Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Form Doesn’t Follow Function?

Comments on Form Following Function ...

"In The Evolution of Useful Things, Henry Petroski challenges the old popular design adage “form follows function”. Using the example of knives and forks vs. chopsticks, Petroski shows how the development of eating tools were just as much the result of cultural and social issues as about the task they are assigned to do. Investigating how Eastern and Western cultures have evolved completely different designs that do essentially the same task (conveying food to mouth), Petroski asserts that the difference between chopsticks and knives and forks is a crucial one.

“Putting implements such as the common knife and fork and chopsticks into an evolutionary perspective, tentative as it necessarily must be, gives a new slant to the concept of their design, for they do not spring fully-formed from the mind of some maker but, rather, become shaped and reshaped through the (principally negative) experiences of their users within the social, cultural, and technological contexts in which they are embedded. The formal evolution of artifacts in turn has profound influences on how we use them.

Imagining how the form of things as seemingly simple as eating utensils might have evolved demonstrates the inadequacy of a “form follows function” argument to serve as a guiding principle for understanding how artifacts have come to look the way they do. Reflecting on how the form of the knife and fork has developed, let alone how vastly divergent are the ways in which Eastern and Western cultures have solved the identical design problem of conveying food to mouth, really demolishes any overly deterministic argument, for clearly there is no unique solution to the elementary problem of eating.”

It is interesting to see how the systems of eating have emerged. Petroski points out that because of the way chopsticks work, meat is cut before cooking in Eastern cuisine (although it is hard to tell which came first). In Western cuisine, where you often have access to a sharp knife (if the table knife doesn’t suffice), the meat is rarely cut before it reaches the table. Similarly, the knife that is on the table has a blunt edge and no point, thus becoming a much different instrument than the steak, or chef’s knife which in finer restaurants is brought out when you order a meat dish. Eastern chefs, however, still have that pointed sharp knife…but it never leaves the kitchen."    (Continued via Bokardo)    [Usability Resources]

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