Form Follows Function: Design's Future

Dec. 19, 2018

Educator and architect Aaron Kadoch explains why he thinks the future of design lies between form and function, contrasting the classic deterministic model that states, “form follows function.”

Traditionally, design is focused on the physical, visual and functional conditions of the built environment. However, society is beckoning an advanced state of intra-disciplinary design work in a range of new media and modalities that will have impacts on the planet and which Generation Z, the post-Millennial generation, will inherit as they seamlessly move between physical and digital environments.

Surpassing Moore’s law—an observation in the electronics and technology industry that just about every two years processor speeds (or, rather, the transistors that make up an electronic chip) double while the costs are halved so that technology is nearly twice as fast for the same cost—design is running parallel with exponential technological advancement, rather than jumping to accommodate new technology after it comes out. Our anthropocentric culture is approaching a singularity—or a blurring—of the human, molecular and technological dimensions. Researchers focused on deploying new infrastructures of communication, synthetic biology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and quantum computing are thought to be leading society forward, while other researchers are considering the impacts of technology on the sustainable lives of humans.

Design Should be Elevated

Designers must work to help connect the various interdisciplinary makers within a more synergistic and dialogic unity in the ethical context of design for social innovation. Design has an important role as the intelligence, as the brains connecting the heart and hands of society, and in becoming its central nervous system as a core communications infrastructure.

Design should transcend thinking in terms of benefits to human agency and empowerment and well beyond the consumable material goods and services; the projects that pay the bills, the aesthetics that make us feel stylish and even the products of a human-centered material culture.

Design professionals, educators, students and the public need to begin to recognize the post-human power of design in what many educators are calling an assemblage of matter in space and time. We come to the end of an aging modernist paradigm where our emphasis on human function has prompted us to design forms that meet a limited range of perceptual needs and desires.

Such an assumption privileges some human needs over others. Placing function first creates hierarchies where corporations can control individuals, speed outperforms slowness and currency overpowers sustenance. The needs of the perceived users, the perspectives of the designers and the paying clients themselves are traditionally the central actors in the design process.

Design is Autonomous of Technology

However, the principles of quantum computing shows that relationships and outcomes between any actors within a system are non-linear, more than human and are far from predictable, yet are squarely contained within the relationships of place, time and media. The environment itself often has minimal agency.

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An example is the frontier of autonomous driving. Industry assumes that the increased mobility, perceived safety and the general aspects of modern sophistication are inherently positive advances for populations. Yet, there remain many legal, economic, ethical and geographic impacts stemming from the self-driving technologies, such as the extent of an increased carbon footprint.

Design thinking is playing a critical role in crafting new industries within the complexities that exist, contrasted with the classic deterministic model of form follows function. Rather, there are quantum—or unmeasurable—consequences, issues and responsibilities as well as vast unknowns for human potential from which designers can foster new forms of thinking.  

Design can and should be an autonomous modality with its own agency – a space between form and function, serving as the DNA behind both. It’s emerging as the need for intra-disciplinary intelligence, that humans can hopefully keep up with through education, exploration, risk taking in new experiences and - most importantly - slowing down.

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High speed isn’t a conducive character to thoughtful design and observation, despite the current pace of business and technological innovation. Biological evolution emerges naturally and randomly across generations.

Form can be Function

First and foremost, design requires the emphasis on the process of connecting and on constructing new dialogues before making new environments. Sarah Pink, digital ethnographer at RMIT University in Australia, uses film and other media to focus on such dynamics for a collaborative sharing of life in the moment. She uses it as a performance to think deeper about memory, its feedback with the environment and changes in consciousness.

Intra-communicating through multi-media dissolves form and function into one way of being. Functions emerge or are observably activated from these new types of interdisciplinary linkages much like new communities of practice spawn from the Internet of Things.

For intentional designers working in such a paradigm shift, it’s critical to link in newly profound ways to the ecology of nature, the technologies of the cosmos, the past and the unpredictable nature of the future. 

Designers need to simultaneously grasp how to improve and advance the subjects and objects of design tempered with the realization that design exposes humans to unpredictable quantum realities, especially when accelerated by technological discovery. If the future is so complex and unknown and history provides us with a wealth of useful data, design emerges as the emphasis on the multidimensionality of present experience.

Design is that sweet spot, the interface of the now, in the perceived fabric of time. With such intelligence, our past and our futures can converge at the creative moment of design.

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Aaron Kadoch is a practicing educator and architect and currently holds the position of associate professor and department chair in interior architecture. His background and experience is in a diversity of design and art disciplines including painting and photography, graphics and web design, architecture, construction, landscape architecture and urban planning.

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