Ever since the phrase ‘form follows function’ was coined in 1896 and more so since the creation of the Bauhaus, it has been believed by many that the less is more approach is the best way to go about design. That, if you make a product to do its sole purpose, with no bells and whistles and just the bare bones of design, that that is good design. Now I am not saying that this is wrong or that it is a bad thing, that style of design has its own merits and its own place in the timeline of design. But I believe that the form of a design can help the functionality of the product.
There are a number of aspects to take into consideration with this subject, what is the product? Is the form a part of its function? The ergonomics of a product and how are people intended to interact with the product? An example of how form helps function could be: you have a chair that was simple and functional in design, but would it be comfortable? Wouldn’t a chair design that has taken comfort into account and has a form that was comfortable be a better product? During this essay I intend to look at a variety of different products and situations where the form of a product is an integral part of its overall design and function to show how form helps function rather than the form being an afterthought. Let us begin with a brief step by step on how some aspects of form help the function of a product, shall we? * Size > heavier > stronger > longer lasting (durable) > a better product. * Size > lighter > moveable > more travel friendly > a better product.
* Shape > ergonomics > ease of use > a better product. * Interaction > understandable > self-explanatory > ease of use > a better product. * Interaction > hardness/softness > comfort > a better product. As you can see there are a number of things that can be taken into account with the form of a product that will benefit the overall function of it. But these are not all of them, far from it, there are other aspects that indicate that form helps function, so let’s take a look at some of those now. What is the product? It is a bit of a broad question when you think of everything as a product of something else.
But in the context of how form helps function I mean what is the product and how is it used? The product in question could very well be a table, we all know what a table looks like and we can picture it in our minds eye. Like a carpenter we could take that idea of a table and turn it into a real tangible object from just a block of wood. A table is defined as ‘a piece of furniture having a smooth flat top that is usually supported by one or more vertical legs’.
But this doesn’t necessarily have to be true, a table could be suspended from above removing the need for legs, or perhaps it could simply be the block of wood that the carpenter would carve from with a smoothed out top surface. The form of the table could be anything but to help benefit the user they are more often than not given legs which allows them to use their comfortably formed chairs whilst sitting at the table.
This is pretty much true for all tables that have been conceived, depending on the cultural surroundings the form of the table will be altered as such to fit in. For example traditional tables in Japan and China are very low, almost like coffee tables, and so the form of their tables will be different to ours. This difference in form helps distinguish the cultural differences between styles of table and allows them to be useful in their intended situation, a Japanese low table in the dining room of a spacious semi-detached house would not really work but in a small traditional Japanese house it would be perfect. I know I keep harping on about these tables but I need to get my point across about the situation and intended use of a product being reliant on its form.
In a traditional Japanese home the rooms are fairly small, the standard being 6 – 8 tatami mats (that is the number of mats you can place on the floor to cover it) and the style is quite often very minimal. So the need and use of chairs does not exist and the table its self is not large and imposing in the small spaces. In this way the form of the table helps it to function in its desired manner within its traditional surroundings. The main point of ‘form follows function’ is that the unnecessary parts of a design can be stripped away without hindering the overall function of the product. But I find that this in its self is an unnecessary action. I have already used the example of a chair still being a chair when stripped down, just not a very good one but what about a plane? What if its design made it awkward to fly due to being a bit weighty or it didn’t get as much lift as it could? To make the design better would we strip it down so it was just wings on an engine?
Or would we alter its form to make it more aerodynamic giving it better lift despite its weight, what about the material what if we used a lighter one? I know which option I would pick, but I know that this is a bit of a far-fetched and totally un-realistic scenario because designing something like a plane requires a lot of knowledge and skill, but my point is this; stripping something of its seemingly unnecessary components in order to make a simpler functional product is not always the best option. Another product that benefits from its form is ‘Waterfall Shower’ by Jan Melis of Droog Design.
Without its form it could no longer be called waterfall shower because its form is the very thing that creates the waterfall. I will admit that this product has a somewhat minimal look to it, what with its exposed copper pipe coming straight from the taps but a minimal form does not mean that the product will work in a different way; rather it is the form of the vital part that counts and creates the desired effect. It is the form of the stone spout that delivers something that an ordinary sprinkle shower does not.
If you have ever stood beneath a waterfall (a relatively small one mind you or an artificial waterfall as a full scale falls is pretty dangerous!) you will know that the experience is different to that of standing beneath a traditional shower. Without the design of the shower as it is you would be denying the user the experience of the waterfall! This is another reason that form helps function, form can accentuate experience. When designing things that are to be used by people, ergonomics and anthropometrics have to be taken into account. Without them the product is liable to fail, to be unsuitable for the intended user or even cause injury!
These things affect the form of a product significantly and quite often are used in order to make the function of a product more beneficial or easier. Take wheelchairs for example the seating used in many wheelchairs must be specially designed for the individual and their specific needs to reduce the risk of injuries such as pressure sores and warping of the skeleton! This is a very vital aspect of form being the key part of a design, without the care and attention to detail put into the form of the seating the people using them could be in great discomfort and even pain.