A Brief History of Form and Function in Design

First off, let’s define the terms form and function. I will do so, by introducing you to this stunning mug you can buy on Amazon.


When talking about design, the form of the object is the way that it looks. 

For Example:

A coffee cup might have one handle, or two. Or no handles at all.

The cup could be a solid colour or it might be covered in a decorative pattern.

Whether the cup is made of, porcelain, ceramic, glass, or some other material, will impact its form as well as its function.


The function of a design is its intended purpose.

For Example:

A coffee cup needs to be able to hold coffee.

The coffee drinker needs to be able to hold the coffee cup.

The function of a coffee cup is to deliver coffee to the consumer without stabbing his eyes out.

Now, meet this guy who coined the phrase ‘Form follows Function’.

Louis Sullivan (1856 – 1924) is the source of this poetic design maxim, and many agree that his ideas defined the aesthetics of modern architecture. 

At the end of the 1800’s industry was booming and as a result, New York City saw its population triple in just three decades. In order to cram all these people into such limited real estate, the only option for architects was to build up into the sky.

Neoclassical Beaux-Arts architecture was the fashion of the day, and while other architects of that time struggled to adapt their design aesthetics to taller buildings, Sullivan envisioned a unique type of office building. By applying his ‘form follows function’ principle, the skyscraper was born. His words and ideas have been used as a guiding principle of architects and designers, in all fields, ever since.

Now, let’s look at a slightly more modern example: Microsoft and Apple

The on-again, off-again relationship between Apple and Microsoft began in earnest in the late 1970s, during the dawn of the PC era.

Microsoft’s core customers, the corporate market, chose Windows as their operating system as it was steady, stable, affordable and secure. Their business model relied heavily on functionality.

Up until 1997, Microsoft dominated the computer industry with its Windows software. Then, Apple came in with a game changer – the return of Steve Jobs, the iMac and Mac OS X.

“The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste,” Jobs said in the 1996 “Triumph of the Nerds” TV documentary. “They have absolutely no taste. And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas, and they don’t bring much culture into their products.”

Apple’s huge success in later years was largely due to its obsessive focus on user interface and user experience, aka. form as well as function. Apple came in as a designer-centric company that built all the components of their products — hardware, software, and online services — themselves. This approach allowed Apple to build some of the most elegant and user-friendly products ever created.

On 4th January 2022, Apple became the first company in the world to hit a $3 trillion market value. However, Microsoft has always provided stiff competition. After their spectacular Vista fail and Windows 8 issues, Microsoft made many improvements. In 2012, they released their first Microsoft Surface, and the soon to be released Surface Pro 8, is a hot topic. Microsoft’s Office 365 currently has over 240 million active users.

Apple has also made its fair share of odd choices lately, with possibly the worst fail being the Magic Mouse 2. This is a very clear example of form over function.

Our office at Grindstone Advertising is a diverse ecosystem, where both Apple and Microsoft are embraced for their various features.

Form and Function in Design

In modern design, we use the term User Experience (UX), which relates to the functionality of a design, and User Interface (UI), which relates to the form or aesthetics. We still use Sullivan’s principle ‘form follows function’. UX usually comes first in the development process, followed by UI.

Here is a fun example of what a site with bad UX and UI looks like – complete the test to find your Fair UX Index – http://nauxui.com/en/ Function and form are integral and always interconnected. In every good design, there’s a balance between both. Largely, any design without this fine balance, will not stand the test of time.

Klea Ferreira

Always friendly with exceptional client service, Klea is an experienced designer and digital guru. After completing her studies and winning a D&AD and Loerie award in succession while working on a number of international brands, she relocated to sunny Mossel Bay. After more than 15 years in the industry she still loves every step of the creative process - from concept to final design. She’s also an avid photographer, illustrator and artist.

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