I wrote about form and function earlier. Balance between the form and function of ideas and things attract my attention. The article I wrote was at best a hasty rambling. Here is me revisiting the subject in its fundamental with hopes to better explain it.

I am coached in the school of function. My degree in Industrial Engineering was a product of the industrial revolution — the revolution that resulted in mass-produced things that are seemingly emotion-less. This revolution drove some artists to an opposite extreme of architecture and design that I often find superfluous and thus useless, serving no purpose than an emotional one. My education along with my personality leaves little room to appreciate subjective qualities (which I try to discover through explorations in the arts).

Dimitri Fadeyev writes about User Interface and User Experience. His writing weaves around the same topics that interest me: of perception and utility, of form and function. In his blog post, Too Plain, he mentions the reaction of some designers to Apple’s skeuomorphic app designs. iBooks looks like a wood bookshelf while Find My Friends app looks like it is made of stitched leather. His theory is that Apple is trying to strike a balance between a minimalist hardware design—iPhone, and a rich software design, one balancing the other’s lack of emotional appeal. Robert Pirsig would have called the balance between elegant hardware and software quality — the intersection of romantic and classical (subjective and objective). This balance is something the Windows Phone with Metro UI fails to achieve with it’s minimalist hardware and typography centric software.

A designer’s job is to bring human emotions to an emotion-less software. Apple’s skeuomorphic designs appeal differently than Metro UI’s minimalist design. A play on human perception can be seen with the icon for the phone app on most phones. It represents a traditional land-line handset without the chord attached to its end. Traditional land-line phones are getting less and less popular but the image of the handset resonates with us who have grown up in a time when cell-phones were not ubiquitous. Maybe in fifty years or so, when cell phones completely take over the land-line business, the current generation may not relate the handset-icon to making phone calls. A re-design might happen. We may quit making calls altogether. This is already happening with the ‘Save’ floppy-disc icon. Not only are we talking about redesigning it but Apple operating systems are doing away completely with ever having to save an electronic document.

Oftentimes, design distracts from the soundness of the engineering behind it for better or worse. We have all been conned into watching a crappy movie due to its kick-ass trailer. An Aeropress coffee maker lacks the panache of the Chemex but still makes a bitchin’ cup of coffee. Mass produced goods often appear soul-less but it is a product of perception. People who are guided more by intuition than by reason may not find subjective quality in a product mass-produced a gazillion times over simply due to the abundance of it. They would prefer something hand-made and make an emotional connection to it. This handmade product will hold very little promise of soundness and more importantly, consistency of soundness. Consistency of soundness leads to trust which is what consumers really purchase … Patrick Rhone spoke about this on his podcast. Handmade goods do not always carry a history of their construction quality. Soundness of construction of a Shaker Broom may be well known but how can you tell if that coffee table you have been eyeing at the local Arts Market is going to hold up to daily use. The skill to recognize quality is not easy to find or cultivate. Also, good quality products are not always accessible, financially or logistically. If it was, so many would not be shopping at big-box stores for brittle particle-board furniture. One has to trust the craftsman out of a sense of judgement and pure intuition. This can be risky depending on the product at stake.

Further, in Too Plain, Dimitri Fadeyev talks about William Morris’s design aesthetic.

Morris considered Gothic architecture to be the only viable style to build on in England. One interesting aspect of his view was that walls in a Gothic house should never be barren, but instead every inch should be adorned in decorations, tapestries, paintings and furniture so that they all fuse together to create a building as one complete work of art.

When I come across designs that are more decorative than their function demands them to be, I always wonder if any effort that should have been spent in the quality of the function was hurried away and spent on the beautification of the form. I get curious to discover how much the design distracts from the soundness of the engineering. After all, staging a home for a sale is becoming an occupation. A current example is the architectural design of the building my employer leases. This building has wide windows terminating into architecturally decorative arches. While breaking the dull horizontal lines of the exterior, these arches let-in direct sunlight straight into the eyes of some of the employees during certain hours of the day. The arches are impossible to cover up with blinds. Instead of designing functionless arches mimicking the form of Roman aqueducts, the architect’s energy could have been spent in making the layout of offices and cubicles better so one could access the stairwell better — this is currently a logistical nightmare when evacuating during fire-drills.

Similarly, few residential homes seem to be built for living and moving effectively between rooms; few are designed to embrace the sights and sounds outside while balancing insulation and privacy inside. They are built for form and their names reflect it: the Queen Anne, the Craftsman, the Bungalow, the Ranch, the Suburban and so on. However, some designs like Shotgun Style homes are based on the flow of people between rooms, not the exterior design aesthetic. Either way, the appeal puts a design heritage in the primary and finding the most elegant solution of accommodation in the secondary. This reversed logic appears narcissistic to me and makes me revolt away from the form completely despite the few functional merits they may carry.

The excess of form would not bother me as much if function was not compromised. I am not bothered by Apple’s skeuomorphic app design as long as the software functions seamlessly and the mass-produced hardware is elegant and robust. I am not bothered by Metro UI’s lack of ’emotion’ either (I do find subjective pleasure in using some skeuomorphed apps when my human instincts find familiarity in the software’s design). When using Windows Vista at work, I customize the look and feel of the operating system so that it may be least intrusive in my work-flow, which is primary. I hide the pixel-robbing Excel ribbons, resorting to a handful of small icons and to my memory of key-board shortcuts so I can maximize viewing the rows and columns of a large Excel document. As a response to multi-tasking and constant distractions, I keep my desk uncluttered and knolled.

The abundance of function-less form overwhelms my senses. Inefficiencies of a poorly laid out building, jittery software, jam-packed menus and buttons in excel, throw-away appliances, wasteful use of space and many more get noticed constantly. My brain aggregates them all. My actions compensate for these inefficiencies, subconsciously finding equilibrium. I am, therefore, attracted to concepts of minimalism, to japanese aesthetics, utilitarian bicycles, easy recipes, plain clothing, cellular hiatus, and so on. And I am happy as long as I have an Apple product within easy reach.

Posted by on January 1, 2012 in things

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