Form vs. Function? How About Form AND Function…

An image displaying a thin smart remote with the word Pretty above it, and conventional Samsung remote with the word Useful above it.

I had an interesting conversation with a former co-worker last year. A front-end developer. Nice kid. Matt posited that his work as a developer should be considered “art.” He didn’t particularly like being labeled an “engineer.” His argument was that he was as passionate about writing code as any painter is about a canvas, as any sculptor is about a bust or as any graphic artist is about a layout. His code, he contended, was a reflection of him, every bit as much as the “Mona Lisa” was a reflection of da Vinci.

I disagreed.

Not doubting his passion, my contention was that true “art” exists for no other purpose than to be art, and the work he does as a developer, writing code that powers the websites and mobile apps we build, exists as something more than just art. His work – while potentially beautiful and certainly a reflection of the developer involved – exists to serve a purpose. It exists to DO something. Not just BE. I contended – and still do – that Matt is without a doubt a craftsman, but not an artist.

We debated back and forth over a period of weeks, each of us conjuring examples to prove the other wrong. Two weeks after he turned in his notice, on his very last day at Click Here Labs…the debate continued, and we had no choice but to leave it unresolved as Matt was moving to Atlanta. We’ve stayed in touch the past year with a periodic email or lunch when Matt happened to be in Dallas, and, of course, the distance has done nothing to squelch the debate.

Then, a few weeks ago, we had a breakthrough. Matt sent me a link to a blog article that obviously did a better job of stating my position than I ever did because Matt finally conceded, ever so slightly. In this post, the author – Austin Knight – makes the argument that art and design are two different things, and to expect a designer to produce art or an artist to produce a design is unrealistic. He doesn’t say that one or the other is incapable of producing either, but that they are two different disciplines, and I couldn’t agree more. Knight clearly articulated my position: what Matt does as a developer is design; what Steven Spielberg does as a film director is art. “The purpose and value of art is fully contained within the art itself…Design is about use. Its value is dependent on external factors, namely the purpose that it serves and the user that it serves that purpose for.”

Having spent the past 16 years in advertising, I think we sometimes lose sight of this. We get so caught up in the beauty of our designs, we lose sight of what purpose they are supposed to serve, what user problem they are supposed to solve. A TV spot can tell a story and/or elicit an emotional response, but if it doesn’t direct the viewer to take action or, at the very least, connect the viewer positively with the brand, it has failed to serve its purpose. The same can be said of a print ad, an online banner, a website or a social media campaign. None of it exists for the sake of itself.

That’s why I don’t get the hesitance traditional advertisers have with the digital revolution. What I’ve heard over the years in some form or another is that traditionalists consider themselves to be “artists,” while we nerdy digital people are “engineers,” and the two just don’t “get” each other. It’s form vs. function. But, really…is it?

We’re all designers, aren’t we? Why can’t it be form AND function. Why can’t we have a beautiful aesthetic that functions beautifully? Shouldn’t that be the goal? I believe it’s the best way to achieve “good work.” And, I think, that’s a position with which even Matt would agree.


NPM as a Build Tool