Form IS Function

I spend a lot of my time around very smart people. They are my co-workers, professors, supervisors, and friends. Most of them are engineers or programmers of one kind or another.

As technicians, they all tend to value function over form. By this I mean that they could care less about appearances when something works exceptionally well. For example, the supervisor of one of the machine shops at BYU has a screensaver for his computer which graphically illustrates the complete function of an internal combustion engine. To him, it is a beautiful thing. To (nearly) everyone else, it is a greasy mess that is better left under the hood.

Dilbert comic: Function over Form

In many ways, valuing function over form is the classic engineering blunder. If I could bring you, blindfolded, into a building on any college campus and ask you to remove the blindfold and guess if the students there study engineering or business, I’ll bet you could guess correctly nine times out of ten.

Why? Most engineering students are still perfectly content to wear their cargo pants from high school. Why not? They still fit. They still work just fine (plus, you can carry way more stuff).

But the function over form oversight does more than just affect ones social life. The rest of the world, it turns out, values form.

My parents had a series of raspberry plants in their backyard which needed to be regularly watered. My dad being the genius (and Mechanical Engineer) that he is, designed and built a clever irrigation system for the plants out of PVC pipes. All you had to do was hook it up and you wouldn’t have to worry about watering the plants again. Unfortunately, my mom (an Illustrator, by trade) vetoed the whole thing. The last thing she wanted was to have a network of PVC pipes running over the surface of her beautiful garden. And as is always the case (at least in my home) Mom’s word is final.

Form is important to us. We judge books by their covers. We create stereotypes based on visual information. We buy things based on advertisements and pay premium for mint condition. In everything we do, we are highly influenced by our first impressions, which are often created in a single glance. It doesn’t matter if we are looking to buy a car, choosing a neighborhood to live in, or meeting a person for the first time. We’ll always look at what’s on the outside first when making our judgments.

And therein lies a paradox.

Form has become a critical (dare I say “functional”) element of any product. It conveys information, like the amount of time that went into something, or whether or not it is durable. Form speaks louder than any instruction manual or user guide. In this regard, form has a strong purpose. The classic example is comparing the packaging for Apple products to Microsoft products.

An Apple software package (iLife) placed side-by-side with a less attractive Microsoft alternative (Microsoft Digital Image Suite)
Which media software would you rather buy?

With the web, the line between form and function becomes even more blurry. Websites and web services live and die on their design. Scott Adams refers to what he calls the “Botched Interface Market,” where anyone has an opportunity to jump into a market by just looking at a great web service with a terrible interface and providing the same service with a better interface. That’s how Hipmunk did it. First impressions are critical on the web. Think about it… how likely are you to buy a book from this site? While the engineer would be more concerned about the site’s atrocious load time, site performance doesn’t even matter if users aren’t going to stick around to click a few links.

The paradox is that form isn’t “just form” anymore.

In todays world, form IS function.

If you’ve ever tried to use software that’s nearly impossible to figure out (Final Cut Pro, I’m looking at you!) you understand what I mean when I say that a poor interface is a functional issue. It makes the work more time consuming and frustrating. It affects the quality of the work I can do. Form and function are two sides of the same coin.

Even flowers which appear to provide no functional benefit are miracle workers if given while apologizing to your wife, or making your girlfriend feel special (Engineers will never figure out how this works, but smart ones will just accept that it does, adopt the tactic, and reap the rewards). In this case, the beauty of the flower IS what flowers are all about. It’s the same with an oceanside view or a stunning sunset. These things have value despite the fact that they perform no task. Beauty is their task, and aesthetics has inherent value.

While engineers and programmers tend to belittle the efforts of designers and marketers in making their work look beautiful, the wisest ones realize that without the contribution of designers, their work has little chance of being recognized. Both are important… even critical in a competitive market.