Form needs to function

According to Time magazine, ‘Function is out. Form is in’ – it’s time for designers to take a fresh perspective. But if your designs don’t work, why bother, says David Bernstein

New York’s Metropolitan Museum is staging two exhibitions at the moment, American Modern, 1925-1940, Design for a New Age and A Century of Design Part II: 1925 – 1950. It’s almost too much, especially if you also want to catch the museum’s French Impressionists and the comprehensive Sargent exhibitions (if you’re not planning to visit New York this year, try the website – www.metmuseum.org).

The wall text introduces us to the post Art Deco period of “more rigorous and rational design”, beauty via “manipulation of form rather than ornament”. But, it asserts that “geometric form and plain undecorated surfaces were too demanding for most people”. Even Alvar Aalto comes out against the tubular steel chair, while admitting it is “surely rational from technical and constructive points of view… steel (is) not satisfying from the human point of view”.

I’m with you Alvar baby. I own a steel tea strainer and that certainly isn’t satisfying. It has a thick heavy tubular handle: very reassuring to grip. Not, of course, that you grip a tea strainer. You rest it delicately over the cup or mug and either fill it with leaves and pour water into it or pour the tea from a pot. But our heavy duty handle never rests. Remove your hand and it topples over. Did the designer ever make a cup of tea? Did the manufacturer? Come to think of it, did the buyer for the famous store which sold it ever try it out before deciding to stock it?

My old mate Edward de Bono, in his latest e-mail, reports on a similar puzzle. Leaving for a trip, he discovered his watch had stopped, so he left it behind to have the battery changed. He went to a kiosk at the airport. Of the 400 different watches on show, only one had a face that was easy to read. They offered all sorts of values – for example, “timing a lap to a hundredth of a second at a depth of 50m” – but the faces were “indistinct, symbolic, clever-clever – everything except easy to read”.

The 26 June issue of Time magazine announced in a cover story “The rebirth of design”, captioning a photograph of a rubber radio inside a goldfish bowl with the line “Function is out. Form is in”, which would serve as a coda to the de Bono story.

It can’t be true can it? Form at the expense of function? Examine designer calendars and you’d be prepared to believe it. De Bono would have as much difficulty divining the date as the time. You know the sort of thing: huge illustration and all the days of the month in a single horizontal line at the base or a vertical pattern of type with a colour coding not even Enigma could solve.

I appreciate the designer’s problem. He or she has to find a new way of doing the familiar. It is tempting to seek a freedom from constraint. Whereas what designers should be looking for is a freedom within constraint. Constraint isn’t a handicap; it’s a professional discipline.

Compare the calendar on my desk with the earlier examples. It’s from a design company and type specialist called Letter g. It consists of 12 cards measuring 7cm x 7.5cm in a Perspex holder. It celebrates the millennium by looking back and taking a month from each decade since 1890. January 1890 began on a Saturday, as does January 2000. February 1900 equates with February 2000. March 1910, March 2000. And so on. Each month’s type echoes the decade. Turn the card over and relevant contemporary design artefacts or events are listed. For 1890: Art Nouveau corsets, Folies Bergères, frock coats, Remington typewriters, top hats. Each subsequent card adds to the list in a second colour till you reach “sustainable design, wind power, World Wide Web” and a plug: “Letter g at work producing careful, witty, issue-led design.”

Here is a calendar which provides me with the basic information and adds value. It works as a calendar (even a psychedelic wavy layout of 1960 is readable) and it serves as a miniature history of design.

Mark Dziersk, president of the Industrial Design Society of America, asserts (according to Time) that “this is the new golden age of design”. He continues: “When industries are competing at equal price and functionality, design is the only difference that matters.” This is the essence of the article, which the glib line “Function is out. Form is in” completely distorts.

As an agency creative director, I used to demand that solutions be right as well as bright. Form or function isn’t a multiple choice question. It’s not either/ or but both. Relevant creativity. Or, as the clever people at Letter g proclaim, “issue-led design”.

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