Form Inspires Function

In the late 19th century, the architect Louis Sullivan coined the aphorism Form Follows Function. He believed that a building's shape should be determined by its intended purpose, and expounded that "it is of the very essence of every problem that it contains and suggests its own solution." The Bauhaus adopted this fundamental law and carried it into the realm of 20th century product design where it's remained largely unchallenged as a core tenent of design thinking.

One of the essayists in the book Managing as Designing suggests that "form might very well follow function some of the time, but that there's no reason to conclude that it should do so." I've been kicking that idea around in the back of my mind, examining ways to turn form and function on their head. More inside:

Jeff Howard
I've been at this for a few weeks now, and I've uncovered some themes in the realm of function following form. The first three could be grouped under the concept of affordance, basically that certain forms encourage (afford) certain actions. Call them Serendipity, Appropriation and Cultivation. They're each concerned with the exploitation of intrinsic properties. On the other side of the coin are examples of external or imposed conditions as forms. Natural Forces, Legislation and Social Norms.


When designers speak about a "solution looking for a problem" it's usually intended as a withering critisism of the newest technology, but there are plenty of examples of unexpected functions arising from the discovery of novel forms.

Take the development of Post-it notes at 3M. They were invented by a chemist who was simply exploring what would happen when you mixed polymers in different ways. He came up with an adhesive that wasn't very sticky, and would never dry, and that people couldn't readily see a use for. Eventually another chemist at 3M hit on the idea of using the adhesive for hymnal markers, but it still took years before business embraced the function of the ubiquitous yellow notes.

Isaac Asimov said that the most exciting phrase to hear in science is not "Eureka!," but "That's funny..." Lots of things we take for granted were discovered by accident, including Silly Putty, Vaseline, Penicillin, Superglue and Microwave cooking. All examples of function following form.


Even when they knew what they were looking for, inventors like Edison or Bell sometimes had no idea how people would eventually use their technologies. Edison spent years developing the phonograph as a dictation tool for business, not as the foremost instrument of pop culture.

That leads us into the second theme, embodied by William Gibson's observation that "the street finds its own uses for things". People exploit technology in unexpected ways when it fills a niche. Kevin Kelly has an entire blog devoted to Street Use showcasing this facet of human ingenuity. But appropriation doesn't have to be exotic. Anyone who's ever stuck a message to the side of their refrigerator has engaged in appropriation. They're not designed for that, but Don Norman observes with glee that large, flat refrigerator doors practically cry out for such a use. They may not have been designed as message hubs, but their magnetic sides and central household location perfectly fit the role. Their form inspires a new function.

Appropriations aren't always benign. Skateboarders clash with civic leaders when they appropriate forms like benches or stairs to skate on. The forms are designed to encourage people to sit, but those ledges happen to be ideal for skaters to grind. Another of my favorite examples dates back to the early-80s when McDonalds had to stop producing their tiny plastic spoons for coffee when it became apparent that people were appropriating them as an ideal delivery system for cocaine.


At the heart of serendipity and appropriation is the cultivation of useful properties. If steel weren't magnetic, it wouldn't be nearly as useful on the side of a refrigerator. Magnetisim itself is a form that people exploit for new functions. Besides magnetism, steel's strength and resiliency allows buildings to be built higher or span longer distances than earlier materials. Steel's formal properties allow architects to imagine new functions that would be impossible in an era of stone or wood.

Plastics are another invention that bring new formal properties to the table. They create functions that aren't possible with wood, metal or stone. For instance, plastics can be both flexible and transparent, two qualities necessary for the development of motion picture film, and with it an entire industry of new functions.

Consider pharmaceuticals. Pretty much every illicit drug and even benign drugs like aspirin are examples of function following form. Native Americans chewed willow bark because they found it alleviated the symptoms of toothache. Bayer simply cultivated the existing pain relieving properties of salicylic acid, they didn't create the form.

Would electricity exist if metal weren't ductile? Or conductive? Would the industrial revolution have occurred without the compact and efficient properties of coal? Or the oxygen-rich nature of the Earth's atmosphere?

Natural Forces

Does a form have to be an intrinsic property? Or can it be an external force? Think of a freshly poured sidewalk. There are formal qualities of concrete that make it appropriate as a surface for walking, but at least as important are the wooden boards that shape the concrete. We call them forms.

If natural forces are forms, then any adaptation to the environment is an example of function following form. Think of the canals of Venice and the impact of elevation as a shaping force. Extrapolating from that, we can see entire cultural patterns as evidence of functions following environmental form. It explains why western cultures built with stone while asian cultures built with wood. It explains why the Vikings were seafaring and the Swiss were not. Functional responses to the form of their environment.

Abstracting further, we note that humans can walk or swim, but not fly because gravity is a form. For thousands of years, people slept at night because it was dark outside. Light is a form. People favor certain foods but we only cultivate the fruits and vegetables that their latitude permits. Climate is a form.

Legislation and Social Norms

After the laws of nature come laws of man. Legislation is generally conceived for a particular purpose or function, but the form of a law sometimes leads to unexpected consequences. For instance, the Radio Act of 1912 unexpectedly drove the adoption of shortwave radio, since higher waves were restricted. Section 527 of the U.S. tax code spawned so-called 527 Groups with particular functions that directly exploit the form of the law. All loopholes are examples of function following form.

Single-use zoning is a unfortunately clear example of function following form. Each zone in a municipality is endowed with artificial formal qualities that restrict the permitted function of that space. Some zones are for manufacturing, others for residential or commercial. Jane Jacob's Death and Life of Great American Cities covers in detail the unexpected civic consequences of zoning. Functions following form.

The unwritten laws of a society have no less of a shaping effect on the behaviors (functions) available to individuals. Sanctions and punishments are forms that encourage appropriate behaviors among the members of a society. Who you can marry, which jobs are appropriate, who gets to sit where on the subway. Caste systems are particularly clear-cut examples of functions following form.

Form Versus Function

One of the most interesting aspects of this thought exercise for me is the degree to which functions and forms transmute. It really depends on your point of view. Back to the example of the telephone. For Edison, the form was wiring and membranes; the function was the transmission of human speech. But for modern businesses, the form is the transmission of human speech while the function is the development of globally distributed offices, which in turn are forms inspiring the development of teleconferences and telecommuting.

As forms of transportation have evolved, people have continued to move a cooresponding distance away from their destinations. Apparently, forty minutes is about as long a commute as people are willing to endure. Trains allow people to live quite far away from where they work. The form (commuting) created the new form of the bedroom community. People return there to sleep at night. Does the form of a bedroom community inspire new functions? It certainly constrains them. No business that depends on daytime patronage could survive.

When Henry Ford designed the Model-T, he knew that cars had to come before paved roads. Cars would drive demand. When roads finally arrived, their design was a response to the automobile, but their size constrained the size of future automobiles. The narrow streets of older cities determine how large the fire engines and busses can be. Of course, zoning now mandates that the size of new streets be based on the needs of the fire engine.


Bringing this back around to Design, I like to think that there's ample opportunity for function to follow form. Every Google mashup is an example of function following form. Whenever companies build a platform or release an API, they're providing raw materials for designers to exploit.

Every medium has certain formal properties; successful interaction designers exploit the best qualities of the medium while suppressing the worst. Every now and then, they invent new forms. The development of XML, or AJAX or RFID represent new forms for designers to explore. Starting places for imagining new functions.

All this isn't to say that form shouldn't follow function, or that there aren't plenty of examples of technology for technology's sake. But it's refreshing to look at a problem with new eyes, to rethink an unchallenged assumption. Sometimes form does inspire function. Other examples? List them below!

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