Does Form Really Follow Function?

Could form follow failure instead?

In his book The Evolution of Useful Things, Henry Petroski challenges the widely-held notion that “form follows function”. Using the example of knives and forks vs. chopsticks, Petroski shows how the development of eating tools was as much the result of cultural and social issues as about the task itself. 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 is crucial.

“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 technology of eating has emerged. Petroski points out that because of the way chopsticks work, meat is cut before cooking in Eastern cuisine. In Western cuisine, where you often have access to a sharp knife (if the table knife doesn’t suffice), the meat is cut after it reaches the table. Similarly, the initial knife on the table has a blunt edge and no point…a much different tool 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. In addition, in many parts of Asia (such as India) many people don’t use utensils at all.

Petroski says that most designs are culture specific, meaning that they are not direct results of solving a particular task, but result from more complicated cultural issues. He says: “the evolution of artifacts in turn has profound influence on manners and social discourse”. So not only do designs result from social influences, but they influence socially as well.

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Published: April 4th, 2007

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