In 1896, famous architect Louis Sullivan wrote “It is the pervading law, of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the light is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function, this is the law.”
What it means
Consider a current smartphone. There are many variances between different brands. Yet, despite the development in technology over the last years, from the distant 2000s when the first devices achieved popularity, until today, with more than 1, 5 billion devices in use, these devices share a range of characteristics which are all dictated by their function:
- They have a (large) touch screen to operate them.
- They have a front and back camera.
- They have a switch-on/switch-off button and buttons to control sound volume.
- They have a front and back side easily distinguishable.
- They have a microphone at the bottom and a speaker at the top.
- Their size is limited by the fact that they need to fit your hand.
Whatever else the manufacturer has decided to decorate the device increases its appeal with certain sections of the audience but has no impact on its functionality. The form is dictated by the function of the device.
According to Daniel T. Richards, ‘form follows function’ can be interpreted in two ways: As a description of beauty, or as a prescription for good design.
- As a description of beauty, form follows function advocates simplicity over complexity that beauty results from the pureness of function and not from ornamentation.
- As a prescription for good design, form follows function advocates considering functionality above all other design considerations, including usability, ergonomics, and especially aesthetics.
If you take a good look at your wristwatch, or your shoes, you will immediately understand which interpretation the manufacturer adhered to; or which aspect of the design stimulated you to purchase the particular product. This has been an intentional choice on both the manufacturer’s and the consumer’s part.
Enter slideware presentations
A presentation is not what you mean. It is rather what you would like your audience to understand and dream. As a presentation designer, which interpretation of FFF should you follow?
- As a description of beauty, form follows function would indicate that your presentation should pay attention to functionality, not to decoration: unpretentious colours, straightforward shapes, unassuming fonts, and inconspicuous graphics.
- As a prescription for good design, form follows function would suggest that only what makes the presentation effective, functional, purposeful, focused, decisive is allowed.
In both cases the speaker runs the risk of creating something boring, tedious and dreary.
The Principles of Good Design.
There are millions of presenters all using one of the two most common presentation programs available (PowerPoint or Keynote). Like smartphones they display a wide variety of common characteristics:
- Page layout (landscape rather than portrait)
- Elements layout (text and images in portrait format)
- Background (proprietary designs used repeatedly)
- Transitions (used to impress rather than facilitate communication)
- Effects (used to impress rather than stress points)
These characteristics are dictated by hardware specifications (computer and projector). As a result presentations look pretty similar and the software features are often abused with little attention paid to external conditions, such as:
- Lighting (Time of day, Projector)
- Size (Text and Images)
- Quantity (Text and Visuals)
- Quality (Resolution and Framing)
- Colour (Contrast, Visibility and Emphasis)
- Fonts (Legibility and Clarity)
- Distance (Projection from Audience)
Let the FUNCTION of your presentation decide the FORM
There are six basic functions of a presentation: to inform, to entertain, to instruct, to inspire, to motivate, to stimulate. The purpose of a particular presentation can also combine two or more of the functions listed above. In all cases, the form of a presentation should be the brainchild of the author/speaker.
According to Dieter Rams ‘good design’ should include:
- Innovation. There is always a way to do it better. All you need to do is search for it.
- Usefulness. The ability to carry the message with clarity and effectiveness.
- Aesthetics. Make the presentation pleasing and representative of your values.
- Comprehensibility. The function should be readily understood from the form.
- Unobtrusiveness. Avoid decorations that detract from the focus of the presentation.
- Honesty. Show your true colours. When you tell the truth, you do not need to remember what you said.
- Stylish, not fashionable. Fashion impresses but style is memorable.
- Thoroughness. Watch every detail that affects the quality of your work; your audience sure is.
- Environmental considerations. Look out for lighting conditions, room size, and number of participants and make certain they can all see and hear effortlessly.
- Simplicity. Understatement and minimalism are the ultimate sophistication.
To paraphrase Tony Allasandra: ‘In presenting and public speaking as in medicine, prescription before diagnosis is malpractice.’