never a convincing line of argument and over time it has become a hollow platitude that we should avoid using.