Form, Function and Your Car

Posted in August 13th, 2012
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Form and function are two aspects of automobile design that always seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. While they sometimes blend to create a beautiful and functional automobile, car designers generally have to choose one over the other. Most designers subscribe to the theory that ‘form follows function’. This essentially means that the function of the automobile is first established, and then the form that it will take is designed. Architect Louis Sullivan initially coined the phrase ‘form ever follows function’ in his 1896 article The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered. Below is the passage that created this school of thought:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.

While Sullivan was an architect, designers have adopted this quote across all fields—including automobile design. While in nature, function is the driving force behind form. The laws of nature do not bind automobile designers. They can, and have, chosen form over function. What is the truth about form, function and your car?

What are Form and Function?

Form can also be described as style, an aesthetically pleasing design, or simply the physical shape that the automobile takes. The forms automobiles assume have evolved over the years as new technology allowed for more intricate design. A study released by the University of Colorado at Boulder states that many engineers attempt to mimic the form of animals, such as birds and fish, to help them create functional form.

Function is quite simply how well the car operates. Its MPG rating, amount of horsepower and ease of overall use can measure a car’s functionality. According to the University of Colorado at Boulder, modern engineers are primarily focused on maximizing energy efficiency and are attempting to design cars that require less energy to operate.

The marketplace, however, must be willing to accept the form that car manufacturers create. An example of an episode where a functional form was not well received by consumers happened in 1935 with the introduction of the Chrysler Airflow. Its form followed its function, which was to reduce air resistance and allow it to be more fuel-efficient and reach higher speeds. However, the marketplace at the time was not ready for an aerodynamic design. GM decided to do further market research, which led to their future models slowly incorporating aerodynamic principles—instead of stark, dramatic leaps.

Thanks to modern technology and consumer interest, there is a massive availability for aftermarket parts and accessories. If you purchase a car that focuses on form, you can purchase parts to increase its functionality. Conversely, you can make a functional car more aesthetically pleasing.

Is Form Ever Superior?

More and more, form is becoming paramount to function. Automobile design is primarily focused on one thing: creating a car that people will buy. For the past few years, consumers have begun to choose form over function. While many consumers are more concerned with a high MPG rating, the majority of consumers prefer a visually pleasing automobile.

A research paper from Ravi Chitturi, of Lehigh University, illustrates this emerging trend. Chitturi had several focus groups decide between a highly attractive cell-phone that had limited functionality and an unattractive cell-phone that was dramatically more functional. Consumers primarily chose the attractive cell phone. However, they felt guilty about choosing an attractive phone over a more functional phone. Conversely, those who chose the functional phone were confident in their decision but sad about losing the opportunity to own a more attractive phone. This study illustrates that consumers place more emphasis on owning an aesthetically pleasing product compared to a more functional, less attractive product.

How Does this Affect Your Car?

Car manufacturers and designers conduct thorough market research before they design a new automobile. Research presently shows that the ideal car for most consumers is primarily aesthetically pleasing (form) and secondarily fuel-efficient (function). This means your current car may have been designed with functioning following form, contrary to the late architect Louis Sullivan’s theory.

About the Author:
James Schlep is on his third marriage, because his wives can never seem to understand why he’d rather spend the night cuddling with a 454 big block than them.