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  • Writer's picturecatherine stemper

Rule or Be Ruled

Updated: May 18, 2021

The first rule of design is Form Follows Function. It is the first rule because it defines the purpose of your product. It keeps the designer focused on the purpose of the design, and not getting distracted by the appearance or falling into gimmicks. Understanding this rule is not simple. The simplicity of the rule is deceiving. The first word is Form, and form is often what designers are intrigued by. Form will be the final product, and eagerness to reach the finished product can often betray if not forget the function. Good design is not just form, it is the form that function dictates. When the designer prioritizes function over form, the form achieved will then communicate the function. Use of the product becomes instinctive, user knows how to use it without thinking. Function becomes obvious, easy, understood.

A simple example of form and function not working together is poor signage. A friend of mine makes a product he would rather not have people touching. The product is leather and people love to touch leather. He made signs to communicate that he did not want people touching the objects. But his signs were flawed in the design. The signs say "Please do not touch". The largest word on his signs is "Please". I think he was trying to be polite, but that is where he put form before function. The function of the sign was to prohibit touching, not politeness.

The second rule is Keep It Simple. This rule is much more difficult to obey, but is just as important as the first rule. As an artist and designer, it is very easy to be overly concerned with appearance, and things can get fussy, busy, or precious. Those qualities are problematic to human nature. If something is confusing, difficult, or fragile, why use it? Too much information or choice is just as problematic as too little. There are endless rules, but sticking to these two will help guide one through most any creation process.

Rules are there to help. But I do not always follow rules. I usually do, but I also use my own value system to navigate life, and sometimes I ignore, break, or bend rules to suit me. I believe I am always on the side of equity, but I am human and have an ego, so I am sure my perspective is skewed. Experience changes perspective too. Rules I used to break freely, I obey strictly now. I have suffered consequences. It has taken time to understand the consequences.

Rules are important and are there for reasons one may not understand. Understanding brings new perspectives, knowledge is power. Following rules without knowledge of why the rule exists can be very frustrating, feels demeaning. So why follow rules? Rules are created by people who have experienced something going wrong, and going right. Rules of design help one avoid pitfalls of design that are common but may not be readily understood. Where to begin designing is a vast question. Getting a concept out of one's head into reality is complicated and time consuming. The rules provide shortcuts. The rules guide one to use time to create well and successfully.

Rules also provide boundaries which can spur inspiration to break boundaries and rules. I've written about how limits push creativity. I love that effect of limits. Have you ever considered what can NOT be done with a paper clip? One of my first teachers in design posed that question to the class and had us write a list of what could not be done with a paper clip, every time we thought we figured it out, another would describe a scenario that the paper clip could do the task. The simple paper clip can do so many things!! Our lists were very short, only one or two items, and I cannot even remember what those were. Yes, you can put contacts in with a paper clip. Yes you can use many paper clips to build a vehicle, building, spaceship. How does a rule make you say yes instead of no?

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