Balancing Form and Function

by Paul D'Alessandro on April 6, 2010

The story goes that upon arriving at his brand new home called Fallingwater, designed by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. remarked, “Why are there 7 buckets collecting leaks in my brand new home.”  To which Wright responded, “When you put a piece of art in the rain it is going to get wet.”  While many hail Wright as the pinnacle of the great American design movement, others eschew his work as it seldom reached a balance between form and function, always skewing heavily to form.  His furniture was often awkwardly upright and consequently uncomfortable.  For some, his room proportions while highly considerate of exterior light, created an obscure sense of scale.

The lesson learned from Wright is that as experience designers we should make it our goal to strike a balance between form and function.  Humans want things to be beautiful, enjoyable and even fun.  Humans need things to work to the desired objective.  One simple exercise I challenge teams to incorporate into their process is forced cycles of emphasis between form and function.  Just when they feel themselves diving too deep into the aesthetic or conceptual aspects of the experience, I encourage them to sway back to consideration of practical, contextual and even the more emotional elements of design that make up the function of the product or service.

Perhaps no better example of a balance between form and function is something those living in Chicago unknowingly find themselves staring at almost every day, the Chicago Window (pictured above).  Hatched from the same Chicago School that brought Frank Lloyd Wright to the world of design is this very simple concept of what a window can and should be.  The Chicago Window delivers on both form and function by creating a beautiful view of the outdoors through a large center pane that is complemented by two very functional surrounding operable panes.  This allows for appreciation of all the dramatic views the first Chicago skyscrapers brought to the world while also allowing for interior light-gathering and natural ventilation.  Even though it is very simple in concept and overlooked by its citizens almost every day, the Chicago Window is a shining example of the right balance between form and function.

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