MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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Form, function, use, and choice

devoI am continuously fascinated by my random and serendipitous reading of articles that appear as "discussions" taking place in the almost simultaneous, but usually independent, publication of commentaries on a common subject. The reduction in the differential design of objects, traditionally or conventionally visually expressive of their function and methods of use, seems to be a growing concern not only for consumers, but for designers as well. Alice Rawthorn in the Design column of the New York Times wrote recently about "The Demise of 'Form Follows Function.'" She expresses a concern about problems of operation, that objects no longer carry visual formal clues to guide the user in how to use them. She cites the iPod Shuffle, which takes on the form of a sophisticated decorative clothing clip and signals nothing of its function as a music device. She points to the progressive miniaturization of technology as a source of the divorce of form and function. "The appearance of most digital objects," she says, "bear no relation to what they do."

Tom Dair seems to be agreeing in some way with Alice, but also offers a way to understand their function. He implies that in digital devices, the only real formgiver is the circuit board, and concludes that the "expression of function no longer resides in these forms but in the way we use them." In his Fast Company column, "Form Follows Function, Right? Not So Fast," he suggests that the form of function is actually external to the product itself – it is the gesture of the user that illuminates the purpose of the otherwise anonymous device.

This function and feature anonymity seems also to be a significant irritant for Matt Buchanan over at Gizmodo. His concern, however, is not so much about understanding usability but the perceptions form bestows on ownership. In reviewing the recent releases from Apple, he observes that "When Pro doesn't mean Pro anymore" there is a democratization of design with a corresponding loss of social meaning. The designation "pro" had until now represented a differentiation of content also signaled by a differentiation in case. When one model of iPhone looks exactly like another, or one model of a MacBook no longer carryies a distinctive mark of its more expensive content, then the status the product bestows on the user – the "affectation of elitism" – is lost and also, perhaps, the status of the object.

Ryan Jacoby in his blog, do_matic, asks his colleague, "Hey Colin: Is it the end of "Good Better Best?" I think his concern is about loss of choice. He does not express a concern about the form associated with qualities or features, but questions the loss of underlying concepts of margin and perceptions of choice – a marketer's challenge more than a customer's perception, apparently. He does, however, reference Starbucks dual price structure and its duelling messages of both less expensive than you thought, and worth the price.

In response, Colin Raney in his C-Notes blog challenges the sustainability of the concept of "laddering" of offerings and says, "Hey Ryan: I am so over GoodBetterBest." Criticizing the PC industry as the worst of the bunch in confusing its customers over content, he observes, like Buchanan, that computer models look the same but act differently. His issue is not the status that differentiation affords, but the perception of value in use. He offers a bit of a solution – the context consumption provides the context for design differentiating around experience.

Swirling in the midst of all this is reference to Barry Schwartz. Without specifically referencing form, it seems that much of what he cites aligns with issues of confusion and disorientation in undifferentiated abundance. In his book, The Paradox of Choice, he implies that too many options cause unhappiness. Rather than considering the opportunities in choice, we consider the missed opportunities in making the wrong choice.

In this discussion, the words of Devo, in their song "Freedom of Choice" come to mind –

In ancient Rome There was a poem About a dog Who found two bones He picked at one He licked the other He went in circles He dropped dead

Freedom of choice Is what you got Freedom from choice Is what you want

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