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form follows function

There are two sets of functionalist attitudes and working methods, some relating to how we understand the world (analysis), and some relating to how we change it (design). These are to some extent independent.

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Functionalism in Analysis

veryard projects > design > functionalism > analysis

The functionalist’s attitude towards analysis is found in many scientific disciplines, from biology via psychology to anthropology. It is based on the notion that any feature in the system being analysed must serve some purpose.

In practical applications of these sciences (such as medicine, psychiatry or management), this may often be a reasonable working assumption. It is a valuable counterweight to the cavalier attitude: "This doesn’t seem to be doing anything, so let’s chop it out.". Instead, before eliminating any feature, however wasteful or unpleasant it seems, the practitioner should search very carefully for its purpose, what function it performs.

And even if the feature appears to have outlived its original function (such as the human appendix, or the Buckingham Palace Guard), the functionalist still searches for some other function that the feature now fulfils (such as a symbolic function). The functionalist cannot afford to take a narrow-minded view of the kinds of function a feature may fulfil, or s/he will be sometimes be frustrated in the search.

However, there are strong theoretical objections to the functionalist approach. There are features that cannot be properly explained by reference to their function, and any attempts to do so become circular. (E.g. "Sleep performs a dormative function.") So although it may be good to try and find a function, it is a mistake to anticipate success, to base metaphysical or theological arguments on the presumed existence of as-yet-unidentified functions.

There can also be practical criticism of the functionalist approach to analysis, based on its apparent conservatism. The approach seems to some people to delay or discourage change. But this is an unfair criticism. Although quasi-functionalist arguments are often used by conservatives to defend the status quo, they can equally be used by radicals to plan more effective and lasting change. (Because if you understand the purposes that have been served by the features you intend to eliminate, you can then better design new features to replace them, and/or mechanisms to prevent the unwanted features reemerging.)

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Functionalism in Design

veryard projects > design > functionalism > design

The functionalist’s attitude towards design can be summed up in the slogan: "form follows function". The functions of a system are the only source of requirements, from which all structural features are derived. The whole information system, and not just the computer hardware and software, is viewed as a ‘machine’. Superfluous features are eliminated, and the only criterion of a good design is the efficiency of development, operation, maintenance and use. The designer’s task, on this view, is to expose and clarify, not to embellish.

This attitude to design is similar to the attitude of modern architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier to the construction of buildings. (Indeed, it was Le Corbusier himself who described a building as "a machine to live in".) Their followers, often misusing and cheapening the original ideas, developed the so-called International Style of architecture, much castigated by the Prince of Wales, which uses the most efficient materials (glass, steel and concrete) in a standardized manner.

It is worth reminding ourselves why so many tower blocks, created when the International Style was most fashionable, have become so unpopular. A building is built by a developer (either public or private) from the design of an architect. These developers had been accustomed to receiving inefficient designs from the architects they commissioned. They were accustomed to reducing and compromising these designs before construction started. An ornamental feature here, an overcautious safety feature there, a spare lift in case of breakdown … such redundant features could be (and usually were) taken out of the design by the developers to save costs.

However, when the architects started to produce designs that were already pared down to the minimum, with no ornament or other redundancy, sometimes these designs were nonetheless further pared down by the developers, out of cost-necessity or mere habit, resulting in buildings that were unpleasant and even unsafe to live in.

One lesson we can draw from this analogy is that the responsibility and authority for making a structure efficient (either a building or an information system) should be clearly delineated. That is not to say that the client should leave all such matters to the professional designers, but there does have to be better communication and common understanding between them. Some professional designers have scorned participation by clients, and behaved as if the clients had no right to contribute to the design. Whether or not this attitude is ethically or politically acceptable, it has proved not to work.

Another much criticized fault of the International Style was its failing to be sensitive to the surrounding area. This sometimes introduced a jarring note into a street or skyline, and caused negative feelings. Information systems too, that are imported to an organization from outside, and implemented with no thought for the culture and style of the organization that is to make use of it, may have a similar psychological effect to the anonymous tower blocks of the 1960s. This is one of the reasons why ‘human factors’ are now recognized as so important in the design of information systems. But the functionalist is in permanent danger of forgetting this.

The functionalist is generally concerned with standardization and systematic organization, breaking a system into subsystems, and reducing the variation between parts, both in their structure and manner of construction, but also in their proper use. The true functionalist wants to make the system efficient and effective by making the use of the system efficient and effective, which means imposing some level of control over this use. The functionalist interprets the question of ‘human factors’ as no more than a concern with the ergonomic efficiency of a system.

Functionalism in architecture is often interpreted as demanding austere and emotionally neutral buildings. This cannot be said of Le Corbusier’s own designs, especially for private houses. It is worth quoting another comment of his: that his aim in building was "to create poetry".


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This page last updated on July 4th, 2003
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