Form Follows Function?


June 2012
Ivan Obolensky

Our modern world is fast-paced and information-driven with emphasis on results. The need for more powerful computers, greater bandwidth, and better information is the driver of technological growth and economic progress. The technological world we see around us is the result of thousands of actions to be more efficient and do more. We now have to run just to keep our heads above water.

Magazine articles comment that “Form follows function”. These words have become the mantra of industrial design, modern architecture, and logical thought.

They mean that an object’s form should reflect its function in the same way that a fast moving object should appear streamlined. Organisms adapt to their environment and their form, their structure, is the result of this process. Form proceeds from activity, with function coming first.1

This idea certainly seems logical, but what if it is only partly right? How might we view life if we explore the opposite concept: that function follows or is the result of form? This would mean that the streamlined shape allows an object to travel quickly through the air. Structure comes first and determines function.

This structure/function debate has found its way into many fields including linguistics.

Language is considered by many to be the result of man’s innate desire to communicate and socialize. It developed from our inherent need for association. But what if our wish to communicate and our desire for social cohesion was simply the manifestation language in the first place? Language is the reason we are so gregarious not the result.

Such form/function debates can even apply to thinking.

Deductive thought starts with a premise and reaches a conclusion. Form or structure is the driving force.

Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet deduces the height of a potential murderer by premising that a person normally writes on a wall at eye level. From this fact—the writing was six feet from the ground—another fact can be deduced: the person’s height was greater than six feet. Holmes called it the science of deduction. The man’s height (form) determined how high up the wall he would write (function).

Although championed by Conan Doyle, deductive thought has tended to be overshadowed by its sibling, induction, which is better known as the foundation of the scientific method.2

With inductive thinking, one observes facts and draws conclusions. One does not rely on premises set by orthodoxy or authority as the basis for knowledge. Personal observation of function is crucial.

The scientific method uses observation as the basis for drawing tentative conclusions or hypotheses. These conclusions (such as all objects fall to the ground when dropped) can be verified in the laboratory or they can be used to predict new behavior. (Planets also fall toward the sun in the same way objects fall toward the ground on Earth). If the predictions are supported by experiment, one creates laws and new understandings of nature. It was this sequence that underpinned Galileo and Francis Bacon in their sixteenth century search for knowledge.

Science and technology was their legacy, and inductive reasoning was their method. Form or structure was the result of the interaction of natural laws made manifest by observing nature in operation. Science developed into one of the most successful constructs of the human mind, and its method of seeing the world became the predominant means of discovery. Form followed function.3

By the eighteenth century many intellectuals, particularly in France, were familiar with the scientific method. They also believed that because the Catholic Church was authoritarian, it was the root of most of the evils of society. Superstitions and fixed ideas curtailed man’s capabilities, limited his rise, and checked his progress at every turn.

Yet it was this same church that took it upon itself to raise the literacy level of the French people from about one-fifth to one- third during the eighteenth century. In this they succeeded, and it was this increased literacy that created a corresponding demand for something to read. Production of books boomed as well as newspapers, broadsheets, and cheaply printed tracts. By the reign of Louis XVI (1754-1793) Paris had a daily newspaper and many other cities had weeklies.4

In this instance, it was literacy and the widespread ability to read (structure) that led to the increase in the demand for reading material. The structure precipitated the boom in books, newspapers and broadsheets.

There is an interesting parallel in modern times with the rise of the computer during the late twentieth century. By the end of the 1980s many households had computers. The home computer was
supposed to increase productivity but outside of use as a word processor, a checkbook balancer, and a source of entertainment through computer gaming, the home computer had little use. The
computer was an interesting talking point, but it was not until a workable and productive function was found for it that the technological age we live in really took shape. Windows 95, the Internet, connectivity and networking changed the world. The home computer had found a function at last and the result has been a technological and cottage industry boom. It was not the need for interconnectivity that led to the boom in technology, but the other way around. It was the home computer—the structure: the means to connect—which came first and then created the technological and business expansion of the 1990s.

Structure preceded function in speech and social interaction, publishing, and social networking.

It is ironic that we live in an age in which we think that in order to get ahead we must move faster (more function) to create technological and economic expansion (structure). By personifying “form following function”, humankind seems to have become lost in a world of tweets, texts, emails, cell phones, iPhones, iPads, iPods and 4G networks to communicate more.

Perhaps our modern world’s emphasis on speed, more information, and greater connectivity is misplaced. Perhaps we need to stop and think and come up with a bright idea. After all, if structure precipitated the ’90s boom, which we as economic participants would love to emulate, it might be worth considering what structure already exists that needs to find a worthwhile function, or what new structure must be created to find a function to create economic success.

1 Michl, J. (2010, March 16). Form Follows What? The Modernist Notion of Function as a Carte Blanche. Retrieved June 26, 2012, from

2 Doyle, Sir A. C. (1887). A Study in Scarlet. In Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection. Kindle edition.

3 Goldman, Professor S. (2007). Great Scientific Ideas That Changed the World. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.

4 Doyle, W. (2001). The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA.

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© 2012 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

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