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Form Follows Function Is the modernist principle form follows function still relevant in contemporary graphic design?

The modernist principle form follows function ultimately derives from Louis Sullivan’s ‘The tall office building artistically considered’ essay, where he discusses the elements that press for true solution and solve a vital problem of the modern office building by altering the way designers see the function of a building, through acknowledging the buildings purpose as well how it is interacted with on a daily basis. If all these factors are considered and addressed, the aesthetics should be a direct result of focusing on the optimum solution to the problem. ‘It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognisable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law’.’(Sullivan, 1896) The principle of form follows function doesn’t mean that ornamentation is forbidden in design, but the form should come from the function of the building, that the design should reflect its purpose. Even though the principle derives from an architects mind, this attitude towards design isn’t subjective; it can be applied across disciplines and was in the early twentieth century during the early stages of modernism within graphic design, when Jan Tschichold documented the movement with accessible guidelines in his 1928 book Die Neue Typographie. The principle form follows function is addressed from a new angle in relation to typography, ‘So too typography is liberated from its present superficial and formalistic shapes, and from its so called “traditional” designs which are long since fossilised.’ (Tschichold, 1928, p 65) Jan Tschichold relates the original ideology to typography and graphic design in conjunction with modernism through suggesting the liberation of traditional, decorative design thus setting the foundation theories for modernism.


Modernism was a response to modernity that saw advancements and innovation in technology with designers seeing it as an opportunity to affect the way we live our lives and an attempt to change the world. Modernism saw early twentieth century designers reject tradition in the search for clarity and function ‘Modernism was an attempt to jettison the confining aspects of history. It replaced the nineteenth century’s deep infatuation with the past with the twentieth-century optimism about the present and the future’ (Kalman, Miller and Jacobs in Heller, 1994, p28). Designers looked to change how people saw and the world, through design, looking forward to the future, utilising the constant innovations in technology and ditching the infatuation with design from the past. These were achieved through embedding certain theories, principles, and ideology into graphic design.


The principles that originally formed Modernism within graphic design stem from theories originally written with architecture in mind that were then adopted and applied to graphic design. There were two main themes or principles that arose for graphic design; the first was form follows function that suggests that form should be a direct result of focusing on the optimum solution to the design problem. The second comes from Adolf Loos 1908 essay ‘Ornament and Crime’. It relies on the rejection of ornament in favour of clean, simple graphic design in the interests of clarity or the function that the design is to perform. Through the rejection of ornament it is thought that design is less likely to quickly go in and out of style because of the lack of decorative objects. Many designers throughout and after the modernist movement interpreted these theories and principles; each had different views what modernism was and reacted differently. With this is mind, does contemporary design simply replicate the aesthetics of modernism, to follow a trend or are the core principles including form follows function still evident today within graphic design?

The series ‘Swissted’ is an on going project by Mike Joyce who applies the ‘Swiss style’ to a series of punk rock gig posters. The Swiss style is credited for adopting and applying the modernist principles and in turn developing their own iconic style that would later be known as The International Style due to its popularity. When observing the Pixies poster (Fig 1) in relation to the modernist principles discussed and if they’re still relevant; the geometric shapes come into question, are the geometric shapes a reflection of the purpose of the poster? Or are they ornamentation? It’s all a matter of opinion, some designers will argue the poster shows that the principles are still relevant due to its style, its simplicity, clean, minimal design which is how form follows function is sometimes perceived. Jeremy Aynsley states ‘Modernism in graphic design can be identified by stylistic simplicity, a fitness of form, a taste for asymmetrical composition and the reduction of elements to a minimum’ (Aynsley in Barnard, 2005, p114). If this is in fact the definition of modernism it ticks all the boxes, but it merely scratches the surface and describes a style, it doesn’t mention the theories in relation to form. Although fig 1 is profoundly modernist in style, it is not concerned with the critique of modern life or the betterment of humanity making it arguable that the poster in question is simply in the style of modernism, taking none of the principles into consideration during the design process. Yes functionality is at the forefront with text conveying the solution clearly and its use of hierarchy to guide the viewers eyes to vital bits of information but there is no justification for the use of the geometric circle pattern that covers the lower half, it serves no purpose and doesn’t relate to the band or gig, therefore it is ornamentation and simply in the style of modernism. ‘Modernism was never a style, but an attitude. This is often misunderstood by those designers who dwell on revivals of the form rather than on the content of Modernism.’ (Vignelli in Heller, 1994, p51) With this in mind the piece of design in question isn’t actually modernism. There is a difference between something that has a modernist aesthetic and a piece of modernist design; it’s easy to replicate the aesthetics, the form of design. But a pure piece of modernist design illustrates an understanding of principles and attitudes, the intent of solving the problem at hand, achieving primary objectives. What follows from this objective rational is the form, reflecting the designs purpose. Milton Glaser echoes this point, further stating that ‘Much of contemporary graphic design is a reiteration of fifties design thinking in terms of its appearance and vocabulary of form.’ (Glaser in Heller, 1994, p44 ) The resurgence in modernist graphic design is simply a replication


of style and aesthetics to essentially fit in with current trends. There has been no consideration in regards to form follows function or any of the other core ideologies that were originally used in relation to the said designs that are being replicated.


What Massimo Vignelli and Milton Glaser are describing is sometimes referred to as jive modernism. The design rejects the core principles, theories or anything that lies below the surface of aesthetics in favour of instant style, recognition and popularity. ‘Modernists used design in an attempt to change the world. Jive Modernism steals the aesthetic of Modernism, minus the content, so the design styles are the focus and the content is abstracted and extracted from the work. Style has become a detachable attribute, a veneer rather than an expression of content. Appropriating out of context, nostalgic imagery is jive because it steals a style that offers instant legitimacy simply for commercial success. Jive Modernism lacks the radical ideas behind Modernism. It cashes in on history without reinterpreting it.’ (Rethinking ‘Modernism’, 2013) This style and theory is more relevant because the poster is in fact cashing in on what is seen as popular for instant style. This is obvious through its’ use of asymmetrical geometric shapes simply for decoration without any actual purpose and adopting all of the features made popular by the Swiss style; minimal, simplicity, Helvetica, left aligned- right ragged, geometric shapes, asymmetry and the apparent use of a grid system. All of these features combined along with the lack of justification as to why the decoration is used indicate it is more of form and function working side by side. The poster as a whole still serves a purpose but it is just as conscious about the aesthetics and form, if not more than it is about function. Modernist design theory and attitudes assumed principles like form follows function would determine the shape and appearance, therefore all a graphic designer would have to do would be to ‘find the optimum design solution to the design problem’ (Walker in Barnard, 2005, p114). If this is true; modernist design should be free of ornamentation and unnecessary decoration, the outcome should be a direct result of the job it was to perform. But who’s to say that these theories that range from 20 years ago, to over a century ago are still relevant today and represent what modernism stands for within contemporary graphic design?

Experimental Jetset who are considered to be one of the leading design studios within contemporary design and modernist ‘style’ have a different outlook on the principle, ‘We never think in the categories of style and substance. We always preferred the notion of “language”; after all, a language is a system that incorporates both style and substance, both form and content. The idea of a language presupposes a sort of embedded ideology, the weight of history, an inherent narrative dimension—all these notions seem to be missing from the word “style.” We see International “Style” more as a language than a style.’ (Experimental Jetset in Printmag, 2011) This suggests that both style (form) and substance (content/function) work together in unison, developing into the notion of a language not a style. Through the consideration of both aspects, the assumption that the form will come as a reflection of its’ function is lost. This could be looked at as the evolution of the original ideology in order to be more relevant to contemporary graphic design, as opposed to considering contemporary design simply as in the style of modernism when related to the original theories. The promotional poster for Playboy Architecture 1953 – 1979 (Fig 2) designed by Experimental Jetset should then adhere to this said language. Fig 2 is a good example as it demonstrates function through the dissected Playboy bunny logo that serves a purpose and meaning that is in turn a reflection of the problem/brief being solved. ‘We tried to deconstruct the iconic bunny logo in such a way that the result resembled an actual piece of spaceage architecture, the eyes of the bunny resembling windows. Thus, the composition becomes a ‘multi-eyed’ entity, referring to some of the sub-themes within the exhibition (voyeurism, exhibitionism, panopticonism).’ (Experimental Jetset in NAiM Playboy arch, 2012) Through analysis of the justification it could be interpreted in two different ways; the function was considered first on how the poster could represent the exhibition with form growing as a response to the function, or how could the function coincide with the appearance and style to reflect the exhibition.


But the initial quote from Experimental Jetset regarding the notion of a language as opposed to a style proves that it is most certainly the latter of the two. The appearance of the poster serves a function due to the concept and considerations throughout the design process. There isn’t anything on this poster serving no purpose; it is an example of everything coming together to ultimately solve the problem at hand. Although function is clearly evident within the poster it doesn’t solely focus on function over form, it’s more of form and function working hand in hand because form is a conveyor of meaning and has been considered in conjunction with function, it still serves a decorative purpose. There are much easier ways to focus on the function of the poster without adding such decoration, further illustrating form and function working together in unison to create the so called notion of a language.


To solely focus on the idea that form follows function and using this principle in relation to distinguish its modernist characteristics in contemporary design would be naïve. ‘Modernism is about progress, the endless frontier, and ceaseless development. Modernism is essentially utopian. Its origins are in the idea of good coming from boundless technology.’ (Glaser in Heller 1995, p44) Looking deeper into the theories of modernism reveals something much more than form follows function; Glaser states modernism is about looking forward and constant progression through utilisation of limitless technological advancements and innovations, therefore the adaptation and evolution of the original core principles is more relevant for contemporary design which is what Experimental Jetset have done in the design process of fig 2.

However it could be argued that the form of the poster is in fact a direct result of the focus on functionality if it was to be analysed in relation to Jan Tschichold’s Die Neue Typographie in which he suggests ‘Both nature and technology teach us that form is not independent, but grows out of function, out of the materials used, and out of how they are used’ (Tschichold, 1928, p 65) Going off what Tschichold has suggested; the dissected Playboy bunny logo would have come as a result of illustrating the purpose of the exhibition and representing the architecture without consideration to the form, to how the finished poster would eventually look. Through wanting to represent the space age architecture with only the Playboy logo (exhibition/function) it could only be possible through manipulation and dissection (form), therefore the form has grown out of the function. To suggest that form follows function is relevant in every single piece of contemporary graphic design would be incorrect ‘I have never been able to subscribe to the idea that any one principle, such as simplicity or reductiveness, can be universally applied to every problem.’ (Glaser in Heller, 1994, p43)This quote by Milton Glaser ultimately suggests a single principle cannot be used for every design because it won’t solve the problem every single time, a range of principles needs to be adopted. It’s not possible to be restricted by a single principle such as form follows function, it cannot be the answer to every single design issue therefore flexibility is needed. When looking to see if form follows function is still relevant in contemporary design there is apparent evidence in both examples of design used that function plays a part, but it’s to what extent that role has been considered in conjunction with form. The original ideology of form follows function doesn’t seem to be apparent in either of the examples shown, it is a more refined ideology more relevant to this day and age, a language that incorporates both form and function. The function is still clear and obvious but the aesthetics are also considered alongside function because form is a conveyor of meaning. The result is form and function working simultaneously alongside each other, synergising.


Other designers’ look back on modernism as a style, something that had a popular aesthetic adopted internationally, they are using this style without any concern to form in relation to function. The only concern is form, to create something in the ‘style of’ to gain success and popularity. In this situation form follows function is not relevant but gives the illusion that form is a result of function because we’re so used to associating that aesthetic with the principle until further and deeper analysis is undertaken into whether or not it serves a purpose or function in relation to its form.


Modernism was seen a reaction to innovations and the constant look forward towards the future, to use the principle form follows function would be to look back to history as opposed to reacting to the change in front of us. Therefore as a principle today form follows function would seem void due to different needs/demands from users than when the principle was originally considered over a century ago because the world has changed so much compared to when they were first considered. Form follows function is not relevant today for this reason but more up-to-date equivalents are being exercised such as the Experimental Jetest theory, each designer or design studio will have their own opinions and theories on the extent of its relevancy and the application through design.

Fig 1 Pixies, Swissted Mike Joyce

Fig 2 NAiM Playboy Arch Experimental Jetset

‘The tall office building artistically reconsidered’, (2012) http://www.scribd. com/doc/104764188/Louis-Sullivan-The-Tall-Office-Building-ArtisticallyConsidered (accessed at 11th January 2014) Tschichold.J (1995) ‘The New Typography’, Berkley, The University of California Press LTD Bierut.M, Drenttel.W, Heller.S and Holland.DK (1994) ‘Looking Closer Critical Writings on Graphic Design’, New York, Allworth Press Barnard.M (2005) ‘Graphic Design as Communication’, London, Routledge ‘Critical Currents in Contemporary Design: Re-thinking Modernism’, (2013) at (accessed 4th February 2014) Autoreply: Modernism (2011) (accessed 2nd February 2014) Experimental Jetset, NAiM playboy arch (2012) http://www.experimentaljetset. nl/archive/naim-archi-playboy (accessed 29th January 2014) Fig 1- Swissted (n.d) (accessed 29th January) Fig 2- Experiment Jetset, Playboy Archive 1953-1979 http://www. (accessed 29th January)

By Harrison Park

Essay book print  
Essay book print