Why functionality trumps aesthetics every time

An object (almost) always has a function, find out here why design must serve functionality and not the other way around.

Kalin Poirier
5
min
Jul 12, 2021

It is scientifically proven that humans are attracted to beauty. We seek it out and tend to overlook flaws in face of it. It is indeed integral to great design, but a beautiful design does not mean a functional design.

As Dave Feldman, Product Manager at Google, said:

How many people, fed up with PowerPoint, cry out in frustration, “If only it were more beautiful”?


Why aesthetics matter

We, as a species, are drawn to beautiful things. It is in our nature. Ines Schindler, senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, says that aesthetics fulfills us emotionally and gives us pleasure. 


As enjoyable as it is to look at something that hits all the right notes, you may find yourself duped in the end. The Halo effect is a cognitive bias that basically states if you perceive something as beautiful, you are likely to assume that it is also good and functional. This bias blinds us only to a certain point  a website with a broken menu will quickly deter any consumer, regardless of how beautiful the landing page is. 


Form follows function

Originally coined by architect L. H. Sullivan, the principle Form follows function is widely used in all types of design. Its logic is flawless: The way something looks must be influenced by its purpose. A table cannot stand on two little legs, a plate with a huge hole in the middle isn’t of much use and a menu that no one can read will not be very effective. 


It is a critical part of the design process to think about what the design’s purpose is, who will see/use it and how. When designing a menu, for instance, type size, font choice and colour contrast will make a big difference in whether it is legible. The designer must also factor in the type of lighting at the restaurant. Low contrast designs may work very well at a brightly lit bistro, but the very same design will cause your clients eye strain in a dimly lit bar. 


There are certain circumstances where function is all that matters. Just think about Craigslist. This site has been around since 1999 and is ranked #65 of the top visited sites worldwide in all of the internet. Despite it having no form, it serves its purpose very well. It is a classifieds site where with one click of a button you get to where you want to go.  

A computer


I know, most people don’t want a Craigslist-looking website. And you shouldn’t. Looking at it is like munching on dry, unsalted saltines. With our innate attraction to beauty, it is in our interest to satisfy the beauty-craving for our users. This is how we catch their attention and make our product known. 


The hard nut to crack is to keep their attention and communicate the right message. In order to do that function must have its proper place in the design process. Take Google, for instance. It is beautiful in its simplicity, and the user is directly to its sole purpose: to search. 

There is beauty when something works and it works intuitively
says Jonathan Ive, Chief Design Officer, Apple


Great design strives to strike the right balance between functionality and aesthetics. But the catch is that design without form can still work, depending on the purpose and the audience. Design that does not work – be it an illegible logo, a website that does not load, a table that does not stand – will never be able to satisfy the consumer’s needs. Once the primary purpose is clearly mapped out and the consumer’s needs are met, aesthetics can then be used to grab attention, complement and strengthen the message. 

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