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10 May

On form and function

A few days ago, I came across a tweet from Adithya. It was an excerpt from some book that described how cumbersome and unwieldy quality Italian shirts were to maintain.

Here's what the shared excerpt reads:

“What makes a product the best of its kind? Early in our history our chief designer for many years, Kate Larramendy, issued me a challenge. She said that we didn't make the best clothing in the world, and moreover, if we did, we'd go out of business.

“Why?” I asked her.

“Because the best shirt in the world is Italian,” she said. “It's made from handwoven fabric, with hand-sewn buttons and buttonholes, and impeccably finished. And it costs three hundred dollars. Our customers wouldn't pay that.” I asked, “What would happen if you threw that three-hundred-dollar shirt into your washer and dryer?”

“Oh, you'd never do that. It would shrink. It has to be dry-cleaned.”

To me, a shirt that has to be treated so delicately has diminished value. Because I think ease of care is an important attribute, I would never own a shirt like that, much less make and sell one.”

Sounds reasonable. Not preferring to wear shirts that are hard to maintain is a personal preference.

However, Adithya's generalization provoked a deep line of thought in me: that function should always guide form.

I tend to disagree, and believe it is worth exploring a more nuanced understanding of the interplay between these two elements. But I'm fairly certain that whatever I write hence will be something Adithya will also wholly agree with.

The “form follows function” philosophy, born out of modernist architectural and design movements, has undoubtedly left an indelible mark on our society.

Its tenets have shaped our cities, our products, and even our digital spaces. The inherent logic of this principle — that an object's purpose should dictate its design — is powerful and sensible.

But the rise of utilitarian architectural styles, driven by the principle of “form follows function,” has led to a landscape of sameness. Our cities, once vibrant mosaics of cultural expression, risk turning into a monotonous tableau of generic buildings which prioritize efficiency over aesthetics or local cultural considerations. Some argue that this can lead to “placelessness” or “non-places,” where buildings and cities around the world look increasingly alike, losing their unique identity and cultural significance.

Hence, I am inclined to think that its absolute application can lead us down a path where we risk losing an essential part of our human experience; for the most meaningful things in life, form often is a large part of the function, if not function itself. And the reason why I'm excited to pursue this line of thought is because the excerpt eloquently encapsulates the tension between form and function.

Yes, a shirt that requires special care may not be practical for everyone. However, the existence of such a shirt — handwoven, hand-sewn, impeccably finished — speaks to a different set of values. It represents a reverence for craftsmanship, a respect for tradition, and an appreciation for beauty. For some, these qualities may outweigh the convenience of a machine-washable shirt. And you'll find that the rare occasions such vestments are donned often serve as a celebration for this set of values.

Of course, function is vital. We need buildings that provide shelter, clothes that keep us warm, and products that perform their intended tasks. However, I believe that form — the aesthetics, the craftsmanship, the cultural resonance — adds an irreplaceable layer of meaning to our lives. After all, we are not just rational beings; we are also emotional, aesthetic, and cultural beings. Our environments and objects can, and should, reflect this complexity.

Consider cherished family heirlooms.

When we look around our homes, there are certain items that stand out as special, as imbued with a value that extends beyond their utility. These are the objects we treasure, the ones we would save in a fire, the ones we pass down through generations. These are our family heirlooms.

Heirlooms are rarely the most functional items in our homes. They might be a grandmother's locket, a father's wristwatch, a piece of handmade pottery, or an old, well-thumbed book, an old radio or vinyl record player, or even a handwritten letter. What sets these objects apart is not their practical usefulness but their emotional resonance, their aesthetic appeal, and their connection to our personal histories and identities.

In essence, their form.

On the other hand, the items that are designed purely for function—think of the plastic container that holds our leftovers, the mass-produced lamp by our bedside, or the generic clock on our wall—rarely elicit the same emotional response. These objects may serve us well, but they are replaceable. They do not hold stories, do not inspire sentiment, and consequently, do not become heirlooms.

This interplay of form and function extends beyond physical objects to the realm of rituals.

Rituals, whether they are religious ceremonies, family traditions, or personal habits, are rich in form. They are composed of symbolic actions, meaningful words, and often, specific aesthetics.

A birthday celebration, for instance, could technically be stripped down to its most basic function: acknowledging the passage of another year in a person's life. But what makes a birthday meaningful and memorable is the form it takes—the cake with lit candles, the singing of the “Happy Birthday” song, the unwrapping of gifts. It's the form that turns the function into a cherished ritual.

In a Japanese Tea Ceremony (Chado), the design of the tea room, the tea utensils, and the entire ceremony itself are all about creating an experience of harmony, tranquility, and respect. The form of each element is carefully crafted to achieve this function.

Many African cultures use masks in rituals and ceremonies. The masks' designs are not only meant to be visually striking, but they also serve functional purposes, such as connecting the wearer to the spirit world, representing specific deities or ancestors, or invoking certain powers.

In Chinese calligraphy, the form of the characters is as important as the meaning they convey. The aesthetics, technique, and brushstrokes are integral to the function of expressing the artist's thoughts and emotions through writing.

Even in religious contexts, we see this dynamic at play.

The function of a religious service might be to connect with the divine, to seek spiritual guidance, or to find communal support. However, it's the form — the specific prayers recited, the hymns sung, the ceremonial attire worn, the incense burned — that gives the ritual its depth, its emotional impact, and its cultural significance.

In medieval Europe, Gothic cathedrals were designed with tall, pointed arches, large windows, and intricate sculptures. These elements not only created a visually stunning building but also served practical functions, such as supporting the structure's weight, allowing natural light to enter, and conveying religious symbolism.

The way these cathedrals were designed marked a clear distinction between sacred and profane spaces. When you were in such a cathedral, you felt like you were in a special place — just like wearing an upscale Italian shirt that you had to take special care to maintain.

For sure, no cathedral is needed for one who wants to pray and any shirt will do for a person who only wants to clothe themself. But that isn't the point.

In both heirlooms and rituals, we see how form is not secondary to function, but an essential part of it. The form is what engages our senses, our emotions, and our imaginations. It's what connects us to our histories, our communities, and our own identities. It's what makes an object or a ritual not just useful, but meaningful.

The journey is the destination, and what gives anything meaning is the story and interpretation behind it.

A machine can produce a chair in a fraction of the time it takes a craftsman to create one by hand. But a handmade chair has a quality and character that a factory-produced item can't match. The craftsman's skill, the wood's grain, the unique little imperfections – these are the things that make the chair special, that make it a pleasure to own and use.

A potter spends hours, sometimes days, shaping a single piece of clay into a bowl or a vase. The result is a unique object, its form influenced by the potter's individual touch, making it more than just a utilitarian item. It becomes a work of art, a conversation piece, a source of aesthetic pleasure.

A fast-food burger is certainly more efficient, but a home-cooked meal, with all its preparation and cooking time, brings a level of satisfaction and appreciation that fast food can't match.

You might say all these sentiments are purely psychological and don't have any rational merit to them. But tell me when a purely transactional exchange helped you build a close relationship with someone or something?

The value of the object lies not just in its function but also in the process of its creation. The struggle, the inefficiency, the time and effort invested – these elements infuse the object with meaning, with a story. They make the object not just a thing, but a testament to human creativity, skill, and perseverance. They're symbolic more than utilitarian.

Let's come back to the issue of clothing and how it makes way for a much bigger insight.

The practice of wearing the same clothes every day, known as a “capsule wardrobe,” is a strategy that some highly successful people, like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, have adopted and is often touted by productivity gurus as a productivity hack.

Steve Jobs, for example, was known for his iconic black turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers. Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg is often seen in a gray t-shirt. By simplifying their wardrobe, they eliminated the need to think about what to wear each day, thereby reducing decision fatigue and freeing up mental space to focus on their work.

This practice reflects a utilitarian approach to clothing, where function (in this case, the function being to cover the body and adhere to basic social norms) takes precedence over form.

But Steve Jobs, in particular, was known for his obsession with design and aesthetics!

So what are we missing?

The fact that this approach doesn't negate the importance of form in other aspects of their work.

While Jobs chose a utilitarian approach to his personal attire, he recognized and championed the importance of form in his professional work. His choice of wardrobe was not so much a rejection of form, but a strategic decision to focus his attention and creativity on the areas where he believed form could make the most impact.

But in Zuck's case, what even is form?

For this we need to understand that form and beauty are abstract and philosophical concepts more than rigidly defined aesthetic ones.

Because I'm pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg believes in writing beautiful code.

But what does beauty mean in the context of code, which can be easily interpreted as a purely logical and utilitarian thing?

The concept of “beauty” in code might seem counterintuitive at first, given that code is fundamentally a tool for instructing a computer to perform a task. However, the idea of “beautiful” code is well-established in the field of programming, and it brings another layer of depth to the form vs. function debate.

When programmers talk about beautiful code, they're usually referring to code that is clean, efficient, and elegantly designed. Beautiful code doesn't just get the job done; it does so in a way that is straightforward, logical, and easy to understand. It is well-organized, with a clear structure that mirrors the task it's designed to perform. It avoids unnecessary complexity, favoring simplicity whenever possible.

In essence, beautiful code is code where the form (the way the code is written and organized) enhances the function (the task the code is designed to perform). The beauty lies not in any aesthetic appeal for the eye, but in the clarity and elegance of the design for the mind. It's a kind of beauty that's appreciated not visually, but intellectually.

This idea extends the reductive philosophy of form following function to something much more nuanced.

In beautiful code, form doesn't just follow function; it mirrors, enhances, and is inseparable from it. The way the code is written — the choice of variables, the organization of functions, the flow of logic, the modularity and scalability of the code — directly influences how effectively and efficiently the code performs its task.

So, in the context of programming, form is nothing but function executed elegantly and efficiently.

This interpretation of beauty reveals that form and function, far from being opposing concepts, are deeply interconnected. To say that form follows function or function follows form, then, is missing the whole picture.

It may just be the case that in things that are meaningful to us, we value form, whereas in things that are merely expedient, we tend to ignore it.

Objects that hold deep meaning or significance to us often engage more than just our need for utility. They engage our emotions, our senses, and our sense of identity, and in these areas, form plays a crucial role.

A wedding ring's basic function could be fulfilled by any simple band of metal, but people often choose rings with a certain aesthetic or symbolic value—a particular style, a certain type of gem, an engraving of a meaningful date or phrase. The form of the ring enhances its emotional significance and makes it more than just a piece of jewelry.

On the other hand, when we seek something primarily for its utility, we are more likely to prioritize function over form. For example, if you need a tool to fix a leaky faucet, you'll likely choose the most effective tool for the job, regardless of its aesthetic appeal.

However, even in these utilitarian contexts, form still plays a role! A well-designed tool — one that fits comfortably in the hand, is intuitive to use, and is pleasing to the eye — will enhance the user experience and even improve performance.

I like washing my utensils, and doing my laundry.

For me, this is not a matter of function, but of form. And this is quite important to understand.

If I were trying to be functional about it, I could easily hire someone to do these chores for me. Productivity gurus might proclaim that it would actually be a better RoI on my time, based on my hourly rate.

But they forget that RoI is not the sole metric I choose to live my life by, just like utility or efficiency aren't.

Doing mundane chores roots me to the joys of simple living. The gesture is symbolic more than functional. And that extends to my writing. This essay could have been a bullet list, perhaps. But the fact that it isn't should tell you something about my values.

I'm sure Adithya will agree.

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