Form does not follow function

It was a sultry October noon and we were climbing up the Ajanta caves. Definitely don’t recommend that you visit in October. Anyways, my brother, drained out from the heat and hunger, exclaimed- “Why did they bother making such fancy carvings and paintings for monks to just sit and meditate?”

I didn’t have an answer. Maybe he was right. Why make something beautiful at all?

In retrospect however, the more I reflected on this, the more I realised that his question not only applied to ancient architecture; but to absolutely any creative domain. And in particular, that of digital product design.

I recall one of the very first things we were taught in design school – “form follows function.” Over the course of 4 years, this had been so drilled into my head that I believed it to be the ultimate truth. Until one day, while I was using a really beautiful app (Headspace, if I remember correctly), I got totally hooked. That’s when I first felt that maybe, this argument isn’t entirely right after all.

I realised, form does not follow function. Form is a function. And a pretty important one.

Before we move ahead, let me clarify that a product must work, or ‘function’ as expected, else it would cease to even exist. However, the fact is that mere functionality in today’s day and age doesn’t quite make the cut.

So, why is it important to make beautiful products? How does it matter to the users and the business? Is it even possible to design something objectively ‘beautiful’?

Interestingly, the answers to many of these burning questions lies in our evolution as a species.

Over the ages, creating art and craft has been an integral part of our history. From the early humans who painted vivid scenes on cave walls, to the ancient sculptors who built magnificent temples and mosques, to more recent marvels like the Opera House and Louvre, we humans have always expressed the innate urge to interpret and beautify the world around us.

Renowned researchers have discovered that experiencing beauty triggers a sense of satisfaction in the brain, whether it’s from admiring a stunning sunset or a captivating face. It is like nature’s inbuilt reward system. As a species, we are hard-wired to appreciate beauty.

This leads us to the question, what is beauty? The famous saying goes, ‘beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’, but is that entirely true? Well, neuroscience says otherwise.

Wondering how? Let’s do a quick test!

Both the websites below let you book train tickets. Which one do you think makes your booking process easier?

Did you pick the second one? Awesome! This however, wasn’t really a voluntary choice of yours. It was your brain’s defaults kicking in. Let me explain.

Experts have observed similar patterns across people’s brain activities, while analysing revered works of music, art, and architecture, which has helped them find common factors that we associate with ‘beauty’. While our perceptions of beauty may vary, there are a few neurological attributes underlying our appreciation of aesthetic experiences. Interestingly, all of them can be observed in nature too!

Here are five of those attributes:

1. Simplicity: Minimalistic and simple layouts evoke a sense of elegance and ease, making them universally appealing and easy on the eyes.

2. Rhythm: Repetitive elements create visual interest and coherence, guiding the viewer’s attention and enhancing overall harmony in the composition.

3. Symmetry: Balanced proportions and mirrored forms instil a sense of order and stability, resonating with our innate preference for harmony and equilibrium.

4. Contrast: Strategic contrast enhances visual appeal and emphasises hierarchy by highlighting differences in elements like size, colour or texture.

5. Ratios and Geometries: The usage of geometric shapes and mathematical principles such as the golden ratio can create a sense of proportion and balance, appealing to our sense of order.

Now that we know what objectively makes something beautiful, you might wonder why it matters in digital product design. Good news! We have plenty of research to support this.

A case for making beautiful products

The Rule of First Impressions

Did you know that a user takes a mere 0.05 seconds to form a decisive opinion about a product? Just like in face-to-face encounters, first impressions in the digital space are crucial.

This is where a visually striking product can create a powerful, positive first impression, drawing users in and encouraging them to explore further.

Wait, there is more science to this!

The Halo Effect

The Halo Effect, a cognitive bias, leads individuals to perceive beauty as an indication of other positive qualities, such as intelligence and trustworthiness. In the context of digital products, users associate a visually polished interface with high quality and professionalism, fostering trust and credibility. And so, a well-designed app not only enhances brand perception but also positively impacts brand loyalty and reputation in the long run.

Capitalising on the Halo Effect, beautifully designed products also may justify premium pricing or additional monetization strategies. This ultimately enhances profitability and market positioning.

The Aesthetic Usability Effect

In a popular study initiated by the Hitachi Design Center in 1995, researchers Masaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura examined several variations of an ATM interface, involving 250+ participants who rated each design on usability and aesthetic appeal. Their analysis unveiled a strong relation between aesthetic appeal and perceived ease of use, surpassing the correlation between aesthetics and actual ease of use.

This interesting phenomenon is known as the Aesthetic Usability effect, which states that when a product looks good, it gives us the feeling that it functions better. The best part? Users tend to be more forgiving of small usability problems if the design is appealing!

Furthermore, design has the incredible power to foster emotional connection and engagement, which can transform digital products profoundly. When users feel a strong connection with the story of a product, it boosts loyalty while encouraging continued usage.

This emotional connection inspires users to share their positive experiences, driving organic growth and differentiation in competitive markets.This allows brands to forge lasting relationships with users and thrive in the long term. What more does a brand need? 🙂

Embracing beauty – a welcome change

We may sometimes tend to underestimate the power of a visually captivating interface. However, I hope that by now, you are convinced otherwise.

By leveraging design principles, using clean layouts, picking thoughtful colours and typography, motion design and micro-interactions, we can ensure that any interface seamlessly guides users and enhances their experience by leaps and bounds.

Unfortunately, with the rise of industrialisation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, creating ‘beautiful’ products started to be viewed as an excessive step. Even today, it largely remains something that design teams would do if they had more time or a higher budget.

However, if the great designers and architects of the past believed the same, we wouldn’t have a Taj Mahal or a Colosseum to marvel at today. Sure, the Taj Mahal served its basic ‘function’ of being a queen’s tomb, but the passion and creativity poured into creating something so timeless is the reason we regard it a ‘wonder of the world’ today.

The ‘Taj’, if it had just been a functional tomb, vs. the marvel that it really is.

I believe that we’ve got a big role in making experiences (digital or otherwise) valuable and memorable for users. In a crowded, cut-throat marketplace where numerous products vie for attention, beautiful design can truly serve as the key differentiator.

By challenging the status quo and striving for craft in what we design, we can open up endless opportunities to enrich the lives of users and ultimately, businesses. Let’s keep pushing boundaries, infusing our work with passion, and shaping the way people interact with the things we make.

The world is more than ready for the beautiful products we are gonna put out there!



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