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Pure functional design and its role in products

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The rise and fall of pure functional design

The rise of startup culture and the industrialisation of product design has had a profound impact on the modern interpretation of design in general. Concepts like growth hacking, measurability and KPIs have led designers to focus on features and efficiency and less on emotion and beauty.

This idea of pure functional design is an inevitable progression, stemming from the philosophies of reductionism, minimalism and functionalism. We spend less time thinking about feelings of depth and more time focusing on minimising friction, peeling back the decor to improve our conversion rate.

I recently listened to a podcast by Tobias van Schneider on the NTMY show where he interviewed Stefan Sagmeister, co-founder of Sagmeister & Walsh Inc. and an influential graphic designer, storyteller, and typographer. Upon discussing product design, Sagmeister remarked:

“I feel like we will reach a time, pretty soon, where we will look back at this idea of pure functionality, and we will shake our heads and think…” — Stefan Sagmeister

Many designers believe our societal shift to “less is more” design is a sudden mistake, but in reality it is neither sudden nor a mistake. This shift began with German and Austrian concepts of modernism over 100 years ago when Adolf Loos published Ornament und Verbrechen (Ornament and Crime), an essay and lecture that criticises ornament (decoration) in useful objects, proclaiming “the evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects”. In other words: aesthetic and decorative flairs can have the effect of causing objects to go out of style and thus become obsolete, so we should eliminate them from functional objects to make them timeless.

This piece was published during Art Nouveau, a time when academic art and design was inspired by natural forms and structures, particularly the curved lines of plants and flowers. The challenging nature of the essay paved the way for German modernism in architecture, such as Staatliches Bauhaus (i.e. the Bauhaus movement), describing the ornamentation of objects to be “immoral and degenerate”, a suppression mechanism for regulating modern society.

This raises some really interesting questions in itself…

Does our society have an inherit emotional need for ornamentation? What would happen if we eliminated decorative design altogether, printing everything in plain black-on-white Helvetica like a universal homebrand?

Over time, this concept led to an economic functionalism. Less time spent on design and more efficient use of layout resulted in more growth and more conversions. Now we’re seeing the result of this in technology startups.

Loos eventually concluded that “freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength” which you might recognise from the modern lifestyle philosophy of minimalism: the detachment from reliance on physical objects to satisfy one’s self-worth and the focus on personal being, happiness and relationships.

“Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength”
“Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength”

But let’s jump forward about 80 years to the introduction of the world wide web — an incredible new canvas for designers to experiment with. The first sites ever available were a bleak landscape of simple text-based sites built with just HTML. Web 2.0 came around in the early 2000’s which gave designers a plateau of new features to abuse. You might remember we ended up with lengthy drop shadows, shiny bubbles, oversized buttons and glares.

Skeuomorphic design became a huge trend in 2010 which went against Loos’ philosophies: incorporating the visual characteristics of real life objects into a digital design, recreating them in a highly ornamental fashion. Then, as the popularity of skeuomorphism began to decline, flat design took it’s place.

Since 2016 we’ve been branching out again, exploring semi-flat design, cinemagraphs, animations, bold colour choices and an increased use of geometric shapes, patterns, lines, circles and 3D rendered assets. We’re starting to turn the wheel again on the concept of ornamentalism.

2017 Design Trends Guide
2017 Design Trends Guide

But what about the future? Will we end up with Loos’ dream state — a world where decorative design truly doesn’t matter and minimalistic beauty takes over — or perhaps a trend of ornamentation that we haven’t explored yet? Personally, I believe there will be a mixture of outcomes based on the preference of the designer who enters this brave new world.

One example is futuristic ornamentalism, where the growth of industries such as Augmented / Virtual RealityArtificial Intelligence and Machine Learning will pave the way for a new era of design. Product designers like Gleb Kuznetsov, a Product Designer at Fantasy, is already exploring this area with unique experimentation of futuristic design concepts.

Take this Dribbble shot for example. As an onboarding technique, this could be done a lot more efficiently with just a button. Less friction and a simpler interface. But it’s the experience of interaction, the feeling of drawing a circle and the emotional response when you’ve directly interacted with a new form of intelligence.

Apple have also started exploring this area of design, particularly in relation to Siri. Their new design language and animated visualisations for their voice recognition software paints the tool in the same light as artificial intelligence, which raises a question about the future of this type of design:how does the evolution of artificial sentience affect our ability to convey its depth?

Another example is the futuristic military-style minimalism we see in movies and video games about space travel. Much like Loos’ interpretation of the elimination of ornamentation, a higher reliance on smooth surfaces, polished materials and neon lights compensate for the limited choice of typography and incredibly constrained colour palette.

This style focuses on precision and function by promoting the interactive and accessibility elements of a design, making the point that the simplest form of aesthetics creates the best user experience.

Futuristic design
Futuristic design

There’s plenty of other alternatives and their futures are steeped in chance, practicality, design trends and cultural shifts. Every trend is valid in terms of artistic merit so it just comes down to which one you pick and how you justify it. But regardless of what the universal future of design is for us, right now Stefan Sagmeister has a point:

"The crap happening now in technology that concentrates on functionality shares the same mindset as the Soviet building factories: let’s make it work. But that’s not human, that’s not who we are.Beauty is a core part of humanity. The shit we are making now that is purely functional is inhuman. That is: not made for human beings." — Stefan Sagmeister

Let’s start designing more for human beings.