Form over function. Function over form.
The debate that has kept designers and architects arguing over their flat whites and artisan sour dough sandwiches, originates from the early 1900s when Austrian architect Adolf Loos’ wrote a critique of the elaborate ornament favoured by Vienna’s Secession architects in his essay ‘ornament and crime’. Along with another architect, Louis Sullivan in his essay 'The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered', he’s credited as being one of the first to coin the phrase ‘form follows function’. In the 30s this became the mantra of the Modernist architecture movement who believed that ornament in building design was superfluous, in stark contrast to other movements of the time such as Art Deco which reveled in exuberant decoration.
Function and beauty aren’t mutually exclusive of course as, for example, Phillipe Starck’s iconic juicer or many of Jonny Ives’s designs for Apple illustrates. Whilst Apple follows form over function in its approach to design, I find that most of their products are very user friendly and beautiful to look at, as well as being superbly engineered of course. In about 30 years of using Apple products, starting with an LC in around 1990, I only really have one gripe about an Apple product design, which prioritises the aesthetic above the needs of the user. It might seem like a small thing, but it’s the positioning of the USB slots in the back of an imac. This has resulted in a perfect looking and seamless aluminium and glass front, but it’s a right faff to get a memory stick in and out of the back - a manoeuver during which I usually have to move the screen generally knocking something over. I’ve had to resort to buying some little extension leads that now stick out from beneath the screen rather ruining the elegance of the design, surely some discreet little panel with a sliding cover or something could’ve been designed? Moan over.
There’s no doubt that we’re all consciously and sub-consciously influenced by beauty a fact which brands recognize and constantly attempt to harness. It’s called the “halo effect,” a term used by psychologist Edward Thorndike in 1920 who argued that we’re so attracted to beauty that it can easily cloud our judgement which probably explains all those models in adverts. Brands try to take advantage of the halo effect by using celebrity endorsements and models to promote their products. It’s a formula that inspires trust and engagement among target audiences and it’s an effect that goes beyond how we perceive people as we also look for beauty in design – take a Ferrari for example. Of course ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and everyone is unique in what appeals most to them, but audiences form collective opinions on what’s is deemed handsome or beautiful. While commonly held definitions of beauty are often social and cultural beliefs rather than fact, they are nonetheless powerful. This widespread appeal is used by brands of all sizes to grab attention and ultimately sell us their latest products or services.
Something that looks beautiful and grabs the attention of your target audience simply because of the “wow” factor of the design has a value of course, but to keep their attention and build long-term loyalty, your messaging and content has to deliver value beyond just a pretty picture. This is especially relevant online as websites have arguably become a brand’s most important channel for content. Sites that engage viewers are often visually rich, leading with video, motion graphics, infographics, iconography, and more to involve users through the site and onto conversion either to buy or enquire. Delivering value through your content is just as important as delivering something that’s visually appealing to the viewer.
“By delivering content that puts an equal focus on form and function, brands have the opportunity to stand out from the crowd. There is likely no better example of this than Netflix. What began as a mail-delivery DVD rental service evolved into the world’s leading entertainment destination in under a decade. Netflix could have simply focused their efforts on delivering a great streaming experience, licensing content from production houses and making it accessible to anyone with access to the internet. But with their success, it wouldn’t be long before others followed. They needed to find a solution to maintain customer loyalty, and that solution came through the prioritization of both form and function in their original content. By moving entertainment into an online streaming platform, Netflix had millions of data points at their disposal. This data showed them which Hollywood stars were trending, what storylines mattered to different viewer demographics, which genres drove the most views, and much more. They used this data to inform the creation of bingeworthy and game- changing original content, combining production value with stories that were sure to inspire viewership.” Amy Balliett, Killer Visual Strategies.
Our views of design quality as consumers have evolved over the years and with the inception of ‘digital, at an ever increasing rate. The digital landscape has driven our expectations both in terms of production values and in speed with streaming content becoming the norm. The formula of delivering ‘bingeworthy’ media has led consumers to expect nothing but the best at all times, in terms of both form and in function.
Amy Balliet concludes that for brands “To succeed in today’s content marketplace, brands must deliver high-quality visual content at all times. If they lead with poor form and function, they risk losing brand loyalty and trust in the best-case scenario — and their entire business in the worst.”