Form Follows Function

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

Form Follows Function

A few years ago I shopped for a tool to help me get rid of dandelions on my lawn. I have an aversion to herbicides, and snipping the tops of the plants does little. The roots, which are several inches deep, must come out. I came home with a dandelion digger that looked both sturdy and elegant, ostensibly a good design from a respected brand. But when I went to use it, I found the job harder than I had expected, and it left gaping two-inch holes in my lawn.

The next day, I exchanged the tool for one that wasn’t as expensive or attractive, but was easier to use and left much smaller holes—more like ones you get when you aerate your lawn. Since the primary function of the tool was not appearance or fashion, I was fine with the way it looked. How it worked was the most important consideration.
One of the most ubiquitous maxims in art and craft is “Form Follows Function.” And it contains a great deal of truth.

If a form impedes function or creates new problems, it is a poor design. While it is not wrong to re-evaluate the specific function we might be seeking, the form we choose had better not impede that core function.

It is sometimes easy to get distracted from the essential function of a creative project. This is especially true when esthetics is an integral part of the function as with corporate identity. But esthetics is not the only function of a corporate identity. Clear thinking must override gut impulses in this area.

What is the function of a corporate identity?
Here again it is important to get our vision straight. The functions of any corporate identity are:

  • To be seen and recognized instantly,
  • To appropriately and positively represent the business/organization/product being identified,
  • To be consistently reproducible and maintain clarity across all media,
  • To be flexible enough to be used in a wide variety of design and media requirements.

If we create a design that fails in any of these four functions, we have failed to create a workable design. Period.

Some people know how to make solid, useful identities. For many others, the process is hit-or-miss. Some designers seem fixated on doing something that has never been done before, not only in their specific design, but in their very approach. Perhaps they believe that because they produced something new, they have been terribly creative. What they may forget to do is test their finished identity design against the four functions above. If it doesn’t pass all four of those tests, such a creation shouldn’t even be presented to the client.

Perhaps that is why people haven’t used that approach before, for the very reason that such an approach doesn’t work.

Remember that in the end, creativity is the ability to find the best way to solve a problem. Period.

Creativity is often characterized as a new way of doing something. That is because a new problem sometimes requires an new solution. That’s why we notice it. But the core of creativity is not that it is new. That’s a common fallacy of logic called Association with Causation—a false notion that because two events occur together, one causes the other. Corn and pumpkins often ripen at the same time, but the corn does not make the pumpkins ripen, or vice versa.

For any problem, there may be many new and different approaches that will NOT provide a solution. Theoretically only a few, or perhaps even only one approach will succeed.

A problem does not always reside outside of the status quo. It may touch that circle tangentially. This can mean that the most suitable solution will not require anything new to solve it. This is a common irritant to those who desperately aspire to their notion of “creativity means being new and different” at all costs. They insist that newness is an essential part of any solution. This fixation is almost epidemic in creative fields like graphic design. The tragic flaw is that the new and unusual approach may fail to solve the problem at hand.

Sad to say, many design annuals abound in examples of “bleeding edge” design—the cutting edge that has gone too far and doesn’t work. The form does not follow the function.

And if a design doesn’t function in the client’s best interests, it isn’t professional (even if the designer gets paid for it).

Sooner or later the client may recognize that the design just doesn’t work and go elsewhere for a new design that does work. This happens often in the field of identity design.

Designing identities that work in all situations is eminently doable—if you know the principles of good design, which we’re about to get to.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How Branding Design Really Works

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