Form, Function, and Balance

A variety of domains deal with a match-up between form (structure, design) and function (meaning, content, purpose).  In each case, the point of form, it seems, is to serve function.  But in each domain there are things that mitigate the match between form and function.  These things turn out not to be “bugs” but “features.”  They turn out to be essential to the domain's very nature.


In the domain of language, syntax (the “rules” of grammar) is form and meaning is function.  So, for example, nouns are formal classes of words that name things and verbs are formal classes of words that name actions. 

In the domain of language, the match between syntax (form) and meaning (function) is mitigated by the fact that language is used in time by people in different cultures.  These people can and do sometimes “ruin” a simple match between form and function.  They do so in order to get language to communicate a lot more than just straightforward literal meanings.  For example, in an “ideal language” verbs name actions and nouns name things.  However, in English and many other languages, even though punching is an action and we have the verb “to punch”, we can also say “He took three hard punches to the chin” where “punch” is a noun and we treat a punch as a countable thing.  Treating an action (punching) like a thing (a punch), so we can count them, is a type of purposeful metaphor. We do this with a great many verbs in English. But now the relationship between form and function has been complexified.  The world has no such “thing” as a punch (since punching is always an action), but language does. 

The deep reason this happens is that language as a functioning social communicative device has to be both clear and efficient.  However, efficiency requires speed and clarity requires slowing down, so language users have to find, in different contexts, the best balance between efficiency (speed) and clarity (deliberateness). 


In the domain of evolution, morphology (the physical parts and shapes of animals and plants) is form and survival (and the activities that survival requires) is function.  So, for example, hearts are structures that act like pumps to allow us to breathe, move, and remain alive. 

In the domain of evolution, the match between morphology and survival is mitigated by the fact that evolution happens across time.  The adaptation of plants and animals can go awry when the environment changes.  The processes of evolution cannot just scrap the animal or plant altogether and start anew to get a good match between form and function.  Evolutionary processes must build on what is already there and, thus, must gerrymander the best solution given a non-ideal starting place.  For example, Pandas evolved from (Panda like) creatures who did not eat bamboo and did not have an opposable thumb adequate to hold on to bamboo.  However their available food sources changed as their environment changed and they had to eat bamboo.  Over time they evolved a “good enough” opposable thumb, but not a perfect form for that function, because evolution had to work with the hand and fingers that had already evolved.

The deeper reason this happens is that in evolution there has to be a balance between continuity and change.  Pandas have to stay Pandas over the long haul and change only gradually into something else that is still in Panda lineage (legacy). 


In the domain of literature, the style of a work is the structure that allows the author to convey images, themes, and meanings (the content of a work of literature).   So, for example, Henry James’s long and subtly constructed sentences (form) are meant to enact the inner voice of a hyper-aware omniscient narrator (function). 

In the domain of literature, the match between style (the linguistic architecture of the work) and theme is mitigated by the fact that in literature style has a need to partially take on a life of its own.  This is so because literature as art seeks to render language momentarily opaque.  In everyday life we tend to pay very little attention to how things are said and pay attention only to what is said.  Literature slows this process down and asks readers to pay attention to how things are said and to how being said one way (and not another) can come to mean this and not that.  Literature renders language (which we usually look right through like a window) “thick” (visible in its own right). 

However, when style becomes a goal in and of itself—as it must if we are to render language opaque—it risks becoming unmoored altogether from image, theme, and meaning.  So writers must find, in different contexts and for different purposes, a good balance between momentary opacity and permanent opacity; between too thick and too thin; between opacity and transparency; between shadows that enhance the light of meaning and darkness that eclipses it. 

Video Games

In the domain of video games,  game mechanics (the moves players can make with buttons and controllers, the ways they can interact with the virtual environment) is structure and play is function (and in games, play is a form of problem solving).  So, for example, in the Thief games, mechanics for slow and silent moving, crouching, melding into shadows, and distracting on-lookers are used by players to  carry out functions like hiding, stealing, and accomplishing stealth-based missions.

In the domain of video games, the match between game mechanics and play is mitigated by the fact that humans seek to “optimize” and customize games in their favor.  They seek ways to make things easier, to win more often, and to do things their way.  Many of these things are called “cheating” in gamer culture, but, in the right conditions, they are seen not as bad but as the fulfillment of the human desire to innovate.  For example, in the game The Sims ( a game where players simulate and build families and communities—the bestselling video game in history) players have long found a “cheat code” that gives themselves unlimited money, thereby mitigating all the game mechanics that are meant to get the player to go to work and struggle to survive.  This allows the players to play the game “their way” (concentrating on designing houses and environments) and, in a sense, design their own game and, thus, too, their own sort of form-function fit. 

At its best, such optimizing can lead to emergent behaviors in games where players discover things that even the game designers did not know could happen.  However, taken too far, such optimization can ruin the game or at least the point of the game as its designers see it.  Game designers know they are in a constant battle to enable optimization (a form of customization) but not let it go so far as to ruin the game play, even for the player.  Players, too, must find a point where optimization does not ruin their play (e.g., by making problem solving too easy).  Game designers, and players in turn, must balance freedom and constraint; rule breaking and rule following; optimizing and compromising; customizing (to self) and collaborating (with others and with conventions). 


In the domain of architecture, designed physical structures are form and how they allow humans to engage in purposeful activities is function.  So, for example, a corridor is a structure that guides people in a narrow channel from one larger place to another.

Architecture faces a problem similar to literature.  Here, too, the match between structure (buildings and the design of space) and function (human activities) is mitigated by the fact that designed structure (materialized style) also has a tendency to take on a life if its own.  Architecture, too, often seeks to render structure temporally opaque.  In everyday life we tend to pay little attention to how buildings and spaces are designed and pay attention only to what we need to do in the buildings and spaces we traverse.  Architecture as art slows this process down and asks us to pay attention to how things are designed in and of themselves.  It, too, renders opaque what is very often transparent (looked through and ignored).  But, here, too, when design becomes a goal in and of itself it risks becoming so unmoored from function as to become self-indulgence, a personality cult rather than an objective universal.

 Architecture is unique in this list, since it shares important features not just with literature, but with all these other domains. 

Like language, architecture must balance clarity of meaning (purpose) and efficiency of acting and moving on.  People must know clearly what to do in a building, but must be able to do it efficiently with their own improvisations, short-cuts, changes, and metaphors.

Like evolution, architecture must balance continuity and change.  A building must stay the same while slowly changing.  It must through time be able to adapt to change, create a legacy, and even a lineage.

Like literature, architecture must balance opacity and transparency.  People need to slow down and appreciate form so that they can imagine the full depth and range of functions, themes, and desires their designed environments afford.  But they do not need to lose meaning and purpose in the ludic play of signifiers, rather they need to find deeper versions of meaning and purpose in a reflective meditation on form and its relations to “meaningful” (in the sense of “deep”) functions, not just superficial ones.

Like video games, architecture must balance the human desire for optimization, customization, and individuality with the human need for conventions, collaboration, and sociality.  And, like games, the best architecture seeks to erase a divide between work and play, as well as to erase the divides between survival and living, constraint and freedom, labor and love.


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