Form follows function: why going to a urinal shouldn’t break your neck


Blog article, Brand & Product innovation, Product design / Monday, August 21st, 2017

Last weekend, I walked into a public bathroom and I saw this sign (sorry for showing two urinals, by the way). This specific public bathroom was very close to a swimming pool and kids playground, near a hotel – which is relevant for this story. Amidst the urinals, a warning sign had been put on the tiles that communicates: “be careful, slippery floor, don’t fall!”. Which made total sense by the way, giving the super shiny, spotless marble floor and similar mural surroundings.

Why am I telling you this? Because this is a very good situation, in which function is more important than form: people enter the bathroom with wet feet because they have been swimming, and especially kids will run around and get caught up in their playing behavior while making their way towards the urinals. If there is any place where you want to have grip underneath your feet and avoid any sorts of dangerous situations in which people might trip and fall, it would be here.

Yet, somehow the creators of this public bathroom decided to go for shiny marble floors – the opposite of what you would expect. As a result (and probably because of some prior accidents), they had to put up a permanent warning sticker on the walls because they realized what kind of mayhem they brought upon their beautiful, chic hotel.

As a result (and probably because of some prior accidents), they had to put up a permanent warning sticker on the walls because they realized what kind of mayhem they brought upon their beautiful, chic public bathroom.

Form follows function, not the other way around
Form follows function (or: FFF) was introduced by architect Louis Sullivan (source) and is still globally applied in both industrial design and architecture. Sullivan’s original philosophy around this topic, shows the significance of what he believed:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human, and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

Although we cannot compare our bathroom example with the grandiosity and weight of this quote, it’s important to acknowledge that we should never, never let form be guiding factor over function.

Another great designer is Dieter Rams, one of the most respected industrial designers that the world has ever known. I love his work, ethos and view on design. Among many other achievements, he created the ’10 commandments of good design’. However all of these design commandments – or principles if you will – are fantastically put and worth understanding, I want to focus on Commandment 2:

2. Good Design Makes a Product Useful
A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

Back to our example. Would you say that using marble for a floor is useful? Does it help disregard anything that could possibly detract from peeing? I don’t think so. If anything, this floor will make wish you don’t break your neck.

What did we learn from this (very vulgar) example? That no matter what you’re designing, whether it’s a urinal, an app, a fridge, closet or a keyboard, you always have to bear in mind what its functionality and purpose will be. That is the ground rule for everything else you will be doing. This is the law.

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