By David Patton
From the February 2020 Issue
Form follows function. It might be an old adage, but the design principle still holds true: Use has to be the most important aspect of design. While beauty is important, ignoring the functional purpose or intent of design almost always results in an ineffective solution.
Take a retail space that’s stunningly crafted with a curated collection of products. The overall aesthetic draws people into the store, so naturally, you can assume this aspect of the design is working. But if you don’t create logical pathways through the store allowing shoppers to browse, or certain areas of the store lack any real foot traffic, you’ll see it in your sales. Customers will be less apt to buy.
When people can’t connect with a space on a functional level, they disengage. Design encourages action—or inaction. That’s why purpose-driven design is so important. You still consider the aesthetic, but not to the detriment of functionality. And as cliché as it may sound, it’s about finding the right balance between the two.
Of course, designing with purpose isn’t always easy. Sometimes, parameters outside your control will prevent you from applying this principle. In a business setting, you need the right recipe of people to bring purpose to design. If leadership wants something to look a certain way, it can be difficult to convince them otherwise.
The artistic nature of design also can get in the way. No designer I’ve ever met wants to create a design that’s not awe-inspiring. It’s a natural desire to try to create a beautiful solution, which can cause you to fall into the trap of letting a current trend or even gimmick lead the design. In my experience, that’s the primary reason behind nonfunctional solutions: The focus was on the visual, not the purpose.
For form to truly follow function, the design process must be at the forefront of your mind. You must always be aware of how you’re approaching a project, no matter what it is. And the following will help you embrace a more purpose-driven approach to your next design:
1. Analyze the problem. Let’s say, for example, you’re redesigning a workspace. Ask yourself, what’s the purpose of the project? Sure, you want the space to look aesthetically pleasing. You also want it to correspond with the company’s culture. But there’s another, much bigger facet that must be properly framed and contextualized: the root cause of the problem. Once you determine that element, you can work through the problem with the underlying purpose in mind.
We recently worked with an organization that was having some high-profile culture issues. They hired a new CEO to help rebuild, and one of her first orders of business was to revamp the workspace. They were in dire need of transparency, so they literally tore down walls in favor of an open environment and added conference rooms made of clear, movable panels. They needed to boost morale and support camaraderie, so they redesigned their space to encourage collaboration and a feeling of inclusion.
It’s easy to jump to a solution based on your experiences or personal preferences. Instead, spend the time before you put pencil to paper to study and understand the problem you’re trying to solve. Sounds simple, but this exercise will get you closer to an actual purpose-driven product, or a purpose-driven design in general—whether that’s a product, or a space, or whatever it is you’re trying to do.
2. Prioritize the user. Though a big part of design will always be the designer’s vision, this vision should work in tandem with the end user’s needs. Otherwise, you end up creating something with little to no benefit—and with ultimately fleeting user engagement. Allow the intended user outcome to guide design while you still push your creative boundaries.
We hosted a client who loved our freestanding full desks but wasn’t sure these would fit in the new co-working location it was building in New York City, where extra space is a luxury. The clients left for lunch and by the time they returned, some of our industrial designers quickly pulled together a revised prototype of the desk, making it 12 inches smaller and more suitable to the space. They ultimately outfitted their entire space with the new smaller product, which we still sell today.
3. Redefine design success. Given that sight is how most people first experience anything, aesthetics opens the door to the user experience. Remember, balance is key, so amend its definition. Stop thinking of design as art. It’s actually a solution and therefore should be just as functional as it is aesthetically pleasing.
Successful designs are not designed by looks alone, and it’s crucial to be okay with that fact. Design is not art; it doesn’t get to stand on its own. Rather, it has to solve a problem and be functional. For example, VariDesk’s¹ ProDesk 36 adjustable desk has the appropriate amount of design for the price point and for the functionality. It’s a perfect design if you’re looking at it through that lens. Some products may be arguably better-looking, but they’re not as functional, they’re not as stable, and they don’t do the job that a ProDesk 36 does.
So, think about how frustrating it can be when you’re unable to utilize an office space in a productive way. If you design the workplace correctly and people utilize the spaces for their intended purposes, chances are that you’ll see higher productivity, efficiency, and morale—by definition, design success.
Designing with purpose is all about remaining true to the reason for the design itself. You’ve been asked to solve a problem, and that requires you to fully understand that problem, both from a design and a user perspective. If you approach design in this fashion, the solution will almost certainly be a success.
¹ VariDesk has rebranded and is now Vari, offering 200+ flexible office furniture solutions like movable walls, conference tables, soft seating and lighting.
Patton, vice president of product design at Vari, has a passion for creating innovative and transformative product solutions, grounded in the importance of experimentation, speed, and staying connected with the materials. Patton’s team crafts workspace solutions to help people lead happier, healthier, and more productive lives.
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