Design Classics – It’s All About Function

People have some funny ideas about what makes a good design. Quite often, they will think it is about objects which have a particular aesthetic quality and they give this greater importance in comparison to more prosaic qualities.

This perhaps comes with the way we use the word ‘functional’. When an object is described as being functional, we usually mean that it does the job for which it was intended, but that aesthetics have been sacrificed to achieve this. However, it is worth noting that all the classic designs are above all functional.

In clothing, think of the mini skirt and the little black dress. In the automotive industry, think of the mini and the Routemaster bus. Think of the anglepoise lamp, the London Underground map, the Eames chair and the telephone box. Each of these designs is perfectly geared towards delivering the function intended in the simplest manner possible.

This is the essence of design: having a purpose in mind and providing that in a straightforward manner. These things have become design classics precisely because they are so functional. They simply cannot be improved upon.

Often, this is why we find them so beautiful. The anglepoise lamp is an odd thing really, all joints and moving parts, but it is ideal and visually appealing because of that. Similarly, the Routemaster Bus is a big, bold, sturdy thing, but it does its job so perfectly that it has been used for decades and will continue to be used. How can you improve upon it?

The Mini is a fashion statement, but it is one that arose from serving a particular need. It is not named ‘Mini’ for nothing. This is all about making maximum use of a small amount of space. No square centimetre is wasted and the sum of all these details is a vehicle that has barely aged. Plenty of small cars have been designed since, but they have come and gone, never achieving quite the same perfection of this British classic.

It is all too easy for a designer to over-elaborate. A perfectly decent design can be embellished with unnecessary flourishes and small touches that are meant to make the object in question look more stylish. However, this usually results in the opposite effect, detracting from the plain, simple purity of an item that is perfectly suited to its purpose. In reality, nothing can surpass that, because that is the purpose of design.