Form is Part of Function

I’ve always been really bothered by the term “form and function.” It somehow implies that form is outside of function. As if they are two completely separate things. I think form and function have a relationship that is a lot more blurred. That in fact, form is part of function.

Aesthetics affect the way we perceive something functions. It both sets up our expectation of functionality, as well as informs the way we approach that functionality. If it looks like it’s going to work, we do everything we can to make it work that way. Aesthetics trigger some innate sense in our minds about the quality and type of functionality to prepare to experience.

Look at these two lemons. Both of them are perfectly edible, taste the same, smell the same. But which one would you pick off the tree if given the choice? As a layer of protection, the human brain is wired to pick out the one that is most aesthetically pleasing in order to pick the good from the bad. The one on the left seems as if it must be inferior based on its aesthetic, but I used it in my water and it tasted just fine.

When we see a well made tool, where all the pieces fit together just right and looks like it’s perfectly made to do the job you are attempting to do, we expect it to work well. If we attempt to use it and it fails, we are disappointed. Have you ever used a Michael Graves design product from Target? He has an entire line of household gadgets. And if you took away the ID of the product, it would work just the same as any other product in its category. But for some reason, I’m convinced my Michael Graves Toaster Oven just works better. I somehow enjoy it more, regardless of how many times the knob has fallen off.

When Ford created the new Mustang, they knew they needed to appeal to the Middle-aged men who had dreamed of a Mustang in their teens. That was the era of the Muscle Car. It was a good era. But now these men were a little less nimble. They were a little wider. They also didn’t want to pay for all the gas that the giant V-8 engines required. So, instead, Ford made the seats a little wider, raised the entry height a little higher, and tuned the vibrations in the seats to make the more efficient modern engine under the hood feel like the good ole V-8. It feels and sounds like Muscle, but a 1968 Mustang would beat it up and steal its lunch money. The aesthetics match the illusion in our minds, therefore we believe it has the same functionality.

Recently, we’ve been playing a lot with haptics. We’ve learned that you can manipulate the way people think a given haptic feels by changing sound effect you connect to it. One sound effect makes the exact same haptic feel completely different than it felt paired with a different sound. Aesthetics have a similar affect on functionality.

In UI terms, aesthetics set the stage for the expected interactions. They communicate a message about the quality of the application, as well as the provider of that application. Anti-aesthetic is as much of an aesthetic as high polish, it just communicates a different message. In some cases, the anti-aesthetic indicates high quality (on a developers site, for instance, command line interface means that the makers are developers and should be trusted), but in others it indicates shoddy workmanship (a command line interface for a shopping site would not instill a lot of confidence that my credit info will be treated securely). It’s important to acknowledge how highly impactful the aesthetic of a product is to the mind of the user as they assess functionality. It’s not a separate thought, but one and the same.