‘Form follows function’.
It’s a phrase we hear all the time. An easy cliché. A shorthand for what many people think is the essence of good modern design. Design that works, does the job, is stripped of useless ornament. The designer or architect works to create a product or building that exactly meets the user’s needs. It works perfectly at the job it is meant to do. The shape is as simple as possible. There is no pointless ornament or decoration.
The trouble is, products and buildings designed this way do not always turn out too well. Things break. They do not work as they should. They do not last.
So obeying ‘form follows function’ will not of itself get the designer or architect to a product, building, or even a service that is automatically successful – however you choose to define ‘successful’. When we look at products, buildings and services that seem to us to be successful we sense there might be more to it. Maybe we need to think about ‘form follows function’ a bit harder. Maybe there are some other factors to consider.
Before we do that, let’s find out where the phrase came from. Was it from modernist European designer-architects like Charlotte Perriand or Mies van der Rohe? Or perhaps leading industrial designers like Kenneth Grange or Dieter Rams. No. It is much older than that and it came from America not Europe.
The phrase was coined by Louis Sullivan, one of a new generation of Chicago architects in the late nineteenth century captivated by the potential of an entirely new type of building emerging in America – the skyscraper.
In 1896 he had an article published in Lippincote’s Magazine – a literary rather than architectural journal – called ‘The tall office building artistically considered’. He argued that the form of every creature and plant derived from the function it had to perform and the same principle should be applied to architecture. In his exact words – “form ever follows function”, suggesting an inevitability to this rule. If you went where the need took you, you would produce something whose form was optimised for the job it had to do.
The same year, he and fellow architect Dankmar Alder had seen the completion of a building in Buffalo which embodied his ideas – the Guaranty Building. Five years earlier their Wainwright building had opened in St Louis.
The form of both works is definitely driven by their function – a tall office building. People will point to the stark functionality of the structures: the simple facades – lots of windows to flood the office floors with light. A core containing staircases and elevators. Shops at street level. This is what I call essential functionality – what enables each building to do its intended job.
But what about all the decoration all over the facades – intricate patterns on thousands and thousands of terracotta tiles and panels, ornate floral swirls on the cornices? They certainly break away from the oppressively heavy decoration of the contemporary Beaux Arts style but the buildings are far from plain. This is what I call emotional functionality.
It is about what impression the design makes on the users and the public in general. The form of the building is driven by artistic needs as well as practical ones. The decoration has a practical job to do – it gives the building prestige, and that will say a lot about the people smart enough to rent space in it. It is equivalent to the peacock’s fantastic plumage that attracts the peahen in nature – form ever following function.
Sullivan’s ideas were hugely influential in America – a new country exploiting new technology, creating new types of buildings and products. He was an extensive writer and today would no doubt have been a busy blogger. His message did not appear to travel to Europe however.
Instead, a new movement of architects there was taking a more austere line. One of the leading lights was Adolf Loos, who was at different times Austrian and Czech. In 1908 he gave a lecture entitled ‘Ornament and crime’ in which he argued against any form of decoration in architecture or design. This was partly about making a break from the overwhelmingly ornate decoration and adornment associated with the nineteenth century and the old order. But he also argued that adding decoration was a deliberate way to make objects that go out of fashion.
Loos believed simpler products would make production easier and raise workers’ wages. Loos spent some time in America before he wrote his manifesto, and it is quite possible he encountered Sullivan’s writings whilst he was there.
His thinking was a major influence on designers and architects who comprised the Modern Movement – the stripped back approach that succeeded the floral abundance of Art Nouveau. Two decades later, the Swiss French designer and architect Le Corbusier published ‘Towards a new architecture’, in which he celebrated technology of all kinds and famously declared that a house is a machine for living in.
At the same time the Bauhaus school, founded by Walter Gropius in Germany, was advocating simplicity and elegance of form and a strong focus on functionality. Even if the phrase was not explicitly used by the Modernists it is clear that the ideas of Sullivan were being taken up.
These radical ideas coincided with the great industrial advance of the early twentieth century – mass production. Traditional ornament and decoration required a lot of skilled hand work. In order to make things in large numbers and at a price more and more ordinary people could afford, superfluous decoration had to go.
The first mass produced products were perfect examples of form following essential function, with much less emphasis on emotional functionality, other than in their novelty. They also displayed what I call economic functionality – doing the desired job for the least cost both in terms of creating something (so potentially yielding the highest profit), and in its use by the consumer.
Henry Ford’s Model T car is the perfect example. There is no concession to beauty in anything about it. But thanks to Ford’s relentless drive to cut costs, it scores very high on essential and economic functionality, and very low on emotional functionality. It did the job it was intended to do and was easy to put together. By refining its design and the methods used to build it, the price of the Model T fell from $850 in 1908 to $290 in 1925.
Alongside mass production there were great strides in developing new materials. Mouldable plastic in the form of Bakelite appeared in 1907. Pyrex temperature-resistant glass came on the market the following year. Plywood was around but new glues expanded its applications. Petroleum-based products like nylon came along. Improved steelmaking gave us pressed steel and chromium-plated tubular steel. Glass fibre emerged in the late 1930s.
All of these new materials created enormous opportunities to make products that did existing jobs better or enabled entirely new applications. But what they also had in common was that – unlike in older materials like wood and stone – it was very difficult to create intricate ornamentation or decoration in them.
This did not mean that pure essential functionality ruled for ever. The public liked the new domestic appliances and motor cars, but they began to tire of rigidly functional products with exposed machinery, sharp edges and lots of places for dirt and dust to accumulate. And producers began to realise that they had to do something to maintain their growth and get people to buy new things.
Products that displayed such essential functionality began to be cloaked in casings (Bakelite for telephones, pressed steel for cars, and so on) to make them look better. Emotional functionality became more and more important, even though the pressure for economic functionality remained.
The process was inevitable once it began, and producers who defied what they saw as foolishness were left behind. Ford Motor Company almost collapsed before Henry Ford was persuaded to retire the Model T and produce something that looked more modern, more emotionally functional.
Sometimes there was a sound reason to give products a smoother profile, more often it was an excuse. Early work in aerodynamics showed that fast moving objects like aeroplanes, trains and cars would be more fuel-efficient and quieter if they had a smooth, rounded shape. But this shape had to be perfected through calculations and wind tunnel experiments.
Designers like Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfuss made ‘streamlining’ fashionable in the 1930s by designing railway locomotives that had a pronounced aerodynamic appearance. In truth this was more of a marketing ploy than a serious attempt to cut the railroads’ fuel bills, but it started a trend.
Even things that didn’t move got the streamlining treatment, such as a Coca-Cola dispenser and a pencil sharpener. And of course there were famous streamlined buildings like William Allen’s Chrysler Building of 1930 and Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1936 headquarters for Johnson Wax.
Then World War Two came along and everything changed. We reverted to essential functionality in a big way – not just in weapons of war but buildings and whatever civilian products were needed. Wartime services, like ration books and train travel, stressed essential functionality over anything else. Any emotional functionality was accidental, as in the peerless beauty of Frank Mitchell’s Spitfire fighter aircraft.
And economic functionality was scarcely a consideration – the bill would come later.
Post-war, the nature of products and buildings tended to diverge between the United States, which had had a huge economic boost from the conflict (as its principal arsenal) and other nations who were in huge debt to it, like Britain. The beaten nations of Germany and Japan, and the exhausted victors such as Britain and France, lacked the spare resources to spend on ornament.
Products once again prioritised essential and economic functionality in the face of scarce raw materials and limited disposable income among consumers. Any emotional functionality was understated and down to artful design and good proportions. In Britain for example we had G-Plan furniture, the Austin A30 car and the CLASP construction system for school buildings.
Across the Atlantic things were very different, with the 1950s seeing the growth of a consumer society driven by implanting the desire in the populace for ever more and newer possessions in their lives. In such a climate emotional functionality took precedence over the essential kind as evidenced by how car design evolved from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. Every year each model was superficially revamped and intensively marketed to induce the feeling that you had to replace your car frequently to avoid being socially ostracised.
Such a paradigm was essential to the prosperity of large swathes of American industry. Skimp on enhancing the essential functionality like sensible safety features and durable components (expensive), focus on applying an irresistible veneer of emotional functionality (cheap), and so deliver plenty of economic functionality to keep manufacturers booming (even if that impaired economic functionality for the customer).
That rather cynical equation has not entirely gone away, although nowadays essential and emotional functionality tend to be on a par in many consumer products. Take the Apple iPhone. It certainly embodies a great deal of essential functionality, but its design and presentation deliberately embody a high level of emotional functionality. The consequent market appeal means Apple can enjoy a high price premium for its product and the economic functionality for the company is considerable.
Latterly, another aspect of functionality has grown in prominence.
Until the late twentieth century, people did not give much consideration to the environmental impact of products and buildings. Plastics, for instance, were seen as wonder materials – light, versatile in application, simple to form, easy to colour impregnate, non-corroding and so on. Little thought was generally given to the source of the ingredients that went into the plastics (chiefly crude oil) and what would happen to whatever they were made into at the end of its useful life.
Turning to construction, the impact on the climate of the huge amounts of carbon released through the production of billions of tonnes of cement every year was largely overlooked in the enthusiasm to build large and impressive buildings and infrastructure.
To be fair, a small number of designers and architects did recognise this concern. Among his ten design principles, the German industrial designer Dieter Rams declared ‘good design is environmentally friendly’. Thus, it is possible in his view for something to embody what I would call environmental functionality.
Now that the urgency of tackling climate change and the stark reality of the vast amounts of waste products we are generating is clear, Rams is not alone. Environmental functionality is finally being recognised as critically important.
It was a slow process to get there. From the 1970s the economic functionality of products and buildings was gradually increased by finding ways to reduce their costs of operation, such as more efficient motors, more efficient heating systems, substituting reliable electronics for temperamental mechanisms, and so on.
Environmental functionality – less pollution, less use of resources – was largely a by-product of these efforts. The aim was to reduce cost of manufacture and ownership, not save the planet.
Since the turn of the century however, environmental functionality has definitely come to the fore. The most prominent instance is probably road transport where clean electric vehicles are likely to be produced in greater numbers than polluting internal combustion ones within perhaps fifteen years.
Which brings us up to date. But before we move on from discussing the nature and evolution of functionality it is worth summing up my argument so far.
When we consider ‘form follows function’ in the sense that Louis Sullivan meant it, we have to recognise that there are different aspects of functionality – which I call essential, emotional, economic and environmental. By inference, Sullivan certainly recognised the first two in his original article, and they were highly relevant to the period in which he was working.
However, through the twentieth century economic functionality and then environmental functionality became equally significant. This is partly because the application of his ideas spread from buildings into the field of tangible products. Sullivan considered form following function in terms of buildings; the notion got extended into things like cars, domestic appliances and consumer electronics.
As an architect, Sullivan was probably less concerned with the economic functionality of his buildings, both in terms of the cost of construction and the cost of occupancy, and he was most unlikely to have worried about environmental functionality at a time when people generally thought that resources were effectively limitless and pollution would dissipate harmlessly.
But the growth in consumer goods and fierce capitalistic competition led to economic functionality (for the producer if not the customer) becoming paramount. Latterly a drive to achieve environmental functionality was spurred by consumer and government pressure, toughening legislation and a new type of competition based on producers’ ‘green credentials’.
In the twenty first century we no longer live in societies where economic activity is dominated by manufacturing and construction. Whereas ‘form follows function’ was conceived when considering a tangible, physical entity like a building, much of what we use and consume is intangible.
Our national economies have become largely service-based and many of us work producing services of one kind or another, or consuming them. The most valuable companies in America aren’t General Motors and General Electric any more, they are the likes of Amazon, Alphabet (aka Google to you and me) and Facebook. So perhaps we need to reconsider ‘form’.
To do that I am venturing to coin a new word, because I need one. I could describe any kind of product or building as an ‘artefact’ – something made from the application of skill. This will do for things that are physical and tangible, but it is generally used in connection with objects that are historical or even archaeological.
But isn’t it valid that services like the outputs from banking, entertainment, hospitality, journalism, logistics operations, management consulting, retailing and technical support of computer systems should be considered against the ‘form follows function’ paradigm as well? Not to mention the kinds of services we get from public authorities, like waste disposal, tax collection and even university education.
There is nothing in the logic of Sullivan’s argument that says they should not, even though he did not include them. And we know that even manufactured products and buildings now incorporate lots of services.
Rolls-Royce do not sell jet engines and leave the airframe manufacturer and airline to work out how to maintain them. Instead they offer a ‘power by the hour’ service where they monitor the performance of every large engine in real time and are able to proactively intervene before a fault in an engine turns into an expensive and time-consuming repair far from the airline’s home maintenance facilities.
If we want to bundle together products, buildings and services for discussion purposes, I suggest we call them anthrofacts. An anthrofact is a tangible or intangible creation that is the result of human skill and effort. It can be a product, a building, a service or any combination of these. Some people might complain the word is a mixture of Greek and Latin, but so is ‘television’. Others might object to coining a new word, but who said ‘impactful’ twenty years ago?
Now, when we want to consider the form of an anthrofact, we are not limited to shape in the conventional sense. ‘Form’ is the final realisation of an anthrofact, which is the consequence of how it is designed, how it is made, what it is made from, and how it reaches the eventual user.
And ‘function’ defines the ways in which the anthrofact and the user are intentionally encouraged to interact by its producer, in order to achieve what the user desires from it (or how the producer wishes the user to behave).
This way of thinking has obvious implications. The form of the Guaranty Building in Buffalo responded to its function as a tall set of offices. Those responses were physical – the arrangement of work rooms, the repetitive external design of most of the floors, the decorative elements to attract premium tenants, and so forth.
The form of a service is very different. There may be quasi-physical elements like a suite of web screens, documents, and interactive components, but a lot of its delivery may be behavioural, such as the style of personal service in a five-star hotel. But in an era where consuming services has become predominant, the exact form of services in response to the functions they have to perform becomes a valid question.
I am not sure whether designers of services have considered form following function explicitly, but I am pretty sure they have – even unconsciously.
Think about the concept of the budget hotel versus the luxury hotel for example. The functional expectations of a guest at a Travelodge are somewhat different to those of a guest at the Savoy, and the form of the services provided in response is tuned to those.
A great deal of thought went into the design of the home screen of the Google web site. Its minimal form is deliberate, because the essential function is to enable users to reach the information or results they want with the least fuss. If economic functionality can be extended to time as well as money, then it scores very highly on that too.
Even if we admit the notion of ‘form follows function’ applying to all types of anthrofact it is the case that in many instances organisations that appeared to get the relationship absolutely right still failed to achieve success in what they created.
The Rover SD1 was a sensational car, a ground-breaking design that was way ahead of European executive saloons when it was launched in 1976. Yet it cannot be considered as a success and rapidly lost ground to rivals like BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Two other factors are essential to success in my opinion – and in them Rover was found wanting. I call them finish and feeling.
Let’s start with finish, which is all about quality.
Up until the 1960s people generally accepted that stuff did not last all that long. Cars lasted about five years until they morphed into bangers. Although the range of goods was growing all the time, those new domestic appliances, power tools and pieces of gardening equipment were not all that reliable or durable.
In the era of post-war austerity, British customers were grateful for whatever they could get. In America the poor construction, performance and soundness of many products was masked by a persuasive advertising message – just throw it away, get a new snazzier one.
But gradually a consumer backlash built up. In America the magazine Consumer Reports started to expose poor products, useless warranties and sharp practices by producers. In Britain the Consumers Association did the same through Which? magazine.
Clearly consumers’ expectations of quality were changing. The quality of an anthrofact is not an unchanging characteristic, and it is not ordained by the producer. It is judged by the customer, consumer or user.
Quality is not about gold-plating and luxury. Quality is the extent to which a product, building, or service performs in the way that the user expects. That is about essential functionality, but it as far as finish is concerned, it is particularly about things like reliability, durability, and how well parts (tangible or intangible) fit together.
This was understood best in Japan. Recovering from the devastation of the Second World War, Japan’s industrialists considered how they could help rebuild their economy by exporting goods to richer nations – notably the United States. They visited General Motors in Detroit and other manufacturers, and noted how their emphasis tended to be lowest cost production concealed within a glossy veneer of styling.
The designer Brook Stevens popularised the expression ‘planned obsolescence’ to capture how this approach favoured frequent replacement of goods rather than having them do an efficient job over a sensibly long period.
The Japanese also paid great attention to a number of Americans who were developing theories about how to make quality central to the way goods were designed and made, by listening to potential customers and improving manufacturing methods. These experts – J. Edwards Deming, Joseph M. Juran and latterly Philip Crosby – were largely ignored at home, but their influence on firms like Toyota was profound.
Japanese companies realised that they could succeed in global markets by producing goods that were not necessarily highly innovative or seductively styled, but which gave good service, were economic to run and lasted a long time.
California was the American market most open to trying imported products and when the first Toyota cars were introduced there in the 1960s they were a hit – even though they were small and sparse compared with their flashy but flawed home-grown cousins. Californians appreciated a car that always started first time, sipped rather than guzzled gasoline, and didn’t involve hefty bills for maintenance and repair.
It was not just cars. Sony became a market leader by harnessing the potential of the transistor (invented at Bell Labs in the US) in radios and scientific instruments, but also by making those products functionally rich yet dependable and long-lasting. Think about Sony home entertainment systems, Olympus cameras, Technics stereos, even Pentel pencils.
Aside from their comprehensive functionality and restrained, slightly conservative form, these products had finish. That is, finish in the sense of being very well put together – well-finished on the surface and with every internal component precisely made. And finish by delivering the quality the customer expected.
Contemporary products offering highly levels of functionality (in the case of cars, things like air-conditioning and electric windows) and highly attractive forms saw their markets eroded if they were deficient in the area of finish – if their level of quality disappointed the customer.
Thus during the 1960s through to the 1980s we saw the disappearance of many familiar names (like Murphy televisions and BSA motorcycles) because their lacklustre finish made them uncompetitive – they mistakenly thought that customers would continue to be satisfied with the level of finish they accepted in the 1950s.
It might be argued that a big reason for their demise was that their costs were too high, but as Philip Crosby argued, “quality is free”. Once the investments in training, methods and equipment have been made, the consequent savings resulting from getting things right first time, and largely eliminating warranty claims, mean that having a high level of quality (finish) actually cuts costs.
The Rover SD1 failed because its build quality and every day reliability fell well short of the expectations of 1970s buyers. Never mind its exquisite form and comprehensive functionality – this anthrofact came up seriously short in the area of finish.
Nowadays the quality mantra has been taken up by manufacturers world-wide and most cars and consumer products have a standard of finish that means it is hard to discriminate between them in that arena.
The same is not true for buildings and services. The construction industry continues to suffer from poor quality in many instances. Never mind that important projects are frequently late or over-budget, the completed structures often have many faults which need expensive rectification or fail to deliver the essentially functionality required.
There is often an over-emphasis on generating emotional functionality through a fancy form that seriously compromises what the building is meant to do. The new Library of Birmingham is an example in my opinion.
Likewise, services lag products in the area of finish. Everyone has tales of maddening encounters with call centre operations that fail to answer the user’s needs in a responsive and effective way.
Web sites can still be clunky to use – overladen with fancy graphics that work perfectly on the developer’s high-end laptop but clog up an entry-level smartphone.
Professional services like solicitors and estate agents too often maintain a very traditional approach which is out of step with the prompt responses and efficient transactions which today’s customers expect.
That brings us to the fourth aspect of the equation – feeling.
This is all about how the user, the customer, the consumer, feels about the producer of the anthrofact. The anthrofact may do its job perfectly and have a very acceptable form in all respects, and its finish may be entirely what the person or people using it expect. But without feeling the user senses no bond with who produced it, and that can be decisive.
Feeling is distinct from emotional functionality, which is all about the anthrofact itself. At its heart is trust – trust that the producer can be depended upon to deliver something that keeps its promises. The enduring quality of something only becomes apparent through regular use over a reasonable period of time. We cannot know how well our new smartphone, house or even insurance policy will work over time, so we need a signal that we are in safe hands.
This is not a new concern for producers.
In the nineteenth century many food and beverage products might be tainted in some way to save money or increase their appeal. Bread could contain sawdust and chalk; beer could be watered down. Honest firms therefore made a point of assuring their customers that their products were pure and wholesome – ‘none guaranteed without this signature’ as it says on every bottle of Angostura bitters.
The individual behind such businesses essentially staked their reputation on what they produced. We were taught to trust Mr Gillette, Mr Heinz, Mr Kellogg, and Messrs Procter and Gamble. In some cases, the name of the business was not eponymous, but an original name like Coca Cola or Kodak, but the intended effect was the same.
The consistent quality of the products coming from these firms reassured buyers and led to rapidly growing sales. The names became brands such that anything these firms did was assumed by customers to be of the highest standard.
From the 1960s brand development became central to how firms developed and expanded.
German companies were especially good at this. Bosch, Braun, Mercedes-Benz, Miele, Volkswagen – they all became synonymous with good design, careful manufacture and dependability. This was, arguably, a central part of West Germany’s strategy of re-building its economy after the devastation of the Second World War
Japan followed a similar route, with – as we have seen – a very strong emphasis on efficient manufacture and creating products that were virtually faultless.
In America a number of brands achieved a stellar reputation. It became a saying in business circles that no-one ever got fired for buying IBM. But in consumer markets domestic US producers were losing ground to those ambitious rivals from West Germany and Japan. Once totemic brands like Ford and RCA Victor were seen to be turning out products that were over-heavy with pointless gadgets but wanting in terms of basic performance and build quality.
This became more and more important because the share of the market capitalisation (essentially the value) of companies represented by their brand, or brands, was growing. This value can be seen as the difference between a publicly-quoted firm’s market value (represented by its share price multiplied by the number of shares in circulation) and the realisable value of its fixed assets, know-how, patents, work in progress, etc.
The consequences of peoples’ feeling towards a brand being undermined can be catastrophic. When the boss of the Ratner’s jewellery chain joked to guests at a business lunch that some of its products were ‘crap’, the reputation (and value) of the brand collapsed.
Volkswagen has had to send huge sums of money to rebuild customer trust after the Dieselgate scandal, as hass Boeing after two crashes of its 737 Max airliner.
Such mistakes mean the brand ceases to stand out and be the obvious, wise choice (remember IBM), and finds its offerings stacked up against others in a comparison line-up.
In many mature product areas (cars, domestic appliances, home entertainment), the functionality, form and finish of anthrofacts are pretty well equivalent. Cars no longer go rusty after a couple of years; TVs do not suffer blown valves; web-sites rarely crash. So feeling becomes the ultimate arbiter of which, from a choice of producers, to select. Which make do you trust the most?
Of course, it is possible for feeling to trump functionality and even finish if the brand truly resonates.
No-one really expects an Aston-Martin to be as practical or reliable as a Ford Focus, but that is not why people buy them. Form, emotional functionality and feeling are the drivers.
Likewise with Bang & Olufsen home entertainment systems in the 1980s and 1990s, the technology was never absolutely state of the art, but the form was always beautiful, the emotional functionality was intense and there was a special feeling associated with the B&O company.
The company that probably most powerfully exemplifies this is Apple. It has been able to build and sustain, over a remarkable period of time, an almost religious devotion among its millions of customers. They are happy to inhabit an Apple world with all of its proprietary aspects in return for an association with a brand they perceive as technically and aesthetically superior, and having a unique aura.
But we are not at the end of the story.
There is now a new dimension to feeling. As users, customers and consumers we have become increasing concerned about the ethical aspects of what we use. When it comes to an anthrofact, we want to be certain who created it, who was responsible for what went into it, and how we can get things sorted out if for any reason the anthrofact fails to perform as promised.
This is not about the environmental functionality of the anthrofact itself, but the behaviour of the producer.
Producers are anxious to demonstrate their green credentials following, for example, revelations about the working conditions endured by factory employees in developing countries producing clothes and footwear. Similarly, there are now concerns over the source of lithium and other minerals that are needed for the lithium-ion batteries that go into everything from smartphones to double-decker buses. Brands like Nike and Tesla need to be able to honestly respond that they have a clear conscience over such concerns.
Latterly, brands have also been keen to show their allegiance to issues associated with people’s identity and place in society. This has led several to having to make judgements about which constituencies within their target market they want to instil the most positive feeling in, at the risk of alienating others.
Feeling is becoming a delicate business.
Far from being a simple exercise in building people’s trust in a producer, and their brand, to create for them something that has great functionality, form and finish, the whole area of feeling has clearly become a great deal more complex and challenging.
To conclude, we return to success – whether that is marketplace success, solving a major problem in society, achieving an enduring recognition and status, or whatever else a producer aspires to. I hope you agree it is not simply about ensuring that form follows function.
Indeed, as we have seen, it is getting more and more complex – to the point where the stance of who produces the anthrofact may be eclipsing the attributes of the anthrofact itself.
I assert that the success of an anthrofact comes from providing four kinds of function within a form that responds effectively to those functions, delivered with acceptable finish and engendering a positive feeling about the producer. Understanding all four, and getting them right, is now the key to success.
I want to try and illustrate my argument by comparing two products.
They are both designed to do exactly the same job – provide a number of tools within a single pocket-sized device that will enable someone to carry out a wide range of small mechanical tasks, for example doing roadside repairs or when camping. Both are made in stainless steel.
The first is a Leatherman PST (Personal Survival Tool) which I purchased in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1997. With a leather case I think it cost about $50. The second is a DSL multi-tool I saw advertised above the pump at a filling station about ten years ago and which I bought (complete with a nylon pouch) for less than £10. From the far side of a room they are indistinguishable.
From an essential functionality point of view they are practically equivalent. They would both be handy to aid those minor tasks to cut, repair or assemble something, with gadgets like pliers, a knife, screwdrivers – and of course a can opener.
The emotional functionality of the Leatherman is much higher to me than that of its filling station cousin. As an object, its form seems sturdier; it feels a little more solid in the hand; and the leather pouch signals it is a professional’s tool rather than an amateur’s. I think it would take a lot to break it, and it could be more relied upon to get me out of trouble when it really mattered. The economic functionality of the pair clearly differs.
The DSL tool was made much more cheaply and sold for a good deal less. If I used it a lot I suspect I would have to replace it a number of times within the life-span of the Leatherman, eroding the price difference significantly. As for environmental functionality, I have owned the Leatherman for almost 25 years and it shows little sign of wearing out. When it does give up, I know it can be thrown into the furnace to make new steel with little waste. I feel the DSL tool, if I used it more, would get to that point a good deal sooner and together with its replacements build up a bigger pile of scrap.
Which leads us to finish.
The Leatherman is self-evidently well-made. Everything fits together precisely, and the individual tools are easy to prize out of the hollow hand grips with a fingernail. Furthermore, the tool came with a 25 year warranty. If it broke, I could send it back to Portland, Oregon, for the firm to fix or replace it. So the entirety of the product is a well-made physical item, backed up with comprehensive services.
The DSL is not badly made, but it does not operate quite so smoothly. When it is closed the two hand-grips do not quite align. The accessories cannot be prized out with such a smooth action. And it did not come with any warranty at all.
When it comes to feeling the Leatherman wins hands down. Leatherman was reasonably well-known when I bought my PST and is now a global brand. It promotes its history, going back to the original tool devised by Timothy Leatherman after a road trip across Europe in an unreliable car. It emphasises its desire to provide any buyer with an extremely useful piece of kit, and support it with an excellent guarantee. Leatherman has almost become an eponym for this kind of compact device, except that the firm has managed to dominate the premium end of its market.
On the other hand, who has even heard of DSL? The tool has about as much kudos as a favour falling out of a Christmas cracker.
Anthrofact – A tangible or intangible creation that is the result of human skill and effort. Examples include a product, a building, a service and a work of art.
Form – The final realisation of an anthrofact, which is the consequence of how it is designed, how it is made, what it is made from, and how it reaches the eventual user.
Function – The ways in which the anthrofact and the user are intentionally encouraged to interact by its producer, in order to achieve what the user desires from it (or how the producer wishes the user to behave).
Finish – How well made is the anthrofact, for the job of meeting the functional expectations of the user.
Feeling – The attitude that the user has about the producer in so far as it relates to their experience of the anthrofact.
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