Form and Function

My favorite, cantankerous snowman wrote about design last night. In Design is How it Works, Dr. Drang argues that people misuse design to talk about how something looks.

Steve Jobs’s [Joe’s note: Take a shot.] “design is how it works” gets a lot of lip service, but when most Apple bloggers and pundits say design they still mean how it looks. Flat design, skeuomorphic design, “clean” design[1] these generate millions of words of heated discussion, but they have little to do with how your computer operates[2]. You could go to the Iconfactory and change every icon on your machine, but that wouldn’t change how you or it work.

He managed to have two footnotes there.

  1. “Clean design = Helvetica + white space.”
  2. “I’m not arguing that how something looks has no effect on how we use it. There’s no question that things like layout, shape, and color can have a profound influence on user interaction. But the features have to be there to interact with.”

I don’t feel like those should be bunched up in a pop-over footnote. By shooing away how things look, he is downplaying an integral component of design. How something looks, and how something works, should not be disclaimers, they should work together. Also, his example of changing the icons is not a good one. Change every icon on your system to be exactly the same icon (pick your poison!) and then tell me it has no baring on how you interact with it.

There are a myriad of different kinds of design. Many shorthand the artsy-fartsy part as ‘design’, which should be corrected to include the engineering, but it shouldn’t exclude the people responsible for the look, because really, both parties are as responsible for the design.

When the doc decries ‘clean design’ he’s right to do so. In almost every case, it is used to describe vast tracts of emptiness padding the elements you read, and interact with, so that the overall look is ‘spacious’. It is more often, cold, spartan, and out of proportion. Google is especially bad at it in their web apps these days. That is bad design, and it’s the fault of someone with an art degree. After all, we all know engineers have beautiful, functional web sites that can be used on any mobile platform.

From Yesterday’s episode of The Prompt podcast, Stephen Hackett, Myke Hurley, and Federico Viticci discuss the necessity of some of the visual changes in iOS 7. Without them, the new mechanics of iOS 8 would be very strange.

Myke: We got iOS 7 to enable iOS 8, and that the design of iOS 7 was done in such a way that iOS 8 would make sense. Because if you think now, like, what they’ve done this year, is so much bigger than what they did last year. What they did last year was just change the way everything looked. In regards to functionality, there was some cool stuff, but it’s nothing like what they added this year. It feels like this is two years of functions. Like if you look, 4,000 new APIs. It seems like too much. Like it’s so much stuff. So I feel like iOS 7 was designed as a groundwork for iOS 8, which Apple probably should have made clear, I think.
Stephen: Well they’re not going to make it clear on the front end. They’re not going to say — Because what are you going to say? Last year, hey we redesigned it but we’ve got a lot of cool stuff coming next year? They’re never going to say that. In hindsight, it’s easy to connect the dots. And I have a couple points to make about OS X when we get there.
Myke: I’m sure that you do.
Stephen: But absolutely, [iOS] 7 was a stepping stone to this. And you see the way these things work, and parts of the interface make a lot of sense. Even down to, and it’s probably dumb, but, like, even trying to get developers go to an interface that’s white, that’s very flat, that makes pulling elements of different apps in to each other, easier, if apps kind of look like they’re in the same family.
Federico: I mean, can you imagine if, this stuff was done in iOS 6? You’d have, like, a metal calculator on top of a wooden, library bookshelf —
Myke: [giggling]
Federico (Continued): — I mean, that would have been crazy, right? Where as the new look of iOS 7, and iOS 8, allows apps to not only be more consistent with themselves, but also with each other.

That is, of course, assuming a lot about the intentions last year. It’s hard to ignore that thought exercise though. You’d double-tap to go to your multi-tasking card view, with a linen background, and linen would still slide down for notification center. ‘Well, you’re being too literal.’ I know, it’s my blog, go get your own blog.

That’s not really worthy of a footnote. People should still talk about the design of what’s changed this year when it comes to functional aspects, and not exclude that important work, but that’s because it is form and function that make up design.

Let’s say you need to design a chair. Sketch out a chair, I’ll wait. No matter what you draw, it will have components of form and function. It will have a supporting structure, part of it will be for resting your tuchus, perhaps it will have back support, lumbar support? You can go on. Whether or not it works is the functional aspect of the design. What it ends up looking like is it’s form. There is no way to completely abstract away form from your chair, it will have it. The aesthetic value of the form speaks to how well the form was designed. A well-designed chair will meet not only functional standards, but aesthetic ones. Shorting either will give you a poorly designed chair. Frank Lloyd Wright designed some beautiful-looking chairs. They are great to sit in.

Even in computer programming there is form and function. An engineer might think he has distilled his well designed program down to just code with a simple command line interface, but it’s still an interface. A text prompt is still a form. Don’t believe me? Go play with a bunch of command line applications and look how they choose to print information back in to the shell for you to read. That is an readability is an aesthetic concern. Even the code for the program has a form. Tabs or spaces? Line breaks between your blocks? Where should your imports go? Functionally, the program will work, form-wise, it’s gross and people will not like you as a person.

I work in a field that requires technical work, like setting up a ‘rig’ of ‘joints’ that need to rotate a certain way in order to function. They need to bind to a rig so they can actually be a character, and they need to render out, all-pretty-like, for people to see. Form and function throughout the pipeline.

Can’t we all just get along? We can all be designers, guys. No need to downplay what each of us contributes to design processes. Surely we can all come together and agree the real enemies to design are the managers.

2014-06-05 12:14:00

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