Quote “form follows function” is often connected to the 20-century modernist movement. Names like Walter Gropius or Mies van der Rohe comes to mind, but it was Louis Sullivan, the American architect who said this. Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked with Sullivan, later said that the idea was misunderstood, and should be adjusted because “the form and function are one” … anyway, that was the intention. The quote eventually became associated with the Bauhaus and it captured well what they stand for. The Bauhaus closed its doors in 1933, but the impact this school had on generations of designers remains strong.
Recently, I came across an alternative version: “form follows emotions” attributed to Hartmut Esslinger – a German architect and a founder of Frog Design. Esslinger said that Sullivan’s quote had been abused building on the rational parameters when we need to look closer at the emotions. (For a comparison of Frog Design with some other design agencies see this post.)
Not everyone remembers that it was Esslinger who created the Snow White design language which was applied to all Apple products from 1984 to 1990, starting with the Apple IIc. After Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985, Esslinger cut his ties with Apple and followed him to NeXT. There is an interesting article in co.design about how Jobs and Esslinger met. For me, the most intriguing part of the story is how essential it was to bring the design to the heart of the product, not only in the aesthetic understanding of what design offers but as part of the whole concept development. The top image shows Mac IIfx. It was my first Macintosh. The IIfx was replaced in 1991 by the Quadra series – the last model to use Snow White design.
Recent studies in psychology suggest that we can’t make any decision without the “internal approval” originating in our emotions. Emotions are driving our thinking. Sometimes we make decisions based on the design or look of a product. This is how I bought an alarm clock designed by Jacob Jensen. It looks fantastic but setting the alarm – that’s a whole different story. Apple on the other hand always had a holistic and consistent vision of how to design a delightful experience. Everything matters, from the size of the box, the position of the logo, to how the product is placed inside the box. It feels special. What is more important, it feels effortless when you start using it.
This idea of creating experiences that are special is at the centre of interest of every product design that’s out there. How much time have do we spend using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, email or texting? Or rather, how much time are we willing to take away from the above big players? The day is not getting longer, and we still need to eat, work and sleep – well, at least in theory.
How do you design a product that connects with your emotions? We all are different. We apply different emotions to how we interact with our surroundings. What is the difference between a great product and an amazing one? According to Esslinger, being functional and rational is not enough. The answer lies in the emotions.
Artificial intelligence (AI) offers a possibility to craft custom experiences different for every person. Netflix is an excellent example of a product that is highly personalized. You may think your landing page is the same as the one your neighbour is looking at, yet it is not. Some people are happy with custom recommendations and watch only movies that are relevant to their preferences. Then, there is a whole group of users that go to external websites that list new shows that are available – movies that will never show up on your homepage – because they do not fit into your preferences. Take a look at Amazon, and one of the star features that everyone loves – Customers who bought this item also bought this. It is a nice function, but after few rounds, I have a feeling that everyone is reading the same books written by same authors. How can we move away from the bias of the crowd and still offer relevant suggestions?
What about skills? Should we organize them in a very rational way? In alphabetical lists, categories and levels of expertise? Yes, for sure we need a way to understand the skill ecosystem. However, when building a personal skill map, we have to connect with our emotions. All the skills we acquire over the course of our life reflect who we are. Every project, every person, every role leave a residue that builds up and informs our skills. It is full of the thoughts, feelings, memories, experiences that form our personality. In my opinion, a Service Design approach to product design, considering all touch points, every lesson from the past will lead to a holistic view how we see each other from a skill perspective.
As Esslinger said, “Products are not for themselves. Products are for us.”
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