Form and Function in a Cyber Environment

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A major theme that resounded through the readings was the need for the organization, understanding and usability of content online. Through the use of creative design, implementation and use, technical communicators can work in conjunction with designers and help find solutions to these problems. Above all, usability and ease are the two most important factors in web design.

The famous phrase “form follows function” was coined by American architect Louis Sullivan in his 1924 book Autobiography of an Idea. There are two ways this phrase can be interpreted:

1). Aesthetics should be secondary to function

2). Beauty results from the purity in form.

Modernist architecture was based around this idea, as ornaments or decorative elements to a building were considered superfluous. In other words, the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose. With this purpose, this movement became the guiding force for numerous architectural movements and schools of design.

However, one can ask, does this same principle hold true in a cyber environment?

In the early years of web design, oftentimes there was no rhyme or reason to the designs used by untrained technical communicators. Oftentimes, they would disregard principles of effective page design in an attempt to differentiate document design for print from online. In the wild west of web design, an innovative form took precedent over function. However, as time progressed, these freedoms gave way to a new wave of design fueled by purpose, content and user needs.

Today, we take these things for granted and expect certain standards for orienting ourselves in virtual space. Because there isn’t a one size fits all approach, the way in which designers create these spaces is intriguing.

Should they follow Sullivan’s advice of “form follows function”? Or would some creative flair benefit a site and make it more usable? This poses a challenge for designers because while usability is key, it is discouraged to gravitate towards either extreme.

On one end of the spectrum you have your very basic, bland web design. It presents the users with the usable components without any frills. An example of this is the Craigslist site with its basic blue links on a blank white page. It is clear that function is the most important aspect of this site, and little concern is given to aesthetics.

craigslist-10

On the other hand, a site that either has too much going on also renders itself unusable. In the example for Yvette’s Fashion it is clear that the overwhelming amount of information, flashy colors, images and tiny text make it almost impossible to navigate, let alone read.

terrible-website

Gentlemen bear with me, but in a way this analogy of design and usability could be compared to women’s footwear. On end you have your very basic and ubiquitous white tennis shoes. While they may not look fancy, they are comfortable, provide the right amount of support and quickly can accomplish the job of getting the user from one place to the next. They are simple and style plays little role in its usability.

SUPERGA-CLASSIC-WHITE-BAYAN-SPOR-AYAKKABI-39__41988348_1 0c6c668ee677160cdf94c864d240a095

In contrast, there is the glammed up eight-inch stiletto. While they aren’t practical, the over the top nature of them definitely catches your attention. Additionally, while they also will enable the wearer to navigate from one place to the next, it is at a much slower and cumbersome pace. While both forms of footwear are aimed toward different users and server similar functions, the usability differs. In other words, usability is impacted by design.

Likewise, design elements contribute to the ambience of web sites and help prepare the user to understand the context for its use. In Digital Literacy for Technical Communications, Slavo states,“Readers recognize designed elements of the document before interpreting the context”. In other words, visual design carries its message in its physical presentation.

For instance, even a simple change in the web design can make a difference and affect usability. In Louis Lazar’s article, Design is Only as Deep as it is Usable, he examines the homepage for Facebook with a simple omission of color:

facebook-compare

While the plain version is still functional, it is less inviting. Additionally, the contrast between the blue and white makes the boxes easier to find and therefore use. Overall, this example  proves that design can aid in the function of a web site.

In sum, there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to the design and organization of web content. Because there is no hard and fast rule, function can’t overlook aesthetics and vice versa. “Eye candy is important, but it isn’t everything, and that for a design to be truly beautiful, it has to be functional, have purpose and contribute in some way to the website’s intuitiveness, usefulness and branding” (Smash Magazine). Rather, a balance of the two is needed as they work hand in hand to produce content that is both intuitive and appropriate for the audience. Through this, both ease and usability can be accomplished and good web design can prevail.

Posted on October 4, 2015, in Blogs and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for sharing that Lazar piece! Wonderful focus on the theme of form and function. I’m actually just out of a presentation by two technical communicators from Kohler Co. who impressed me when they said they’ve taken increased ownership of their documents the past several years. While the engineers who create the products want certain patents included or more steps to be listed in the instructions, the TC team pushes back to keep the customer’s needs at the forefront. Like you say, there isn’t “one size fits all,” but the combination of print pamphlets and digital animation will reach wider audiences and is something each business needs to keep in mind.

  2. I certainly appreciate and, in fact, advocate good design. And, I think we are seeing a trend toward more technical communication happening through illustrative instructions. I’m thinking here, for example, about mobile electronics instruction. The last two phones and a tablet (all from different companies) we purchased, the set up instructions were virtually all illustrations. The only text was something like “For more information, visit…”.

    However, I don’t fully agree with Slavo that readers recognize design elements before they interpret context. Design can influence if not establish context. For example, a red design element in the shape of a stop sign lets the reader know what they should do (stop) because the accompanying text is particularly important. Another example would be a header photograph at the top of a magazine ad. The content of that photo will indicate context–positive or negative.

    That said, I can agree that visual design is generally what is recognized first, much to your original point.

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