Form Follows Function

“The Crooked House” at Sopot, Poland.

When I pressed a client recently to provide me with the content for her new website, she confessed to having trouble producing it. “Why don’t you show me some designs,” she asked, “and maybe that will help me write the content.” Alarms sounded in my head. Imagine this scenario. You hire an architect to design you a building. In your initial meeting she asks you a simple question: “What will be going inside the building“? You reply, “I don’t know yet but if you show me some designs I’m sure I’ll think of something.” Ridiculous right? It made me think.

Does “Form Follows Function” Apply to Web Design?

In a well researched and highly engaging article by Steven Bradley, Smashing Magazine tackles the question. And as it turns out, the answer isn’t black and white. The term was first coined by American architect Louis Sullivan in an 1896 article. He wrote:

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, 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.”

Ironically, it was Sullivan’s most gifted student, Frank Lloyd Wright, who adapted the axiom to changing technologies in the field of architecture:


Bradley’s study reveals many instances in which form does not follow function… in nature for example. Says Bradley, “evolution passes on genetic traits to subsequent generations without any rationale for their purpose. Each generation of a species then finds a use for the form it has inherited. Function follows form in nature“.

Fair enough.

Content First, Design Second

The form follows function axiom is simply too broad and high minded to apply in any meaningful way to the relationship between a website’s design and its content – that is to say content as distinct from functionality. In my practice, content first, design second is a rule of thumb that makes more sense and has more practical applications. Simply put, a website’s content should inform its design, not the other way around. Jeffrey Zeldman, one of the leading minds in web standards in the last twenty five years puts it this way:

Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.

What Are You Trying to Say and Who Are You Saying it To?

So what about my client who asked me to show her some designs before she could write the content? My advice to her was this. Think about what you are trying to say and who you are saying it to. Then put it all down on paper without thinking about color, layout, proximity, or any other elements of look and feel. That way you will ensure that your content is not being influenced by design. Then let’s review it together. We’ll talk about ways to ensure that your message is being read – things like bullet lists, text boxes, call-to-action elements, use of color and shape. Yes, it’s possible to start the process with a beautiful design then try to make the content fit. But like the building pictured above, it will eventually cave in on itself.

Now Back to You

When you built your website, assuming you have one, how did the process go? Did you produce the content first or was it the other way around? If you worked with a web design firm, how did they approach the process? I’d love to hear from you.

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