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19: Form, Function, Foolishness

19: Form,  Function,  Foolishness

why "form follows function" is fluff

The 20th century produced a number of stupendously evil dictators and one stupendously annoying cliché. That would be this bit of alliteration: form follows function. Thousands--nay, millions--of intelligent people have fallen all over themselves in a grotesque rush to hail this cliché, to repeat this cliché, to take this cliché home and (one can only surmise) sleep with the damned thing.

So who am I--a mere literary nobody--to snicker at all these people just because they are misguided and duped. Well, I’m a contrarian kind of guy who is quite sure of one thing: the more that experts, pundits and professors tells us something is true, the surer we can be that a hoax is upon us.

What amazes me is that this caterwauling started all the way back in the early 1900’s, was still growing stronger in the 1960s and every time you think the thing has died an overdue death, it’s thrown at you again and again but always as if for the first time! Worse, it’s always uttered with the same cloying solemnity, as if God has spoken and all further discussion can now cease.

Okay, you’re thinking, what is the point here? Explain yourself. Easy! In half the cases where this cliché is used, it’s a trivial and stupendously empty tautology. A knife or scissors is sharp by definition. A knife not sharp ceases to be a knife. Look in the dictionary--cutting will always be mentioned. Anyone saying that a sharp knife is an example of form following function is like somebody piously asserting a circle is round or a square has exactly four sides! The people behind this foolishness were particularly fond of pointing at ocean liners and airplanes. Look at how they’re designed to slide through wind and water. Form follows function, don’t you know? Of course, and poisons will poison you. An ocean liner that does not cut through the water, an airplane that does not move through the air, a poison that isn’t poisonous--well, these are not semantically viable. They’re DOA.

But this cliché is even more dangerous in its other common use, because here the logical nonsense does not immediately jump out and slap you. Yes, my friends, we arrive at design and architecture. “Form follows function” was the war cry of people who wanted to build big boxes and boring typefaces, and they wanted us to pay for them and love them. Forever. People now may not remember but around 1970 the International Style, as it was called (this being code for Big Boring Boxes), was predicted to last for a thousand years. Just like the Third Reich. (Indeed, I believe there is a totalitarian subtext and I’ll come back to it.) First, let’s dispose of this consummate cliche. You can’t justify your design for a building or anything else with the phrase “form follows function” unless you have a situation where something has only one function. Nothing in this universe has only one. End of story.

What is the function of a building? To keep people warm and dry. To make a corporation look good. To be beautiful. To be original. To make workers feel good when they come to work. To make the architect famous. To make the rest of the neighborhood seem to be harmonious. To conserve energy and to use the sun’s energy. To be solidly constructed and not fall down. To hold the most bodies per cubic yard. To be cheap to build....On and on it goes, function after function, and each one gives you different answers. So what kind of fool presents a design and seriously intones “Form follows function” as though that says something very deep. Which function did you have in mind? And you know what? Even if you could settle on a single function, there’s probably numerous forms that would do that particular job equally well.

“Form follows function” was also the rage among many type designers. I must have read 20 articles explaining why Helvetica was the ultimate typeface. Yes, ultimately boring. Here’s the really funny part about all this rational typeface jive. What’s the function of a typeface? If you’re gullible enough to go with that question, the modernists wanted you to accept this answer: to be readable. The Swiss who perpetrated Helvetica just assumed that this face would be the most readable because it was the most “objective.” Big shock: sans serif faces are harder to read. Did you ever see a novel set in Helvetica? But never mind even that crushing defeat. The main point recurs: a typeface has lots and lots of functions (and readability may not even be high on the list). That’s why we have at least 10,000 faces. They create moods and feelings; they express the underlying sentiments of the words; they engage the eye. But the people pushing “form follows function” actually seemed to want every sign to be in Helvetica, just as every building would be a rational box, and every life would be chopped down to the logical essentials...which brings us back to the totalitarian connection.

Around 1985, I made notes for an essay titled "Hitler, Heaven, Helvetica and History," basically a precursor to this rant now. As the title suggests, I sensed a totalitarian compulsion inside the endless repeating of “form follows function,” and the relentless shilling for objectivist and rationalist paradigms. The obvious part of the story was that younger architects wanted to dethrone older architects; “form follows function” and “less is more” were marketing slogans for the young hot shots. The more subtle part of the story is that some of our elites have a secret love affair with central planning. Sick but true: socialism is catnip for intellectuals who suppose a high IQ entitles them to manage other people. These tendencies may be inchoate but I submit you can feel a yearning for control in much of the chatter about planned societies, rational typefaces and objective buildings. The humdrumness and banality of these boxes was echoed in Helvetica (arguably the most boring typeface ever devised) and in planned cities such as Brasilia (where nobody wanted to live) and in regimented societies such as Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China or Castro’s Cuba (where only the bosses have any fun). All of these bad ideas came from the same direction--a quasi-religion based on the unreasonable idea that Reason could solve all problems.

Fade, as the movie people say, to black. People chanting “form follows function” followed each other to the dreary part of town. Please, let’s commit this dead husk to a final burial. “Form follows function” is absurdly reductionist. It pretends that life is monolithic, simple, destined to be boring, and does one thing at a time. When we all know that life is varied, complex, entertaining, and multi-functional.


Hitler Heaven Helvetica History




Ultimately, this is an article about sophistry.


Also see
"9: Philosophy Weeps"
"22: On Bullsh*t and Sophistry."



19: Form, Function, Foolishness first appeared on in 2006

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2011