Thursday, August 6, 2009

Form Follows Function: 1, Design at Large

"Form follows function."

The implications of the phrase are a preoccupation of many architecture students and architects from the earliest classes in design. In general terms I think it's an idea that can be argued from either side regarding its validity and value. More specifically, the matter of just to what extent designers can claim that their solutions actually reflect the functions of a product is a basic, and persistent, issue for many. After all, there's usually a lot of wiggle-room within the options for the exact form of an element of a complicated assembly.

Non-architectural examples may better lend themselves to a function/form consideration than buildings. I setltled on automobiles, guns, ships and spacecraft. They all have the advantage of visibly moving parts, and kinesis of any kind makes an object's functions more readily apparent than something relatively static like buildings. A return to architectural examples follows the kinetics.

1937. An early Volkswagen Beetle. Teardrop aerodynamics. Aerodynamics can be a fundamental design factor in the form of an automobile. (Didn't always happen.)

(An update, March, 2011.) On the subject of aerodynamics, this article is of interest.

Years ago I read one of Arthur Hailey's books, Wheels. It was interesting and had a plot thread that was worthwhile and memorable. This concerned a new vehicle with a new image, based on conceptually blending the Volkwagen and the Lunar Landing Module. Both of the proposed role models for the new vehicle were certainly functional-looking, especially the LM. This was all a riff on the form-follows-function precept. The idea was that something designed so purely for functional performance would have its own kind of beauty, its imagery having added gravitas and integrity for clearly expressing its functions.

No air, no aerodynamics. Lunar Landing Modle. wiki

Objects designed with what strikes us as remarkably functional imagery can tend to have high design budgets, or virtually no design budget at all. Money was no object in the case of the LM. The VW was a sensible design, as are the fundamentals of most cars. Anything to be mass-produced supports a lot more time in design refinement than something that is to be a unique product, used one time.

Round wheels, (right?) aerodynamics that we can intuitively recognize, the presence and configuration of obvious functions like exhausts, interior and exterior rear-view mirrors, etc, all contribute to the image of a car. A significant difference in the VW and competing US cars in the 1960's was that the US cars tended to be much more consciously style and status-symbol-image-driven in their design. The VW had its own symbolism of status, of course, with many of its owners able to afford a bristling status show, but finding more satisfaction in the VW's practical image. Ostentatiously anti-status. VW had an advertising campaign for years that brilliantly played up the car's benefits, and its anti-status image.

I think inner "chatter," images and preconceptions that all designers tend to bring to their work, is one factor in making purely functional design with virtual elimination of arbitrariness a virtual impossiblity. This would be less true of some objects than others. Again, relatively generous mass-production design budgets can tend to further the functionality of products' images. A gun, for example, can really look like what it's supposed to do. Variations are apparent between different guns of a given era, but in at least a general way they usually derive from functional differences. Still, choices regarding specific details that follow prejudices and preconceptions can usually be spotted.

1860 Colt Army Revolver. wiki

An interesting and functional image is that of a gun manufactured in 1860, the Colt Army Revolver. While a revolver, it was an early one. Here's a general breakdown of why it looks the way it does:

  • I'm not sure, but I think it was possible to load from the muzzle, meaning that the bullet and powder was inserted into the end of the barrel. It was also possible to into the revolving cylinder. The bullet, which was a lead ball, and powder was typically sold in individual paper cartridges, prepackaged. After being placed in the cylinder, the bullet and powder were compressed into the cylinder's chamber using the lever visible below the barrel.

  • At the back of each bullet chamber is a niche for the primer charge, also called a percussion cap, which was ignited by the hammer, and in turn ignited the main charge in the firing chamber.

  • The shape of the grip is that of a typical handgun, shaped to fit naturally into the palm of the hand. It is coordinated in its dimensions, shape and angle with that of the trigger and trigger guard. The top of the gun is straight. The bottom and sides, forward from the grip, are canted, streamlined for moving in and out of a holster.

  • The hammer consists of a single piece of formed steel. It has a thumb lever, serpentine and flared at its end to allow convenient contact when cocking the gun, a tapered firing pin that, when the hammer is sprung, ignites the cap, and the requisite hinged connecting section.

  • The long barrel increases muzzle velocity and accuracy. It has a perfunctory gunsight, but the back "V" part isn't visible unless the hammer is cocked.

  • The cylinder revolves, hence its shape. The niches on the sides assist turning it and disperse heat. Those behind them are housings for percussion caps.
Additional images of the gun are here.

An exploded view is here.

The point in this tedious description is that even with the relative simplicity of the function of a 19th-century handgun, a significant amount of design decision-making had to take place in the creation of its form, and hence its imagery. It's worth noting that the Navy version of this same handgun featured an octagonal barrel. This doesn't have a functional implication. It was probably just from the desire to visibly distinguish the two services' handguns.

The website of a company that makes reproductions of these weapons has a few videos that partially illustrate their functions.

I think one of two opposite conditions usually exist regarding functional imagery. Either the designer is more concerned that a product's image convincingly appear to reflect necessary functions than the extent to which it actually does so, or the image is so secondary that it isn't a factor in the design. If image is a primary factor in a design, highly functional imagery doesn't necessarily entail an intent to exaggerate or mislead. It is a legitimate and highly valued talent to be able to both logically and intuitively select from arbitrary options those options that do the best job of expressing function.

Next, the Apollo missions' Lunar Landing Module, the International Space Station, and the Shuttle.

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