Publishers of technology books, eBooks, and videos for creative people

Home > Articles > Web Design & Development > Usability

'Form Follows Function' Revisited

  • Print
  • + Share This
Curt Cloninger, author of Fresher Styles for Web Designers: More Eye Candy from the Underground, discusses the concept that 'form follows function,' with particular focus on web design.
Like this article? We recommend

In his watershed 1896 essay "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered," proto-modern architect Louis Sullivan famously declared, "form follows function." He actually wrote: [1]

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.

To Sullivan, "function" didn't mean merely "utility" or "pragmatic use." Instead, it meant something like "life force." His "form follows function" dictum expressed a kind of essentialist vitalism. The "essence" of a thing in nature (an eagle, a cloud, a river) is its life force. This life force results in the outward form of that thing. In Sullivan's own words, "Unceasingly the essence of things is taking shape in the matter of things." To Sullivan, the essence of a skyscraper is to be grand and tall. But grandness and tallness are hardly the "function" of a skyscraper in a modern utilitarian sense.

Sullivan's "form follows function" dictum was famously adopted as a core mantra by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and has remained a cornerstone of modern and minimalist design to this day. But "function" to a contemporary usability expert has come to mean something qualitatively different than what Sullivan meant by "function" in 1896. Consider the examples that Sullivan uses from nature to illustrate his law:

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.

A number of problems arise when this passage is read from a utilitarian perspective. What exactly is the utilitarian function of granite rocks that necessitates their particular form? Is the form of every single passing cloud dictated solely by its particular utilitarian function? If so, then all clouds of the same type would have the same form, since they all serve the same behavioral function. Yet each cloud is unique and ever-changing. Is the form of an apple-blossom really dictated solely by its pragmatic function? When "function" is read as "use" rather than "life essence," Sullivan's "law" is disobeyed in the natural world.

When "form follows function" is invoked as a principle in the world of web design, it is often invoked by aesthetically handicapped non-designers (information architects, usability experts, human/computer interface consultants, Ajax programmers) as an excuse to make visually bland websites. But from a utilitarian perspective, the "form follows function" rule doesn't inherently lead to good design.

The real "art" of design lies not only in accurately assessing the functional requirements of a project (the easy part), but also in developing the forms most suitable to those requirements (the tricky part). In the hands of a master designer like Charles Eames, who was already a genius at achieving elegant formal solutions, "form follows function" usually led to good work. In the hands of non-design-savvy web programmers who abuse the principle as an excuse for blandness, "form follows function" usually leads to mediocre work.

Every Force Evolves a Form

One problem with "form follows function" is that it is tautological—it presupposes that every form in the natural world exists as it does because of functional requirements. We start with the end result (the form), look backward toward its origins, and assume that the results were inevitable. But there are any number of reasons why something might have a particular form (chance, malevolence, whim, purposeful design, play, folly, and numerous combinations thereof).

A better, less tautological mantra comes from Mother Ann Lee (1736–84), founder of the Shaker movement in America: "Every force evolves a form." From this perspective, form doesn't simply, dutifully follow a set of functional requirements. Instead, dynamic forces gradually forge resultant forms. These forces aren't simply functional; they can also be communal or spiritual, as was the case with the Shakers.

For working designers, "every force evolves a form" is a more useful rule. The design process actually begins with something that doesn't yet exist but needs to exist, and it moves forward toward a formal result. Function alone doesn't drive the resultant form. The form evolves from the holistic forces of the project—audience needs, client desires, ethical obligations, aesthetic inclinations, material properties, cultural presuppositions, and yes, functional requirements. "Function" is rightly seen as a single, isolated, quantifiable aspect of the overall "force" driving the form.

True, the Shakers did esteem utility. They found it beautiful. According to one of their slogans, "That which in itself has the highest use, possesses the greatest beauty." But more forces were bearing on the form of Shaker furniture than mere utility. The teachers of the Bauhaus also esteemed utility, but the forms of their furniture are far from identical to the forms of Shaker furniture because a host of other historical, philosophical, and material forces in addition to mere utility were affecting and evolving both forms.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account

Peachpit Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from Peachpit and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.

Overview


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about Peachpit products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information


To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.

Surveys

Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites; develop new products and services; conduct educational research; and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.

Newsletters

If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email ask@peachpit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information


Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.

Security


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.

Children


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.

Marketing


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information


If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.

Choice/Opt-out


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by Adobe Press. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.peachpit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information


Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents


California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure


Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.

Links


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact


Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice


We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020