Functionality vs. Aesthetics in Design


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This article, written by Anindya Kundu, Visual Designer at Kuliza, was published in issue 08 of the Social Technology Quarterly.
Summary: When analysing the importance of functionality and aesthetics in design, we notice that it is the context that determines which of the two takes a dominant role in a
particular instance. But in the larger picture both need to complement and balance each other.

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Functionality vs. Aesthetics in Design

  1. 1. Kuliza Social Technology Quarterly Issue 08 Functionality vs.Aesthetics in Design When analysing the importance of functionality and aesthetics in design, we notice that it is the context that determines which of the two takes a dominant role in a particular instance. But in the larger picture both need to complement and balance each other. by Anindya Kundu Photo Credit: Made in Design the undercurrents of society. However, art can also have a hidden function, as it often helps to educate people about nature or philosophy, and fulfils the emotional and spiritual needs of human beings. Form plays a key role in both art and design. In design, form complements usability by adding aesthetic appeal, which helps to motivate the user to use the product. Hartmut Esslinger, the founder of Frog Design, sates that form should follow emotion rather than function or we can end up with products or architecture that neither relate to people nor the context. Hence we meet a paradox of form and function. Aesthetics and functionality become intertwined and interdependent of each other as in the case of the Buddhist Yin-Yang symbol. In the debate of form versus function, the latter can be equated with the aggressive Broadly, design can be defined as a process in which form meets function. It is about planning or configuring from the initial stages of an idea ultimately leading to a solution to a problem. Problems can range from simple ones such as communicating about an event through the design of an event poster to ones as complex as designing a concept to solve urban transportation problems and pollution. By its very definition, design is geared towards functionality. It is always meant to serve a purpose. On the other hand, art is predominantly defined by aesthetics and by notions of beauty. Some schools of thought have even branded art to serve no other purpose. Various pure forms of art such as painting, poetry or music are significantly devoted to self expression and to mirror Campaigns
  2. 2. 12 Soviet Architecture Automated Teller Machines Packaged Drinking Water Satellite Dishes Individual Banana Packaging Indian Rail Website Indian Highway Trucks Functionality
  3. 3. Kuliza Social Technology Quarterly Issue 08 13 Eames Chair and Ottoman Christian Bird’s Ceramic knife Thonet wooden bicycle High Speed Trains iPad Ancient Greek Vase Ferrari Book of Kells Aesthetics Egyptian Jewellery Philippe Starck Juicer
  4. 4. 14 Typography has become more defined and functional Typography has become more defined and functional Typography has become more defined and functional Typographyhasbecomemoredefinedandfunctional Typographyhasbecomemoredefinedandfunctional Typographyhasbecomemoredefinedandfunctional Typographyhasbecomemoredefinedandfunctional Typography has become more defined and functional
  5. 5. Kuliza Social Technology Quarterly Issue 08 notable example is the ‘Book of Kells’ produced in the late 6th to 9th centuries, which was adorned with intricately detailed artwork. With the development of techniques such as wood block printing, new designs evolved. Typography became more defined and functional. Limited by the technique, minimalistic black and white wood-cut prints and the limited colour but exquisitely detailed Japanese wood block prints evolved. With modern laser printing, highly sophisticated printing methods, high resolution digital photography, and computer based image processing software such as Photoshop, CorelDraw, Illustrator or InDesign, almost anything can be achieved by modern print designers. So while technology has made many aspects of the design process more standardized and methodical, designers are also completely liberated by the freedom offered from the incredible amount of parameters in their control: colours, textures and accuracy. Interactive screen devices are becoming increasingly popular and print has become more personalized and exclusive. Hence, there is an explosion in the field of user- interface design because of their interactive nature, dynamism and responsiveness. Also, it is highly likely that even the screen will disappear as we enter the new era of holographic augmented reality. Currently, UI design is restricted by the display and interaction capabilities of devices. While designing a web based app for a tablet, a designer is limited by the resolution, aspect ratios and limitations of the touch functionalities. Hence functionality geared towards a smoother user experience is fundamental to the design process. But in the future when such limitations will disappear, it is highly likely that aesthetics will be at the forefront. Moreover, this is not unexpected. A look into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs clears the picture. The lower order needs masculine energy or the starting point of design. The former, however, is related to aesthetics and is similar to feminine energy which is accepting and imparts beauty and grace. While we aim to strike a fine balance between the two, there are contexts in which either can play a more dominant role. Graphic design, for instance, is related more to commercial art and has tremendous scope for aesthetics to take the lead when space is not a constraint. However, in user-interface design, while developing an interface for a computer or handheld device, functionality becomes a priority because of the limitations posed by the interface. Similarly in case of automotive design, functionality is dominant when creating affordable public transport, while designing luxury sports cars aesthetics can be at the forefront. History grants us evidence and existing patterns in relation to this. In ancient civilizations wealth and power were limited to a privileged few. Aesthetics played a major role in design. The architecture of palaces, the furniture and other implements designed for the royalty, priests or temple idols were often elaborately decorative. A look at the ornately carved Indian temples, artefacts found with Egyptian mummies or the remnants of Mayan civilization indicate this. With the advent modern thinking and more equitable society, there was a shift towards more functional objects. Most mass produced items consumed by people today can be called more ‘functional’ than ‘aesthetic’. Technology aids this mass production, and design is intimately related to technology. With every step ahead in technology, corresponding design in that particular medium has furthered it to move ahead in leaps and bounds. The evolution of books illustrates this. Before the advent of printing, every manuscript had to be tediously handwritten and required elaborate hand-drawn illustrations. A can be loosely correlated to functionality, the higher order needs are associated to aesthetics. The world is battling it out for basic needs such as food, shelter, health and basic human rights, there is also the need for status, esteem and luxury. Similarly, both aesthetics and functionality are ingrained in design. Both remain prevalent, but for the future we can only hope for a more harmonious balance. References Esslinger,Hartmut.Advice For Designers.2013 Video. “Yin andYang,”Wikipedia,The Free Encyclopedia. Cherry,Kendra.“Hierarch of Needs.” Psychology. Poster Credit: Jancso Aron