Form before function

Form before Function: 3 things BB-8 taught me about thinking 'visual-first'

This is part one of two, of a duet of controversial blog posts.

Where it all began

It was a nippy December evening; two designers were ending the day by ogling ‘award winning sites’ and ‘design trends for 2016.’ They came across a particular site. One fell in love with its conceptual nature. “These guys (The agency) had the balls to publish such a website, and the client should have been pretty cool about it too!” he said. The other designer looked un-amazed and emphasized on how unnatural the navigation was. Conceptual for the sake of being conceptual. He thought it wasn’t that good at all.
Queue the age old argument. Form or Function? Which follows what?
Naturally, I threw myself onto Forms’ side; after all, I’m a self-proclaimed illustrator at heart. The debate went on and on, as these discussions normally do. Later that evening, I sat myself down in the thick red chair, popcorn and Kinnie in hand, and watched The Force Awakens.
Yellow text rolled over a starry sky, an imperial destroyer crossed the screen, the camera panned down to the planet Jakku, and a ball-shaped droid whizzed all over the screen. BB-8!
“That’s it!” I told myself. The perfect example of form dictating function lay before my very own eyes!
NOTE! I am by no means implying that we designers should take a superficial approach to every project we work on. Far from it. Very, very, far from it. I just think we need to start closing our eyes a little more, and dream of new, uncharted worlds of our own, rather than clad pre-existing frameworks and design the expected, in the name of function. Taking BB-8’s three body components as a guide to my argument on Form being more important than function.

1. BB-8’s Head – Not just a pretty face.

You can’t argue against BB-8 not being one big cute ball of fun. Whoever designed this droid made sure that the robot looked good, moved good and sounded good. He’s (She’s?) got so much visual personality that you inherently forget that you’re looking at a robot. Coming up with the technology to practically build BB-8 was done after the initial, ‘impossible’ design was produced.
Pretty faces help. Like all great bits of design, be it an LP cover artwork or app on your phone, the first thing that makes you pick up the album or ‘click a button’ is the look of the cover or button itself. We should constantly strive to create a prettier world, and build function around our visual goals.
BB8 gif

2. BB-8’s Body – AKA. The Chicken or the Egg?

It goes without saying that form should co-exist with function, though which part should we tackle first? Many might say function, as it is the backbone of our creations – yet it is imagination that drives innovation. The current BB-8 design was based off an old R2-D2 sketch, back before Star Wars was even a thing. The design was shelved as a result of technical shortcomings 30 years ago; however, the ‘impossible’ form brought about a new technology. We’d have a very different BB-8 had they decided to design ‘Function First’ (if we’d have a BB-8 at all). Form should give rise to function, we’re here to inspire aren’t we?
As Tobias Van Schneider puts it, “Often the secret lies right there, in the beginning that looks a lot like your own beginning of a new project. It’s the phase we can all identify with…”
The first stage is the most crucial stage of any project, that’s where we decide how we’re going to tackle the problem or challenge. Thinking about how it’s going to look and feel, even if it feels impossible, will lead you to discover new approaches to giving life to your ideas.
BB8 gif Star Wars

3. BB-8’s Thumbs Up – Be awesome.

Character is something that dies out when function dictates form; who said that you can’t give character to the most rigid accountancy firm in the world? There’s no doubt that the art and the science of design need to work together, but as thought leaders we need to slowly (but surely) detach ourselves from what we know works. Having R2-D2 return as the primary droid in Star Wars would have left every fan satisfied, though dreaming up and giving life to BB-8 left everyone surprised. And we all love surprises, don’t we?
BB8 gif
We might not always have to re-invent the wheel, but in this droids case, a ball made more sense.

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