Form follows function versus Simplcity

Hello Everyone

I am a second year graphic design student currently working on a self - formulated essay question that discusses whether the principle of 'form follows function' is the same as 'simplicity', in design, or if the terms have gradually started to be incorrectly used in an interchangeable fashion. What are your takes on the matter?

hrant's picture

My own view is not mainstream, but I believe the two are in fact opposed: function is so complex that simplicity of form cannot do the job. Or: simplification is an escape from function's complexity.

Concerning the actual use of the terms on the ground, I think it's sadly true that people associate simplicity with functionality. Part of it is understandable, since complex forms are often decorative. But for example if you look at a Formula-1 car, it's not simple at all, but it has beauty.


Té Rowan's picture

As I see it, form-follows-function and simplicity have very little to do with each other, except you want the simplest form that fulfills the function reliably and well. Excess complexity, after all, just means more stuff around to fail at the worst time.

cerulean's picture

The crux of it is best expressed by the popular paraphrase of Albert Einstein by Roger Sessions: "Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler!" The second part is very important and often overlooked, and properly applying it, taking into account all necessary complexities, will often result in something that is not very simple at all.

I doubt I could come up with a more succinct summary of biological evolution than "form follows function", yet the results are, of necessity, staggeringly complex.

Furthermore, one must remember that pure aesthetics often serve a function — indeed, can be a function. The look of something is often useful in ways that are not easily realized or expressed.

Nick Shinn's picture

The Postmodern view:
“Formalism was more symbolic than functional. It was symbolically functional. It represented function more than resulted from function. It looked functional more than worked functionally.” –Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, 1974.

JamesM's picture

"Form Follows Function" is a phrase that originated in the late 1800s and was a rejection of the highly ornamented style that had been popular in architecture and in other areas of design.

Objects designed with this philosophy in mind often appear simpler because they lack ornamentation.

However simplicity as a design concept goes deeper than lack of ornamentation. It means really thinking a problem through and making an object that does the intended purpose well and in a simple, easy-to-understand manner.

For example, let's say I'm designing a new tractor for farmers. I could use "form follows function" and design a tractor that's very functional with no frills, but it might be confusing to operate. Or I might design a tractor that's simple to use, but doesn't do the job well. Or if I'm really smart, I'll design one that's both functional AND simple to use.

A poster advertising an event could be a simple design but it doesn't communicate well. Or it could be very functional but not attractive or easy to read. Ideally you want both.

So what I'm saying is that they are really different things.

(And some designers have been successful with highly ornamented designs. Different strokes for different folks.)

hrant's picture

Nick, I like that.


PublishingMojo's picture

The principle of "form follows function" is to avoid making form into an end in itself. Things should not be simple for the sake of simplicity, nor should they be elaborate for the sake of being elaborate. There should be a reason for simplicity or complexity, and that reason should be derived from who's going to use it, what they're going to use it for, and the circumstances they'll use it in.

Incidentally, this may be the most important difference between design and fine art, since in the latter, it is perfectly OK for form to be an end in itself.

JamesM's picture

Another way of putting it is that fine art is generally concerned with self-expression (so form can indeed be an end in itself), but graphic design is generally concerned with communicating a message on behalf of a client.

(Of course there are exceptions, like a fine artist doing a commission job, or a designer doing a project for themself.)

tafadzwa_takuba's picture

Thank you all so much for the insight!! It is greatly appreciated. My mind is a bit more open now!

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