Archive for March, 2013

Functional form: thoughts on ’19th-century modern’ and interface design in 2013

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

In ‘Nineteenth Century Modern’ Herwin Schaefer argues that vernacular and technical design played a key role in establishing the aesthetics that later crystallized in the functionalism of Gropius and others. He also argues that this role was ignored or written out of history by later commentators and analysts, who replaced it with a more heroic interpretation in which enlightened innovators successfully rebelled against Victorian bad taste. In this version, functionalism is the happy end, producing modernist design which was ‘…clear…organic… whose inner logic will be radiant and naked, unencumbered by lying facades and trickeries…’ (Walter Gropius, quoted by Peter Gay in ‘Modernism: the lure of heresy‘).

I don’t know which aesthetic ideas may have influenced the designers of the New Orleans streetcar, but it provided my first vivid experience of functionalist design. There were times when riding it reminded me more of sitting at a sidewalk cafe, than being in a vehicle. You could watch people, even hear conversations from close by, while waiting at a traffic light.

Interior of streetcar: note the white metal ceiling with bare bulbs, the plain wooden seats, the canvas shades: all materials that are their own ornament. Image from:

It’s a 20th-century design, but I suspect it’s the kind of experience Schaefer was talking about, had by people in all walks of life, as they were exposed to the beauty of devices whose form derived from their adaptation to function, especially from the actions they performed.

The machine age may have strengthened the bond between ergonomics and aesthetics which was already present in much practical, vernacular design. Ergonomics – the ‘match’ between a machine or component and its users and environment – became a profoundly determining influence on aesthetics. In Schaefer’s words, a ‘logic of function’ was found which gave these aesthetic qualities to the products of the nineteenth century.

Q: Is there a ‘logic of function’ for virtual interfaces?

As designers of interfaces in virtual environments, we’re confronted with a new transition, the opposite of the one described above: as Dan Saffer points out, the elements in a virtual interface can take almost any form – and often any function – we wish. Functionally speaking, clicking a cartoon bear gives the same result as clicking a picture of a button, faithfully reproduced to evoke the affordances of a real physical push-button.

So is there a logic of function – an ergonomic basis – for our aesthetic design decisions in these interfaces? Here are some first thoughts towards design principles:

1. Let the design reflect the form of the path taken by the user. Interactive media has a unique capacity to register and display the unique individual path taken through a product (current examples include the breadcrumb trail and pearl-growing and social navigation features). Like a handle fits the hand, perhaps the interface can be made to fit ever more exactly to the exact path taken by users through the structure over time. To date, many attempts to ‘personalize’ in this way have been unsuccessful, because they fail in predicting the user’s behavior and hide essential ‘road signs’, often along with the very content users are seeking. But as algorithms and behavior change, can we perhaps do a better job?

2. Watch out for overdecoration in visual metaphors. I hate most ‘skeumorphic’ interfaces (for example, the imitation of the reel-to-reel tape recorder in the Apple Podcast app). They look to me like the overdecorated Victorian designs that modernists rebelled against. (In this, I’m probably already a typical over-50. Younger users with no real experience of reel-to-reel tape recorders tell me it adds a welcome touch of character.)

3. Be sensitive to emerging conventions. The tiny representation of a forgotten type of 3.5 inch disk, as a symbol for ‘save’, seems to be here to stay. And why shouldn’t we cultivate such things as artefacts that connect us with our history?

Victorian interior (image from:

Image of old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder used in Podcast app from Apple.

One I personally hate: the largely useless, visually confusing 'reel-to-reel' metaphor in the Podcast interface.