MAKE Asks: Form and Function

MAKE Asks: is a weekly column where we ask you, our readers, for responses to maker-related questions. We hope the column sparks interesting conversation and is a way for us to get to know more about each other.

This week’s question: When you’re completing a project, are you more concerned with how your creation works, or are visual aesthetics an important factor in how you work?

Most of my projects were purely made for function until I took a sculpture course in the Fine Arts department at NYU. I learned that presentation and context were important in how the user engaged with the piece, and have adjusted my style since then.

Post your responses in the comments section.

30 thoughts on “MAKE Asks: Form and Function

  1. Most of my projects focus on form. For my Altair 8800 mini-PC (, form was whole point of it. Same with my wood-encased logic probe ( My LED RSS feed ( was deliberately made to look geeky.

    I’m not really capable of making something that functions better than what I can buy. So there either needs to be some unique feature I want that I can not buy (which is rare), or I want it to look special.

  2. My stuff tends to be uglier than homemade sin. Usually this happens because I design and revise as I go. I always say ‘the next version will look better’, but by then I’m on to the next thing and the first one works, warts and all, so who cares?

  3. I think in general, if you’re going to go to the effort of making something, it’s worthwhile to put some time into making it beautiful.

  4. I cringe every time I see a design student’s senior project and see how little effort goes into making the product functional. Renderings are great, but nothing beats a working prototype.

  5. “Beauty is it’s own reason for being.” but if it is also functional, it better work!
    Too many items look good but do NOT hold up.

  6. I find that function and form are equally important for me. I always strive for simplicity in form, and form is determined by function. If I tried to separate the two, I don’t think I could work as well or as efficiently. I often see good ideas hampered by poor design and rendered less functional as a result. Since I come from a craft and design background, I have difficultly accepting that ‘fast and ugly’ is a good way to design and work. Just as I find beauty for it’s own sake rarely produces a durable product that meets the needs of the design.

  7. I almost exclusively aim for form when I build something.

    To be fair, I tend to find elegant and working designs to be asthetically pleasing. I’ve just found that things that look high quality tend to work better and longer than things that look like trash.

  8. Most of my projects have a specific intended function, such as to sample radio signals or to test parts, so form follows function. And nice cases are expensive – I don’t have any easy way to make cases, and I don’t want to spend the time making something nice when I need to spend my time using what I just built! Most of my projects have ended up in Altoids tins, and my next one is in a recycled butter container.

  9. I would say that, while I create the function first, I create with form in mind, and, once the function is done, tested, and finished, I will then, maybe, port it over to a form factor, adding decorations and stuff… then again, sometimes I wont. Depends if I have the stuff around, the time to do it, the inclination.

  10. When I start a project, I have a pre-conceived idea of the finished product’s over-all size and shape and the environmental requirements regarding the final design. Such as: Purchased plastic housing/custom-molded plastics/re-purposed enclosure? Does it need to be waterproof? Does it need ventilation or special cooling? Does it need to be ultra-rugged? Does it need to function for a couple years or a couple weeks? The list goes on…but that list is just a list…be it on paper or in my head…

    The first prototypes rarely looks anything remotely like the finished product. I may test one section of the project at a time simply to prove the concept… Then I go back to package design using the data I learned from the prototyping. At this point, it’s all about the looks while maintaining functionality.

    So I guess I am a “form after tested function”…

  11. I don’t see much point in creating a project if it doesn’t have an aesthetic form. Creations are a reflection of the person who created it. Function void of form just make the person who created it look lazy or lacking in creativity. If you have the skills to make something work, you have the skills to make it look good. This applies to writing code, building circuits, or constructing objects. If you don’t already, I would encourage you to take the time to make something you can be proud of.

  12. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the form IS the function. Until you have figured out /how/ people will use it, and designed an interface for that use that is both efficient and easy to learn, you can’t know what all functions should be included.

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In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens' educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

View more articles by Michael Colombo