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The first in a series of entries on the role and nature of function in Design.


"Evolution" (text by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu, photography by Patrick Gries)is a coffee table book – a big hardcover with beautiful photography. Beyond that though, its striking black & white photographs of animal skeletons are accompanied by descriptions of how these animals lived, how through evolution they were specialized to their environments, how they are optimized to fend off or avoid predators, or conversely to capture prey. And most importantly, how you can tell all of this by looking closely at their skeletons.

Evolution has granted everything about them a purpose. Or at least, so much about these animals can be mapped to their bones - their structure. The range of motion of joints indicates dexterity, the shape and placement of teeth makes aspects of their diet clear.

In the world of product development, it strikes me that the link between function and form is often broken. In some cases, this fact is driven by the limits of what we know how to make easily, time to market and budget. In others it’s driven by a lack of imagination or drive as Designers, manufacturers, services providers, etc. to create something extraordinary. Evolution has no choice but to select the morphology that is most successful in surviving. There is little room for excess.

We are getting better at understanding what needs to happen to develop great products. The product/service development tool kit has expanded greatly in the 20 years that I’ve been paying attention. There is design research to ascertain the needs of the user. There is design narrative to give meaning to products and product interactions. There is design strategy to consider the things we make in broader context. Designers are striving to answer larger questions and calling on a broader set of specialties. These developments are weighted heavily toward the front end. We're doing more and more to understand design problems and mine for opportunities. We must be careful to balance this new understanding with a vocabulary that allows for us to express it.

Perhaps the practice of Design is evolving. Evolution suggests a more basic truth. Function is a beautiful thing.

Too often, function is seen as the thing that gets in the way of design. - a set of constraints that bind the creativity of so many designers. This view only holds if you do not see design as integral to the development process. Likewise, it suggests that design stands on its own unaffected by the other aspects of development.

In the context of Design’s own evolution such a view may set you up for extinction.

What do you think? How do you see Design evolving? And how do you define function in the context of Design?

David-Henry Oliver is an engineer, product design consultant and founder of Cusp. He is focused on creating extraordinary products by introducing dynamic mechanical elements and logic into product components. The result is products with unique motion signatures that create brand awareness and better user interfaces.

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