Function & Aesthetics in Design — Is it necessary?

“Of course”, you might say at first. I did too. But there is a point when a designer will (and should) start to question some things that seem definite. And you are not the first person to do it. Many designers in past, present and future have and will have thought about the relevance of beauty and function in design, and what is necessary to ‘make good design’. Examples that are worth mentioning in my honest opinion are:

Dieter Rams

Dieter Rams has made a strong impression on the world with his ideal of ‘form follows function’ and his Product Design work for Braun.

Jony Ive

Jony Ive has shown us through his designs for Apple Inc., that it is possible to integrate function and beauty into seemingly timeless products.

John Maeda

John Maeda has said that simplicity makes things easier, and complexity makes them more interesting. Check out his TED talk and his book on the matter.

My takeaway from this is that simplcity puts more focus on the function, whereas complexity creates the beauty of interest, since you can discover many new things. Maeda also concludes that simplicity helps if it makes things simpler to understand or use, and complexity helps if it creates pleasure.

Following are some of my further favourite thinkers:

Dean Poole

Dean Poole is successfully redefining what we all perceive as art or design, in a mix of disciplines and a deeply philosophical manner. Listening to and viewing him on his explorations is a beautifully reflective revelation, that has brought to my inner surface many deeply rooted questions and feelings, and I hope it will do so for any observant designer and/or artist.

Mike Monteiro

A strong advocate of clearly and outright directly spoken thoughts, I can’t name anyone more on-the-point, humorous and clever than Mike Monteiro. Such behaviour can be intmidating to some, yet deeply rewarding to those few who really want to get to the core of their own business or service problems.

Yes, there are many others, and these above mentioned are merely a featured selection, based on their contribution through manifesting their bold opinion and creating and fostering many prosperous art and design communities that continue to thrive.

From all their observations, there is one crucial insight that helps in making a very important design decisions: Can I get away with only a functional product, or do I need to think about aesthetics as well?

To answer this, it helps to ask:What is my design intent?

It is quite evident that it is important to understand what you are designing a product for. You can do that by asking the people you are designing for. This way you ensure that your design fulfils either a function or an aesthetic desire, or both. Neither is better than the other one, it is just important to be clear about what you want to design for upfront.

Ask yourself: Am I trying to fulfil a functional need or focussing purely on aesthetic form? Or both? For whom?

You will always be designing for people. Some products or services will fulfil those people’s needs, so they need to be functional primarily. Other products will fulfil desires or wishes. Those need to be functional AND aesthetically pleasing.

Think about it: If you had to choose between two lemon juicers, and both performed perfectly on juicing, and one is visually more appealing than the other, which one would you choose? The right choice starts with identifying who you are buying for.

Are you a bartender, looking for a reliable and convenient tool for professional use? Or are you looking for that one beautiful piece that not only works but will complete your household kitchen look?

Here are some options:

FreshForce™ Citrus Juicer

The FreshForce (TM) Citrus Juicer seems to be a very practical citrus juicer, and the mechanics are preferred by Chefs and Bartenders. They must now, since they handle lemons and limes like no other profession, right?

Ceramic Citrus Juicer - Gidon Bing
Ceramic Citrus Juicer — Gidon Bing

The Ceramic Citrus Juicer by New Zealand Designer Gidon Bing retains a good juicing function, but adds an aesthetic component for the residential household. Available through Everyday Needs, a store dedicated to curate products that both are suited for everyday use and please the eye, thus are functional and aesthetic.
Both examples are designed well for their respective audience. There are other examples of juicers, that have tried to question the design of products and make a bold statement on consumerism culture, like the below Juicy Salif by French Designer Philippe Starck. It explores the relationship of design and function in more detail. The research article ‘Affordance of Emotional Design’ by Interaction Design Student Ted Zhang is suitable as further reading on this matter.

Juicy Salif Citrus Squeezer - Philippe Starck
Juicy Salif Citrus Squeezer — Philippe Starck

Much like the citrus juicer examples mentioned, the above mentioned thinkers have cut the lemon and distilled the essence, the ‘juice’ so to speak, of design into manageable terms and in my opinion all go congruent on their findings and stylistic approaches.

In more simple words I would conclude:

Design for function where required, and add beauty where required. Design projects are like a pyramid: In order to create something sustainable, the foundation needs to be strong enough to hold the top. A product needs to work before it can look good. The function is fundamental, the beauty is an added value. Both beauty and function are required for an attractive product, but only functional design will make a product useful.

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