Just a formality

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Workbook

Form follows function: an inspiration for designers and makers of all kinds.

You see it surface in other ways, twisting a little, showing a different face: Separate content and presentation; Radical functionalism; Let people’s needs determine the shape of the thing, not the other way around.

But form follows function is an ideal, not a fact. 

It appeared as a counter to formal constriction, not as a natural law. Because while function is the why, forms do dictate what can go in them. Forms that are given to us determine some of the ways we create, determine the edges, the shape, the possibilities. 

You write your text messages differently to your emails. You sit straighter at a wedding ceremony than you do on your sofa. You make different things with a saw than you do with a hammer.

Or: The pop song is three minutes long. The novel is a book of fiction containing, very roughly, 75,000 words. An American sitcom season is 22 episodes, each running 21 minutes. 

Formal constraints can be constricting, limiting. They can shrink our horizons, turn us all into hammers. 

Form doesn’t emerge from a void. And formats don’t always catch on. 

Sometimes this is technical: the creation is too time-consuming or expensive or complicated to be worth the effort. Sometimes it’s commercial: the Hiway disc, invented in the 1950s at Columbia Records, was smaller than a 45 and could contain as much music as an LP, but was sold as a record you could play in your car, which it turned out nobody wanted. 

Sometimes it’s a little of both: Sony’s Betamax was technically better than JVC’s open standard VHS, but it could only handle an hour or so of video. Greater capacity and higher availability beat higher fidelity, and Betamax lost.

When formats catch on, it’s a push and pull between what already exists and what comes next. The form shapes the function. 

The pop song is three minutes long because the technology of music distribution created limits; only around three and a half minutes of recorded sound could fit on one side of a 45. But if we had only listened to four-hour long operatic epics, would that have worked? Would people have so readily bought singles? 

In his book How Music Works, David Byrne says the technology tessellated with formats that people already knew—short blues songs, for example—and eased their path. Just as VHS tapes could contain movies more easily than its rivals, 45s were more readily adopted because they already fit at least some people’s musical tastes.

Theodore Adorno said that music was debased by the three minute pop song, that our attention spans were being killed by “atomized listening.” It’s true that form preceding function means that our horizons change. 

But formal constraints—like forms themselves—are not impermeable or unchangeable. They shift with time, with taste, with technology.

Movies, no longer constrained by the needs of VHS, are getting longer. Streaming media has largely liberated us from the episode length or season limitations. And when I listen to the music of Billie Eilish or the XX, I hear an intimate experience that seems directly related to the constraints and context of earbuds.

I like discovering the platonic ideal of a particular format, or the bracing feeling of seeing somebody push a familiar concept over new edges.

And yes, don’t let the format get in the way. But also don’t reject the benefits that form can bring. Remember that, just as with all rules, form follows function… except when it doesn’t.

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