The wheel is a great example of how the adage “form follows function” (regardless of the disputed origins and accuracy of the phrase itself) has been relevant throughout modern history. Different sizes, designs and materials can be used, but changing the basic shape of the wheel itself are bound to affect its performance.
The shape or form of something should be driven by its intended purpose and function.
It’s very easy to think of examples of function dictating form in the world of architecture. For instance, it would be ridiculous to build a house without a kitchen, or a hotel building where the rooms aren’t large enough for beds.
But this concept not only applies to the physical world, but also to design and marketing, where the term “form follows function” is often said but perhaps not as often understood. This post will help demystify “form follows function” as it applies to design and marketing.
Conveying a message to an audience should be the central function or purpose of any design. When we start designing, we keep in mind the audience and the message we want to convey. This dictates the form we choose.
For instance, a stop sign has a single, simple message that it conveys by being large, bright and highly visible. A pile of leaflets by the curb wouldn’t have the same effect at getting cars to stop.
Think about how your audience perceives your message. Is it something they’re going to see and understand immediately? Or is it something they’re going to have to think about and absorb more slowly?
Perhaps your message will be meant to appeal to a small and specific audience, or even a single person. Or you could create messages that are designed to appeal to different audiences, in which case you may use different forms to reach these audiences.
By knowing each medium and how it functions a creative director can decide exactly what form our message should take. A highway billboard, for instance, could grab someone’s attention immediately with a simple message, but isn’t as good at conveying a more nuanced or complicated message where a pamphlet or booklet might do a better job of educating and persuading people.
It’s important to have messages presented in a form that fits their function. Otherwise, it’s like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Even if you’re able to make something look pretty, it could be failing at getting the message across (its primary function) if the form isn’t right.
Make sure that you always think of the function before the form, because even the nicest looking design can’t accomplish its goal when it’s not in the right form. In other words, don’t build a beautiful, square‐shaped wheel.