We’ve all heard the expression, “form follows function.” If you’re like me, you may have been under the impression that this adage was only the purview of architects and had little or nothing to do with the communication field. This line of thinking is a folly, form follows function is impactful to communication.
In White Space Is Not Your Enemy, Rebecca Hagan and Kim Golombisky dissect form follows function from a communication design perspective: “’Form’ refers to material artistry—what something looks like. Design, triggered by the industrial revolution and mass production capitalism (function), grew out of and continues to be inspired by the visual and even performing arts (form).”
This quotation describes the relationship between form and function as almost cyclical. It sort of raises a chicken and egg question, which started the cycle, form or function?
To illustrate this relationship, lets’ head to the wardrobe and answer the following question.
Is Business Casual Extinct?
Has it gone the way of the dodo, regulated only to museums? Or has business casual simply evolved? I attended a recent meeting at the marketing agency where I work, and I was the only person not dressed in denim—the only one not wearing blue jeans. I experienced flashbacks to my undergraduate days where every student sported a hoodie sweatshirt and jeans. In my first professional position, business casual for men meant collared shirts and slacks. Now jeans are accepted, and tee-shirts are tolerated.
Why Do We Have Denim Fever?
What does this anecdote illustrate? It illustrates the relationship between form and function. First, communication is a broad term, and like we all—apparently— wear denim—we all communicate. Anything and everything communicates. So why do we wear jeans? What do jeans communicate?
Let’s start with function, which is understood as utility. Jeans are pants, and we wear pants to cover our bottom halves. Pants offer protection from elements that we would otherwise be exposed to, and pants offer comfort. I’m from the country. I’ve always thought of the utility (function) of jeans as durable clothing for work and outdoor activities, like landscaping or painting, and certainly not for comfort. I feel corduroy pants are more comfortable than jeans, but if I tried landscaping in them, they wouldn’t last until lunch. When I wear jeans, I’m plagued with pocket issues: I can’t extract my wallet and keys from my pockets.
If jeans aren’t the most comfortable pants and are plagued by pocket deficiencies, why do we wear denim? We wear jeans because of what the form connotes. What Hagen and Golombisky explained as artistry. Denim has the aesthetic. People like the way their legs look in jeans. Jeans are casual but attractive. There are designer jeans that we wear when we go out. The act of wearing jeans communicates: it says I belong to the community; I’m fashionable; I dress stylishly; I’m going out on the town tonight, etc. None of this has to do with the utility of a pair of pants. Think pre-distressed jeans. What function do they serve? Form elevates denim beyond mere fabric covering our lower extremities to a social expression.
Suppose, we’re in the outlets shopping for pants. I’ve narrowed my choice down to two pairs of pants, a pair of nondescript khakis and a pair of stylish jeans. Assuming the quality and prices are similar, which pair of pants am I likely to buy? I’m going to buy the jeans because I have a predisposition.
This predisposition is what Edward Thorndike termed the Halo Effect. The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology defines it as, “A specific type of cognitive bias in which one aspect of a person, brand, product or institution affects one’s thoughts or judgment of the entity’s other aspects or dimensions.” (Longe, 2016). This phenomenon is usually associated with a bias or believing attractive people are more competent than less attractive people, but it’s applicable to any product or message. Subconsciously, we’re likely to assume the more aesthetically pleasing product is of better quality—we’re going to buy that pair of jeans.
Impact on Design
For communication professionals, this inclination toward form (artistry) empathizes the necessity of quality design. When constructing a piece of collateral, we know the message we want to communicate to our target audience, e.g., a product launch, a sale or an upcoming event. Obviously, the priority is to present the message as clearly and concisely as possible. The acronym KISS, “Keep It Simple Stupid” was drilled into me by public relations professors.
However, having strong messages is not enough to distinguish a piece of collateral from the clutter and noise. Two stores could both send sales postcards and only one increase its store’s foot traffic. The postcard that grabs the eye, the postcard with the memorable graphics and strong typography. In short, the piece of collateral with the stronger form.
In communication, we need the right message and attention. I could have the most persuasive sales copy in the world, but if I can’t grab attention or get anyone to read it, my sales piece would be an abject failure. We strive for top of mind awareness, which can only be obtained by the marriage of form and function. The offspring of the nuptials between form and function is attention and response.
Our goal as communication professionals needs to be to design collateral that displays a strong message clearly and grabs attention by being attractive or creative. A strong balance between function and form will seize attention and give a brand, advertisement or message top of mind awareness and elicit a response or action. Remember that next time you’re trying on a pair of Jordaches.
Hagen, R., & Golombisky, K. (2017). What is design? making visuals & type play nice is space. White space is not your enemy: A beginner’s guide to communicating visually through graphic, web & multimedia design (Third ed., pp. 1-8). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Halo Effect. (2016). In J. L. Longe (Ed.), The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology (3rd ed., Vol. 1, pp. 507-509). Farmington Hills, MI: Gale. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com.libraryproxy.quinnipiac.edu/apps/doc/CX3631000344/GVRL?u=a13qu&sid=GVRL&xid=97bddd7b