Form & Function

Something in the reading got me to thinking about the old “form versus function” discourse, specifically in the context of digital design.

As you may already know, all designed things have both a form and function component. The “form” of a thing can generally be described as how it looks or is shaped, while its “function” describes how aptly it suites its intended purpose. A timeless topic in design inquiry turns on whether in this dichotomy form should lead function, or vice versa. Generally, it is held, it can go either way, depending on context. Application software, for example, is an area where function will generally lead form. For instance, would you rather use a word processor that is beautiful to look at but that crashes, deletes your text, misses spelling errors, and doesn’t save your files? Or, would your prefer an not-so-pretty-looking word processor that functions perfectly?

On the other hand, some computer software is primarily concerned with aesthetics and is thus truly form-led. Experimental pieces, artware and interactive toys come to mind in this vein.

Computer games (a favorite subject of mine) offer a slightly muddier example. Barring extreme functional deficiencies, users of game software will sometimes tolerate less-than-perfect functionality (ie. a clunky interface, poor performance, uneven rules or play) to enjoy a visually gorgeous or conceptually ambitious game. Remember Myst (c. 1993)? Arguably, it wasn’t the easiest game to figure out how to play and its quirky puzzles were often more frustrating than fun, but its pre-rendered 3D graphics were so stunning and unprecedented in a game for that time that no one seemed to care. I remember reading an early review referring to Myst as a best-selling game that everyone played, but few actually finished. Form leading function in games isn’t generally a good thing, but it’s an allowance that we can, and often do, make for games that try to take us somewhere new. Bill Budge’s 8-bit classic Pinball Construction Set was incredibly difficult to play as it sought to create a gesture-and-icon driven interface, in a time before mice and megapixel/color displays. Likewise, Dani Bunten’s MULE required multiple human players to shine, in a time before home LANs and the internet would make networked gaming so much more practical. Yet both games did well in their day and are canonized today. We may even have a modern example in Will Wright’s upcoming release Spore, which although clearly inspired in its breadth and ambition, according to early reports, may prove not all too much fun to actually play.

Anyway, I’m curious to know about your thoughts on the whole form-function thing. Should one always lead? Are they equal partners? Or is it all indeed contextual? When you design stuff, do you tend to develop functionality first or do you start with form elements or a mix? Have you ever had to work on a form-driven project?


  1. mingxian

    It is so interesting that Erik talked a lot about form and function right after I read this post. This post becomes part of my background knowledge for today’s class. Thank you Marty.


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