Form Follows Values

Values are the ultimate design tool

Credits: Sony — Brand Stories

Well known design principles, such as “form follows function” and “form follows emotion”, remind from different angles that design and purpose are indeed synonyms. The way something looks and works should be determined by its purpose. Questioning any kind of purpose (i.e. why designing for such function or emotion is valuable) leads eventually to the discussion of its meaning according to principles, values and beliefs determining what’s right, good, appropriate and beneficial.

At the core of any purpose there is indeed a value statement. Even mere opportunism without considering its implications reflects a certain value system. Values not only define purpose but eventually guide design decisions as well. In fact, we ask ourselves: is this the right way to fulfill our purpose? Do the predictable implications of such decisions support our purpose? Should we move forward anyway? And fundamentally: how do we define what is right? According to which criteria and values?

Human-centered design frames and solves problems based on insights into values, needs and expectations of people who are typically the users. However, many other factors play in the decision making process behind the definition of a product or service, such as business viability and technical feasibility, as well as the values and goals of the organization (i.e. brand) responsible for the design.

Since the role of design has grown from problem solving based on a given purpose to establishing purpose as well (problem definition), seeking clarity about values has become fundamental in identifying the “right” problem and the “right” solution. Values are the ultimate decision-making tool.

Designing with values in mind doesn’t mean taking a stand on what’s right and wrong in absolute terms. It’s rather the awareness and mediation of three value systems:

1. the core brand values of the organization you are working with, 2. the values of the people you are designing for, 3. your value system and beliefs, and therefore what filter and bias to manage.

“Form follows values” is an observation reminding us that any product or service is the result of a series of decisions based on what seemed right to someone, starting from the definition of purpose all the way down to the shape of the smallest design detail. Independently from the level of information guiding a decision, eventually big and small choices are based on implicit or explicit value statements (e.g. what’s right for the brand, what’s right for the customers, how things should be).

“Form follows values” is also a principle inferring that the successful impact of a product or service is predicated on: a. the quality of the values chosen to guide decision-making, b. their effective communication and coherent use throughout the design process, c. their power to inspire or represent the principles and beliefs of the people who ultimately will cast the swing vote.