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Communicate Function with Form

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Ivy Chuang, Knoend.
Ivy Chuang, Knoend.
Every designer encounters the mantra "Form follows function" at some point in their career, most times toward the very beginning of their introduction to design disciplines. It has always been a lively debate ever since it was coined by the architect Louis Sullivan in the late 1890s.

I vaguely remember thinking about these three words whilst I was in an early design ideation course. Using blue pencil, we were drawing and shading wooden pull toys. With these words in mind, I knew automatically that everything that I drew would have a string with a ball at the end and wheels. I remembered that a pull toy often was able to use the kinetic energy to produce some sort of effect in the toy and incorporated some elements where gears could be used to generate motion.

Here are a few of those sketches:

At the end of the exercise I realized that these sketches truly exemplified the "form follows function" law. Knowing the material was wood, that the purpose was for a child's amusement, and then utilizing a notion of kinetic energy, the end results then took their shapes. Though there are variations in shape, the overall form is confined by the restraints just mentioned.

We can take a look at few contemporary interpretations of pull toys:

Zippy Oslo Pull Toy by Kushies.

Elephant Wooden Pull Toy by Cookie Dough.
Sit N Walk Puppy by Plan Toys.

Overall, even with modern variations, a pull toy will always communicate its purpose, "Pull me and be amused."

Modern electronics on the other hand, have completely broken out of the "form follows function" conventions. Recently this observation was pointed out by both Tom Dair and Alice Rawsthorn in Fast Company and in the New York Times respectively.

What we have on the markets these days are black box after black box, each one with multitudes of functions and features.

BenQ The Black Box via MobileMag.
Gear4 BlackBox micro.

Most of the work on function is done on user interface, so form is now liberated from its ties to function. I would disagree that "form follows function" is entirely irrelevant though, because as we adapt to the digital age, there are still ways to communicate function physically.

Take the scroll wheel mouse. For a person who is familiar with computer functions, even if they've never used a scroll wheel mouse, they will be able to understand the purpose of the wheel within seconds of use.

The world's first scroll mouse introduced in 1995.
In 1996, Microsoft introduced the IntelliMouse, which is how we visualize most scroll wheel mice today. (Visit Web Urbanist for a full recap on the evolution of computer mice.)

There's nothing to turn in a circular motion on your flat monitor screen, but the scroll wheel mouse still provides an immediate communication of its function screen up, screen down. I hypothesize that the scroll wheel came into existence by emulating the volume control wheel that use to be so ubiquitous on audio capable electronics, the translation of volume up and volume down in a circular expression. These days, physical volume controls are mostly absent which I find highly upsetting. As we become more and more blinded by LCDs burning our retinas, hopefully electronics designers will realize that tactile elements beyond the touchscreen are still valuable for user experience. It would be refreshing to see electronic objects that can communicate with their form every once in awhile.

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Ivy Chuang is the founder and design director of Knoend, a San Francisco-based studio with sustainability and innovation at its core. She is a nomad, surfer, cook and occasional artist.
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