Form follows function. As graphic designers, we hear this phrase a lot. Whether it’s in regards to packaging, web design, print ads, or animated graphics, we know that form must follow function. But what does it truly mean, and is it a law set in stone? Architect Louis Sullivan coined this phrase:
“It is the pervading law of all things organic, and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things super-human, 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.”
In his observations of the natural physical and non-physical world, he saw this law to be true. This phrase was then adopted by another architect, Mies Van Der Rohe, and many other modernists and minimalists.
While graphic designers are a far cry from architects, both parties, among other design disciplines, utilize this design principle. If we take this law and turn it into an equation for elements to be plugged in and design churned out, we would no doubt end up with something that works to a degree, but is missing something intangible. This intangible is aesthetics, which is where we graphic designers come in. Aesthetics play a huge role in viewer or user experience, or in the advertising world, the ability to attract consumers.
Design critic, Don Norman, describes a study conducted in Japan that shows the importance of the balance between aesthetics and functionality. In his book, Emotional Design, two ATMs were set up with the same functionality. One machine’s buttons and screens were arranged in a more attractive way. The study found that users had less trouble with the more attractive machine. Proving that good, attractive design is more than just eye candy. Norman continues to state that we innately are more patient and forgiving of things that are attractive (think about your last brainless, yet attractive relationship partner). Yet, the findings of this study extend past the boundaries of interactive design and into all aspects of design. We want beautiful things to succeed, and in advertising any way to get the audience on our side is a good thing.
Obviously, one must be thinking about the function of each project whether it’s a mailer, promotional video, poster, or even a humble blog image. Yet, what elevates each one into a different plane is the intangible. The form and function should flow together seamlessly. You shouldn’t have to think: Why is that there? Do I click here or there? Good design is an invisible, pleasing force.
Sullivan’s phrase, which should be adopted by all designers alike, appears again. A century after Sullivan, another architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, updated the original theory by adding, “Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” Therefore, one does not rule over the other, but both work together to create a design that is more than a hammer (or an advertisement) and greater than pretty colors.
Here are four rules you must follow if you want form and function to flow (and customers to flow to your brand):
Remember that, “Typography exists to honor content.” Any choices with fonts and layout should be done in a way that makes the content more legible and easier to digest. Typographic rules are different for print and web design. Decide whether your design will be viewed in pixels or in ink.
Although it is important, color should be brought in at the end as an enhancer. Make sure you aren’t just relying on beautiful colors to make your design work. Think about the target audience. What will draw them in visually? Here is a great article about some current color trends in web design.
Make sure your design is displaying the most important information first. Size, color and placement can all play a part in creating a hierarchy of information that will allow your design to be understood easier and faster.
Truly functional design will outlast any current trend or fad. Remember what the purpose is and take a step back to look at the bigger picture.