The Function Utopia

How modern designers believe a constant pursuit of function will set them free from style – and why this is a mirage.

Last year I wrote a piece on Skeuomorphism, sharing my thoughts on why it is wrong to dismiss it as a styling element. After recently attending a Meetup keynote held by Arturo Toledo on the topic of ‘Modern Design vs. Flat Design’, I was inspired to share my thoughts on this topic. More specifically, I wanted to elaborate on the ever-present debate of ‘form and function’ and address what I see as misconceptions around this topic.

First I’d like to clarify some of the terminology surrounding this debate (from a designers point of view).

Modernism

Modernism as a broad term describes the philosophical movement that followed from the great changes of western civilization (e.g. Industrial Revolution) in the late 19th and early 20th century. Modernism in design and architecture first became prolific in early 20th century led on by avant-garde art movements such as cubism. The most prominent institution was Bauhaus – founded by Walter Gropius in 1919 – having a profound influence on subsequent developments within art, architecture, graphic design and industrial design.

Functionalism

Functionalism was born out of architecture – anchored in the thought of designing buildings based on the purpose of the building. As put forth by Augustus Welby Pugin “there should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction, or propriety” and “all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building”. The purpose of functionalism was to let the functions of the building govern (and thus shape) the aesthetics (style).

Minimalism

Minimalism – as made famous by Mies van der Rohe – emerged after World War II, embracing the notion of ‘less is more’. Heavily influenced by Japanese traditional design and the Zen philosophy, Minimalism evangelizes a reduction of elements following the mantra of ‘less is more’. By constant reduction, the visual and functional purposes are taken care of by an ever-shrinking number of elements. Minimalism operates by efficiency.

Form follows function

As made popular by Louis Sullivan, form follows function was born out of opportunity. Steel marked a new paradigm in architecture and the newfound freedom of architects quickly spurred the creation of the skyscraper. Old creative limitations were eradicated and laid the grounds of a new aesthetic. Form follows function became the face of this aesthetic and postulated that the object’s function defined the form. In simple terms it seems very obvious – A cup cannot serve the function of a cup unless it forms a semi-closed volume that can hold liquid and dispense it in a controlled manner. A car has wheels to allow movement without too much friction. So does form really follow the function?

Form follows function is often misunderstood as a promise of an ultimate form – a holy grail beneath all the design noise. Granted you follow the function you can find the ultimate form of an object. This of course, is utopia. There are no inherent perfect forms to a function. Rather, the function defines a set of requirements to the form – a framework within which the form must reside. This does not mean that the function performs the actual form giving. This is important. I recommend reading Jan Michl’s excellent article on the contradicting nature of ‘form follows function’.

My point here is not to completely invalidate form follows function (for better or worse it remains a defining mantra for my design philosophy), but to explain the true nature of the expression and how Modernists (/Functionalists/Minimalists) sometimes mistake it for a mirage.

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Namely, when modern designers talk about ‘Modern’ or ‘Flat’ design, some seem convinced that Modernism – in its constant pursuit of heightening function – mostly does away with style. And that the constant pursuit of function results in work that is freed from style. This is a misconception.

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Functionalism is not the absence of style. Form and function does not reside on each side of the spectrum with a defined threshold. Function does not take over where form cease to exist, so the concept of reducing the form until only the function remains is a flawed one. Form and function are two separate factors each spanning the full spectrum of design. Modernists are very much in the business of styling – wether they like it or not.

A great example of this is modern digital interfaces.

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iOS 6 became the scapegoat of Skeuomorphism with its heavy ornamentation in pursuit of realism. Its successor – iOS 7 – is a minimalist approach, ridden of all superfluous ornamentation. The amount of elements is reduced to a minimum while retaining their function (e.g. conveying information to the user).

One could perhaps say that iOS6 is Baroque in its expression, antithetic to the Renaissance visuals of iOS7. Or perhaps iOS6 represents Realism and iOS7 Modernism. They are all ticks and a tocks in the history of visual styles, completely different in their expressions, but no less a style than the other.

And here is the culprit. It seems modernists measure the degree of style based on the weight of ornamentation, and thus coming to the conclusion that Modernism is less of a style than Realism, or that iOS7 is less of a style than iOS6. This – of course – is wrong. Form follows function has misled our understanding of what a style really is. Even after a fierce simplification by focus on function, style still remains.

So, what is the root of this misunderstanding?

Perhaps style has been mistaken for styling. Style – in its simplest form – is a cluster of similar works and describes an aesthetic genre. It denotes a collective aesthetic expression and usually reflects the social and industrial structures of a specific era, i.e. the structured rationale of the Industrial Revolution shaped the society and heavily influenced the arts, giving birth to the era that we now call Modernism.

Styling, on the other hand, is a deliberate action where form is manipulated to achieve to create a certain aesthetic and emotional expression. Collectively aligned styling efforts over time ultimately creates a style. Styling is a verb describing an action in the present, whereas Style is a noun usually describing an observed pattern of behavior in the past.

Contemporary artists sometimes mistake the historic nature of the term ‘Style’ as liberation from it, only to later realize their guildship to a style movement.

To conclude – the misconception of what a ‘Style’ is (not simply the weight of ornamentation) combined with the contemporary bubble (where contemporary artists feel like they don’t belong to any style), has resulted in a faulty understanding of how form relates to function. This leads to the fallacy that function liberates you from form, and a sole focus on the function will summon an inherent universal form language.