Who Needs It?

Form follows function is a principle associated with modern architecture and industrial design in the 20th century. The principle is that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based on its intended function or purpose.

It is a principle that Yvon Chouinard has instilled into the clothing design philosophy at Patagonia. He believes the function of an object should determine its design and materials. More explicitly, he believes that function must dictate form. In the fashion business, design often begins with the fabric, and then a use is thought up for it. At Patagonia, the fabric of often the last item to be chosen for their clothing. This excerpt from Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing encompasses Patagonia’s design philosophy.

Designing from the foundation of filling a functional need focuses the design process and ultimately makes for a superior finished product. Without a serious functional demand we can end up with a product that, although it may look great, is difficult to rationalize as being in our line – i.e., “Who needs it?”

This question is a simple sophistication relevant to all marketers. Especially those of us who aspire to influence the creation and design of digital experiences that stand out. “Who needs it?” is the first question we should be able to answer. Yet, many brands continue to be distracted by shiny objects that look great. Don’t get me wrong, design is important. Form is a critical element to making function understandable. However, it shouldn’t be the determining factor in how we move forward. Rather, how we move forward should be based on whether or not we’re filling a functional or emotional need.

Imagine you’ve come up with an idea. And the first way you’re able to express the idea is by designing a logo for it. Say it’s a digital community or a movement you want to create. You share your logo with marketers and they fall in love with it. The way it looks. In other words, you have the fabric, but you don’t have a use for it yet. Without first answering the question of “Who needs it?” you find yourself in a position of having to reverse engineer how your idea fills a functional or emotional need.

When in doubt, let function dictate form. At the very least, you’ll have created something that people value because it’s useful. If it’s remarkably useful, that might be all you need. craigslist is a perfect example of what I mean by this. They offer a functional solution to people who need to connect locally to exchange of goods and services. Craig Newmark simply describes their purpose as “trying to help each other out.” With more than 60 million users and 50 million pageviews per month, it’s evident craigslist is delivering on this purpose. They've answered the question, “Who needs it?”