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Form follows function

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In: Columns > Keep It Simple

By Peter-Paul Koch

Published on February 6, 2003

Although I’m not a designer myself, I’ve slowly grown to understand them, not only because of my frequent cooperation with Web designers, but also because I was introduced to industrial design and related topics at an early age. I never created anything, but I learned to think critically about design.

The basic rule for any design is “Form follows function.” If an object has to perform a certain function, its design must support that function to the fullest extent possible. This goes for industrial design and even more for Web design.

Because some designers don’t understand the function of a Web site, they make wrong decisions about its form. More than once I’ve encountered “creative” people whose Web work was mediocre at best and who showed a blatant disregard for the Web as a medium. They were Designers with a capital D. They knew it all.

Art

The most curious example of this was the artist who’d finished Rietveld Academy and was looking for an internship at the company where I worked. When I asked what her ambitions were, she explained that her extreme creativity made her excellently suited for talking to clients about the creative possibilities for their Web sites. I gently suggested she should acquire some experience first, but she was very certain she could do it right away.

Her Web site was shockingly bad. The only signs of creativity were the GIF animations of the hind parts of a running tiger, which turned out to be the main navigation.

Since that encounter, I avoid people who say they are “very creative” and I distrust artists somewhat.

There is a huge difference between a successful artist and a successful Web designer. As an artist, you create something that appeals to yourself and a select (and paying) audience. As a Web designer you create something that must appeal to the target audience of your client. This appealing to an audience twice removed is not something the average artist can do (or needs to do).

Sure, an artist can become a good Web designer, but only by learning the tools of an entirely new trade.

Print

In the early years, Web design was heavily influenced by print design. Although print designers are perfectly capable of appealing to the target audience of their clients, I found that some have serious problems with understanding the function of a Web site.

When I started as a client-side programmer, I was vaguely disturbed when ordered to make images of body text of a page “because browsers don’t support this font.” I wondered if that was really the best way to make Web sites. Later, I understood that these designers weren’t thinking fluidly, that they did not understand the medium at all. Their first priorities were fonts and colors instead of content and interaction.

It took a few years for everyone to realize that Web design is different from print design, and now is the time to start finding out how Web design differs from print design. On thing is certain: form will follow function.

Web

Even when you’re in the proper mindset for fluid thinking (within the context of the Web as a new medium), it isn’t always easy.

Take the first DHTML script I ever wrote for a commercial site. The site had a simple navigation at the top. The designer and I decided that when the user clicked on a link, a leaf would slowly move to a position above that link. He made the leaf, I made it move.

But form did not follow function. Function called for a main navigation at the top of the site, and maybe form could follow by adding a marker that showed which page the user was currently viewing. The slow moving of this marker, though, was completely pointless.

Why did I write this DHTML script? Because I wanted to write a DHTML script, of course. That’s not a very good reason, and I even knew it at that time but did it anyway.

Misunderstanding the function of a Web site isn’t restricted to designers alone. Techies can have the same problem.

Form follows function

The examples above illustrate that form should follow function. If the form of a Web site becomes a goal in itself, instead of a means to an end, the Web site will not work.

If you ever encounter a designer who puts the satisfaction of his own creativity above creating a working Web site, you can be sure he doesn’t understand the Web. In itself, this is not a problem because you’re there to advise him. You should try to make him pay attention to the Web as a different medium, where content and interaction are far more important than pure form.

Fortunately, most designers want to learn. When I started on my last job, the art director immediately informed me that he knew little of Web site design and was willing to listen to my suggestions. His professional attitude made him easy to work with.

Other designers are harder to convince. Most likely, a difficult designer is afraid of the Web. He doesn’t quite see the possibilities and restrictions of the medium and is afraid to ask because he’s supposed to be a professional designer who knows it all.

In that case, you should try to explain the medium clearly while acknowledging his feelings of fear and distrust. If this fails, give it up as a bad job. Finish the current project as soon as possible and avoid that particular designer in the future.

Fortunately, this problem is on the way out. The continuing professionalization of the Web site industry will convert print and other designers to Web designers and will weed out the few obstinate ones who refuse to understand the medium.

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Related Topics: Web Design, Usability

 

Peter-Paul Koch is a freelance web developer, writes and maintains the Quirksmode.org site. He is also an Administrator of the WDF and WDF-DOM mailing lists.

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