Diamonds & Coal

By | September 4, 2006

Let’s face it, on the surface, human beings are drawn to pretty things – the sparkle of a diamond as opposed to a black lump of coal.

The diamond has amazing form – it is visually captivating, artistic, beautiful. The coal is not attractive and isn’t meant to be. The coal is functional, serving a distinct, intended purpose. In the throes of winter, a human being is obviously far better off with an ugly lump of coal in the furnace than a shiny rock on the finger. But the diamond’s form, one could say, has its own function, albeit an abstract one – its beauty warms the soul.

So both form and function have their place in human existence. And they both have their place when it comes to design, particularly digital design.

Websites serve as the digital identity of a particular person, place or business. Users may initially be drawn to a website because it is visually stimulating, filled with graphics and an unusual layout. But once past the layer of aesthetic bells and whistles, users need to be able to find meaning with website’s substance. What function does the website perform to assist with their lives?

American architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase “form follows function” in his article, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered” published in 1896. The dictum can also be applied to digital design.

The purpose of visual digital design is to facilitate communication, writes Ben Hunt in an excerpt from his book, “Web Design from Scratch.” “When designing products that have a communication function, usable design is simply better design, because it makes a product better at its job. Usability is a central element to successful design.”

A website that is merely bells and whistles – purely form – serves little purpose except to exist as art. For a user, such a website might be worth visiting maybe once or twice. Commercially, however, that’s not very viable.

“The most aesthetically effective visual designs also need to manifest some functional quality. If something has no functional effectiveness, it becomes art, not design. As far as a web site is concerned, even the most beautiful will impact more people for longer if they can be used,” Hunt writes. “A visually rich site that is also easy to navigate and comprehend leaves its visitors more time and mental energy to appreciate the visuals.”

If the form of a website becomes a goal in itself, instead of a means to an end, the website will not work, Peter-Paul Koch states in his column, “Form Follows Function.”

The web is a medium, different from print graphic design, different from pure art, Koch writes. “Content and interaction are far more important than pure form,”

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there can be such a thing as too much function. Jan Michl’s essay, “Form Follows WHAT ,” discusses how architects married to the idea of functionality alone led to an unfriendly period of design known as “brutalism.” “Functional forms simply do not appeal to taste, because they are a matter of truth – and truth does not pander to taste,” Michl wrote.

Buildings, during this period, disregarded the social, historic and architectural environment of their surroundings, Michl wrote. And the public found the new consciously ‘unappealing’ architecture and design to be unappealing.

Michl concluded that architects who based their designs solely on functional implications ended up being a lot like architects who based their designs solely on personal aesthetic vision. Both are too narrow and too conceited. Neither the designer nor the designs ends up serving the user. Any design, Michl states, should be meaningful to both the owner and the users.

The popular search-engine Google – a highly functional website – does a good job of fulfilling its distinct “purpose,” despite its exceedingly spare design. An elaborate design would get in the way of Google’s ability to perform its function – delivering relevant, comprehensive, easy-to-navigate search results.

Working at The Hartford Courant’s websites (, for the past 8 years, I’ve been involved in some website design. And I’ve learned that it takes more than just pretty pictures and cool graphics. The Courant’s websites also have a distinct function – to deliver the newspaper’s daily mix of stories, photos and graphics in a digital format. So the digital design of the two sites must possess s a thoughtful inner architecture. Users should be able to easily direct themselves around the website and website producers should be able to easily update content. I want users to come to and and enjoy their experience, both on a visual level and on a “this is useful to my life” level. If users can’t find what they are looking for, than the website design is inhibiting the sites’ purpose and its viability.

According to Nick Finck in his essay, “Form vs. Function: Finding the Balance,” website users should not struggle with interface or navigational issues like site structure and organization. With good digital design, the user won’t see any of that.

“The user will only see the message, be it documentation, art, literature, music, video or whatever–everything else will appear transparent,” Finck states. “The form of the site will compliment the content; it will add to the site and not be distracting or annoying.”

A well-designed site will balance form and function to the point where those elements are invisible to the user, Finck wrote.

Ben Hunt sums it up nicely. “High-aesthetic sites are pleasurable and effective when their aesthetic delivery is appropriate and skillful.” A good example of this is some rock band websites, which project the image of the band in a highly-stylized way, often with audio, flash and more.

Alternatively, high-functionality sites, such as, are pleasurable to use and effective when they allow the user to fulfill his goals, Hunt writes.

It’s a balance. Websites can feature the diamond, as long as they keep users warm with lots of coal, too.

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