Why form should always follow function cover image

Why form should always follow function

Andy Hawthorne • July 8, 2019


There's devilment in building websites. And it's found in the juxtaposition required between creativity and functional excellence. Your average web site demands that form should follow function.

It can be a trial. Because the people who want the site built, ask for lots of features. Features that need function to follow form, not the other  around.

The form should follow function idea comes from architectural design. Web development uses the phrase too. In a web build it means having a design feature in the site concept for the sake of design, is wrong.

The theory goes that if a feature exists, it does so to provide a particular purpose. Otherwise, it shouldn't be there.

A common issue arises when there is a identifiable purpose for a feature, that now must look a certain way too.

That's function following form territory. And so, is troublesome.

It's also likely to cause that collision between creativity and functionality. That kind of collision never ends well.

There is an important point here, that needs dealing with. I'm not suggesting that functionality is not part of the creative process.

Real world problems need a solution for the functions in the build. And that needs creativity.

The task is more difficult when complexity of design exists. Site features need to look a certain way. But they still need to do what's intended. So, it needs compromises.

This raises another question. How does content relate to function? This is an issue because if content informs the design of a web site, that must mean that design has to follow, not lead.

Now we have another issue too.

Let's say function is about producing content and the interaction with content. Then design needs to fall in line with both those elements. 

That's great if you have complete control over the design. But often, that's not the case and design starts to dominate.

Jeffrey Zeldman is one of the leading contributors when it comes to web standards. He describes the situation like this:

Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.

So, if we add in that the main role of a web site is still to inform. Then that further strengthens the argument that form must follow function.

These days, the purpose of web sites might also be to entertain, or to allow for the sale of goods or services. But they are for the rendering of information still too.

In the ideal world, designers create a look and feel. And developers craft that look into a functioning web site.

The interesting part arrives when it's time to build the functionality. It would be nice to think that form and function can come together in a harmonious blend. The truth is often different.

A web site looks the way it does, so that visitors can interact with the content on offer. Web sites don't wait for you to click links, though.

Even in a simple site, there might be code that tracks your passage through the pages. That's so that next time you visit, you see content like the stuff you last looked at. 

If the design gets in the way of that process, then it is the core function of the site that fails in some measure. To the loss of your visitors and to the business behind the site.

Form should follow function is too generic when applied to web site development. But the basic idea helps to establish the core purpose of a site. And helps with the development of relevant content. And content after all, is still king.