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Function is Dead – Long Live Function

By Gary Dickson

This is the book review that you won't be reading:

Not too long ago I read a new book about design that attempted to overturn the designer's age old motto – "Form Follows Function". I won't tell you the name of the book or who wrote it as I wouldn't want to promote it even in a "wow that's so bad I need to read it to believe it" sort of way. The authors claim that we have entered the "Age of Aesthetics". They purport that the design mantra of the 21st century is now "Form Follows Passion". I'm sure that there would be a mixed reaction to this in today's world of design. Our treasured theory of "Form Follows Function" was first penned countless eons ago by American architect Louis Sullivan in his article "the Tall Office Building Artistically Considered". It has grown, mutated and evolved over the last century or so and is now widely referenced as a guiding principle in nearly all types of design .

It seems that dismissing this principle is the premise on which the entire book is based. David Brown, former president of Art Center, is quoted as saying that "Design is moving from the abstract and ideological "this is good design" to the personal and emotional "I like that"." If this is what Brown was basing Art Centers design program on then thank goodness he's no longer in charge there. Where does a designer go with "I like that" as the foundation for judging what good design is. Don't get me wrong there is definitely an "I like that" subjectivity to any design. But can that really be the entire basis on which to defend ones design?

Nice Try

I had difficulty getting past the first chapter of the book. I kept being brought back to what seemed its entire basis -- "Form Follows Function" is dead, it has been replaced by "Form Follows Passion" and we are now living in the "Aesthetic Age". That seems a pretty bold claim.

I am sure that most of you have heard our times referred to as the "Information Age" but I believe that this label, just as the author's, has missed the point. Some believe that this age will be looked back upon as the "Petroleum Age" and on that happy note, what I would love to believe is that this is the "Information Age". But, I think if you try to find the buried foundation of our times you would likely come to the same conclusion that I have. We have moved past the petroleum age. In fact we have even blazed through the information age and we are now living in the "Consumer Age". If you plan to label an entire era the key is trying to find the core on which everything else rests. While aesthetic certainly plays a significant part in the "Age" that we are currently living in, I believe that it is a supporting role at best.

Coming up with a good name for something as significant as an entire "Age" can be very challenging – and generating good design works much the same way – you need to first ask yourself what is the primary function of this piece, what's the foundation upon which to build the rest of the design, what motivating factor lies at the core. Now if you will open your mind up just a bit it doesn't take much to begin to realize that if this is the "consumer age" then the primary function of much design today is to sell a product.

The utilitarian nature of things has become a secondary factor in design. The key then as a designer is to determine specifically who we are trying to sell to. This very specifically is the function of a lot of design going on right now. It is not "I like that" which determines form but rather "who needs to like that". Form still follows function but function has been shifted to an entirely different realm for many designers. In our post post-modern world the function of a piece can be very abstract. Often it is merely to attract a specific group of people.

Experimentation as a Function

In our very sub sub-culture of graphic design, function can even sometimes be purely to experiment. Two summers in a row now I have had the great honor of spending 10 days with Juan Quezada. Juan is an internationally renowned potter. He has been crafting amazing pottery for 40 years. Pottery that some may say has little or no utilitarian value and indeed it is driven largely by style. You might think that after 40 years of making art, Juan might lose momentum. However, according to my observations and from the things that the people who know him have told me -- quite the contrary is true. Juan's passion for pottery drives him to perpetual experimentation. Every batch of clay, every new formulation of paint, every meticulously painted design, every pot is an experiment attempting to achieve some end. There is a purpose, a function for every project that Juan Quezada begins.

What drives us, what motivates us as human beings to do the things that we do? This is one of my favorite philosophical questions. My design business is formed largely upon an interesting theory that is related to this, but my heartfelt belief is a little more spiritual in nature. I believe that there are three categories of answers to this question. Category one is that we desire some type of reward. The second is that we fear some sort of consequence. But number three is the only motivation that has true staying power and it may sound a little corny but it is love or passion. As a designer it is passion for the work that forces me to pick up a pencil or log on to my computer. I am driven by a feeling that I find hard to describe. But if I were unable to do graphic design I would surely find another outlet – I love making pottery, creating photos with strange hand built cameras and I enjoy writing. So while it is a passion for design that drives me to create -- passion is not the sole foundation for each individual project. Each project begins with it's own set of parameters. Setting these guides is often what creates the challenge and that challenge is an integral part of the passion.

Form Follows Function All Over the Place

That's right – it's just like you trying to ditch your little brother at the mall – there is no escape -- "Form Follows Function". This simple phrase carries nearly as much weight in graphic design as in architecture and in industrial design. It has been the mantra of many of the greatest designers of the 20th century. Several years ago it was given a new twist by John Bielenberg who wrote – "Deform Follows Disfunction" (no "dis" is not a type-o). Bielenberg's post-modern twist seems more applicable then the original in today's world where even the top design schools are advising their students that "form follows passion" and rather than asking yourself what is good design – ask yourself "do I like it".

The function is largely the challenge of a project. Addressing the function is what makes design good or bad. If you remove the function, you remove the foundation and in all likelihood you'll end up with a really crappy building. Even in fine art a piece will inevitably have it's roots in reason. Many of the great artists of our day and of days long past have spent a large portion of their careers writing and lecturing on what these reasons are. Having a reason of some kind whether psychological, mathematical or what-ever, is largely what makes art legitimate. "I like it" would make for a pretty short or shallow career for even the most technically proficient of artists. I am not saying that I'm an artist. I'm just using this as a relevant example of why function is so important. It is function that drives artists of all types – fine artists and commercial artists alike.

Targeted Marketing as a Function (or Yes… Style as a Function)

Let me illustrate with a hypothetical example directly from the world of graphic design. If I had a client who produced fine wine and I were given an assignment to design new packaging – would I be doing my job as a designer if I were to present to them 3 very creative options that looked very much like soda-pop packaging. OK, well what if I said that I did it because I really like soda pop packaging? Hey, many people who purchase fine wine also happen to drink soda pop and some of them may even like soda-pop packaging. I could even argue that my design would really stick out on a shelf filled with other fine wines or that there are statistically more people who drink soda-pop than who drink fine wine. I'm sorry but the fact that I like something or that a ton of people like some thing does not in and of itself qualify as the basis for good design (even if the former president of Art Center says so).

Here is the key to the whole-shebang – if you only read this one paragraph of this article please let this one be the one. There are reasons for the steps that we take as designers and those reasons or motivating factors rest firmly on a foundation that some call "function". What we face in the consumer age is not the destruction of "function" as the foundation for good design but rather a re-definition of what function is or can be. If the function of a design is solely that it needs to appeal to a specific group of people, then as the designer you had better do your research and keep that function in mind throughout the design process. This is not always an easy task in the design-what-you-like world that we live in. I won't kid you -- most designers do have a style. But, a good designer should know how to adapt that style to fit the needs of the client. In extremely rare instances the gap between the designers style and the clients need may be completely irreconcilable. It is then the designers job to say so.

Tear Down the Wall

I have stood in critiques with both college instructors and clients and in both situations "I like it" would have gotten me quickly escorted out the door. My passion for the work requires that I have a deeper foundation than that. Regardless of how abstract your "function" may be there is still a "form" out there that will best promote it. All the same, I believe that there is a great deal of truth in the notion that designers are increasingly generating work that is based primarily on a "Form Follows Passion" or the "it is good design solely because I like it" mentality. Maybe the book that we should consider dumping the old motto and switch to a more meaningful modern mandate. In today's world it is likely more accurate to say – "Deform Follows Disfunction".

Gary Dickson

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Copyright © 2006 Gary Dickson In 1989 Gary began doing color prepress production. In 1998 he earned his BFA in graphic design (graduating from CCAC with distinction), was an intern for John Bielenberg and went to work for Horton Lantz Marocco in Seattle. In 2000 Gary left HLM to open his own studio - Epidemic Design. Please visit his studios website and view his work at Epidemic Design.
      Permission to publish this article electronically or in print must be obtained from author prior to publication Ð bylines must be included with publication. Please contact Gary Dickson

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