Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 132, January 2015

Form follows function?

Form follows function is now an old mantra of design, the epitome of design as the modern practice of social improvement. Even though it may not be as popular as some decades ago, it may still quite accurately describe some aspects of the design process and its application.

Function can be understood in very wide terms, in anything from machine parts and ergonomics to healthcare services and glossy myth production. But if we are to examine what function really is for everyday design the main question would perhaps be: what function is of priority to your stakeholders, or perhaps more accurately for most design processes, what function is of priority to your contractor?

The mantra of form follows function is very effective in focusing the attention of the designer to the goal or the design brief: you must design function, and function is not a fluffy category like taste, but something measurable, something that can be objective. It makes designers not merely artists, forming subjective emotions, but like engineers, doctors or physicists, designers are really useful to society. We may work with aesthetics, but our aesthetics are functional. It is as if we work for a higher aim, a noble truth more elevated than the daily struggles of morals or politics. Indeed, this is often used to sell “participatory design”: that it is a higher form of applied democracy, not polluted by the dirty, contested and irrational struggles of politics.

Just taste the word: “function.” It is a Platonic category in itself. Not as indistinct as “beauty”, but more scientific. Like “friction”, “gravity” or “resistance”, it could have a mathematical formula to it. Function is like a law of physics. It is just there, neutral and necessary. But unlike gravity, function is usually also seen as objectively good. If I make something functional, it is most often also beneficial or even virtuous.
But there is another function of design that we seldom discuss: that function also serves the ones who design, or at least the world from which they come. It is functional because it furthers the interests and power of those who define the function. The most perpetual function of design is to further inequality.
Perhaps this is why we as designers always talk about “change”, that we make a “difference”. It effectively hides the ultimate function of our trade: to preserve the social status quo.

If we trace the political function of design in consumer society, the primary function of design is to lessen social friction. Design is the oil which makes the social machine run smooth, it covers inequality with cheaper products, it subdues anger and frustration as even the poorest can experience some satisfaction in mass production of substandard goods. Function means to let power run its errands with less opposition or resistance.

We must come to terms with that design is never neutral. The primary function of design is to dominate, to form the user, to challenge dissatisfaction with miniscule steps of hope. Design is a force and it produces consent. It may do so in a subtle way, or more explicitly. To trace the true impact of design we must look for its function on a deeper, social level. We must trace the mantra of “Form Follows Function” on a more radical level, and ask: what is designed, for whom, and in the interest of what social actor?

The function is always asymmetric and it hides the uneven distribution of agency and wellbeing in its path. As we look at the social situation of the poor and marginalized it may be more obvious, but its political function may also be closer to our own lives.
I like my smart phone, but I know those in power likes it even more. And the function of this globally connected item is to hide its origin, to obscure its blood-stained history and its true cost, its ecological and social consequences. Its function is to hide how I become dependent on it, how my social life becomes defined by it, and how that power of control, determination and worth is not in my hands, even if I may think so as I hold the phone in my hand.

Form follows function. The form of society is uneven; it is unequal, and unjust. The ultimate function of design is to make sure it stays that way, that the social form of things keeps being asymmetric, that social life stays tilted in favour of those with privilege.

If we are interested in the politics of design it may be helpful for us to take the old mantra of “Form Follows Function” as more reliable and plain-spoken that we first may think. Ask yourself: what is designed, for whom, and in the interest of what social actor? Follow the function, and your may see the form of power.

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