The eternal Form Over Function debate

For me, function will ALWAYS trump form. Always. So I love the Jobs quote above.

Whether it is a handbag or a website, a beauty product or a computer, function always trumps form. Of course, looking good is always a great added extra, but above all else, something has to work.

I used to work in IT, and before graphic interfaces came along, nothing was pretty. In its nascent stage, the internet had newsgroups, bulletin boards, email etc but they were text-based. At this point only academics and the military were really using them. Big business could not have been less interested if they tried.

Then graphic interfaces arrived and after a while businesses started to get interested. Maybe they could make money out of this? But as soon as designers appeared on the scene with splash pages, hidden buttons, roll-overs etc, the fight between form and function began.

My journalism design students wanted bright colours (which meant you couldn’t read the text on the screen), whirling graphics pages to lead you into the site (people are not that patient and flashing screens are not good for people with seizure disorders), hidden buttons (which people couldn’t find), long texts in strange fonts, and complicated pages that would not load.

And since then it has continued. Shopping sites where you cannot find the shipping rates because they are hidden away. Or you cannot add anything to the basket – or even find the basket – because it has some strange icon. Or maybe you cannot close a page because you cannot find the X. How do you change quantities in your basket? Where are the contact details?

Handbag design is also often form over function. The top is not wide enough to put things in, or there is some strange design going on so that it is impossible to open

I use the hell out of my things – clothes have to be effortless, handbags need to be practical, shoes must be comfortable. I walk a lot, travel by public transport, travel a lot (economy) so things really need to be functional and hardwearing.

I often wonder how companies get away with impractical versions of functional items. Take the handbag above – the McQueen Heroine. It looks absolutely stunning – beautifully designed and minimalistic. For the £1600 price tag you would expect it to work properly as well. Errr – nope! The flap top is a faff to undo – you would never be able to open it and close it properly again without huge effort. The opening is too narrow to get anything in and out without a major struggle. And if you undo the zip the bag’s shape just falls apart. Didn’t anyone road test it beforehand? Or is it supposed to be only for ladies who lunch who never need to take anything out of their bag?

And don’t start me on bad packaging for beauty products. Shampoo and conditioner with exactly the same bottles so you cannot tell which is which in a steamy shower with no glasses on. Slippery glass containers full of oil. Fancy upside down tubes that fall over. Square glass bottles you cannot get the last bits out of. Huge amounts of unnecessary packaging. Jars that look huge but have hardly anything in them.

My favourite story is that of The Zubizuri Bridge in Bilbao, designed by Santiago Calatrava. He had the bright idea that the walkway be made of glass. Said glass then became so slippery when wet that people were falling flat on their faces and injuring themselves. The whole glass walkway had to be covered by a hideous non-slip carpet. Honestly, during the whole design process, did NO ONE think of the fact that glass is slippery when wet? Or was the designer one of those cultural geniuses that no one dares to question in case they are blacklisted?

For me, companies that embody a perfect balance of function and aesthetics are those like IKEA and Muji. They recognize the essence of design in objects that are simple and functional.

MUJI and Finnish autonomous driving company Sensible 4 have combined their expertise to create an elegant robotbus, first in the world to function in all weather conditions.

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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