“Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law.”
– Louis Sullivan, American Architect
Form follows function. It’s a tricky one to wrap your head around. We’ve probably heard it at one point or another and brushed it off as another strange English proverb like “never look a gift horse in the mouth” (who came up with that one?) But it really has a lot of meaning and influence behind it.
The phrase most obviously applies to architects and designers- it implies that the primary goal of any creative work is its function, use or idea. In contrast, form, style or appearance comes second. A good example is the Guggenheim museum interior:
Frank Lloyd Wright’s main goal was to have an open structure that allowed visitors to easily see the artwork within. It just so happened that by designing it this way, it ended up looking really freakin’ cool.
The success of Apple is also a perfect example. I’m pretty sure that Steve Jobs’ vision was not to create a product that looks really nice. He created products that are user-friendly and incredibly functional. In keeping the design unadorned and simple (i.e. usually one or two buttons, solid aluminum casing, etc.), it ends up being an absolutely stunning product:
My third example is Permaculture– the design of landscapes to intentionally mimic nature. This topic could be a whole blog post on its own (or a whole book, really), but for now I want to say that everything done in Permaculture has a purpose: trees are added to a landscape to hold rainwater and block the hot summer sun, ponds are constructed to purify water and collect rainwater, and flowers are planted to attract bees. You can guess it’s no surprise, that this is what we get:
See the pattern I’m getting at here? It doesn’t stop at design and architecture though. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I feel like I can apply it to everyday life! For example, a friend of mine who’s really into long distance running has traveled the world and seen some of the most beautiful landscapes by following his passion to run. He travels for a function – to run in races – but form (seeing beautiful places) naturally follows. Even the way you dress yourself: clothes should be first and foremost functional and comfortable, then begin to think about their visual appearance.
I’ve found by thinking this way lately, I’ve been wearing simpler clothing and getting rid of frivolous things that don’t serve a function in my life. How does function come first in aspects of your life?
I’ll leave you with a form follows function exercise: Please explain to me the man’s tie (as in suit and tie.) What function does it serve? The answer is in this excellent article: The Science of Simplicity.