(Apparently it is and it even has multiple meanings and definitions. I like this one best, though. But I digress.)
Form follows function.
That’s a principle usually attributed to a dead architect; I don’t claim to understand all of its nuances, subtleties and implications but it seems to me that it means that at least some of the features of a thing should be inspired by what that thing is going to be used for. (The dead architect was presumably mainly thinking of buildings, but as far as I can tell the principle has been applied to lots of things that aren’t.) That seems entirely reasonable to me — at least as a starting point — although I recognize (based on nothing more than the number of results to a google search) that the issue is one that attracts many opinions and has no clear consensus. Heck, at least one prominent publication has called the principle a ‘misused cliché.’
Whatever. For my part it sounds sensible but I’m more than willing to believe that in design, as in programming, There’s More Than One Way To Do It. Even if some of the ways might sometimes be a little, um,
obscure non-obvious. Or even disturbing.
Consider the chair that I’m sitting in for a moment. (I’d include a link to the manufacturer’s catalogue page but since the catalogue only works in some browsers — one out of two in my sample — I’d be risking a rant about sloppy programmers and wasting time searching the web for pithy quotes by an incredibly gifted one. So I’ll just skip it.)
When I was a student I used a desk chair that was probably older than I was; it looked like the kind of chair that you’d see a sketchy — or at least down on his luck — newspaper reporter from the 1930s sitting in. It had four legs. That’s fine — four is a usually a good number of legs for a chair. Four legs is stable.
But not if you add wheels.
If you lean back in a four-legged chair with wheels there’s a certain grim inevitability that you’ll soon not be sitting in the chair. You’ll be sitting on the floor, various parts of your anatomy will hurt and one or more of your roommates will be asking if you’re okay and are you going to keep doing that because it’s, like, TOTALLY ANNOYING, DUDE. (I can draw a free body diagram if you’d like.)
(Not that I have extensive experience with this, of course.)
Anyway, the Green Chair of Thinkitude (not Nappitude — that’s just mean and not entirely accurate) has five legs. So even though it has wheels, I fall out of it much less than I did with the Brown Chair of Aggravating Roomies. Form followed function and eventually chair designers added an extra leg. Good going, chair designers. Took a little longer than I would have hoped, but you eventually got the idea.
Consider dressing rooms. Designing a dressing room (especially one at an arena) is easy — or at least it should be.
First of all, putting on hockey gear while standing is difficult and annoying so the room should have places to sit. You can’t be sure how many players will show up for a game or how friendly they’ll be so benches are better than chairs. Hockey players are violent so make the benches extra-sturdy. (They’re also larcenous and can’t be trusted so better bolt the benches to the walls while you’re at it.) They put on skates so cover the floor with some sort of tough, cut resistant material, preferably something that won’t dull a blade. (Rubber is nice. Removable rubber tile is even nicer because in principle you can wash the floor underneath it even though everyone knows you never will. Because dressing rooms, like new cars, are supposed to smell a certain way.) They need places to put their coats (because winter) and clothes (because hockey players almost never arrive at the arena naked), so put lots of hooks on the walls. And so on. Easy.
Of course, I made some assumptions there. I didn’t assume anything was spherical (I’m a physicist — to a first approximation, everything is spherical) but I did assume that hockey players can remember where they sat before the game, which stuff belongs to them and that peer pressure should be enough to keep them from walking off with other people’s belongings. Experience has shown me that all of these assumptions are generally pretty good.
Just not perfect.
Hockey players can usually remember where they sat. I mean, it’s not really all that complicated but so they don’t have to remember, many of them always sit in the same place. It’s not OCD, it’s just being practical and efficient.
On a recent Thursday I arrived at dressing room 4 (the door is also inscribed with the numbers 132 and 223 but the font used for the 4 is larger so I’ve always assumed that’s the ‘correct’ number) and there was someone in my spot. Well, okay. He was a guest star so didn’t know any better and while I’m obsessive-compulsive, I’m not obsessive compulsive enough (or forgetful enough) to care so I took the next spot over.
Bad idea. Because that was the spot of someone else, someone who — as it turns out — is obsessive-compulsive enough to care. Someone who also held the ‘biggest goon’ trophy for several years running and is surprisingly proud of that fact. Someone who…
Aw, hell. Let’s just say that I should just have moved, okay?
As for remembering which stuff is theirs, well…
I’ve played hockey with a lot of different kinds of people over the years. I’ve played with doctors. I’ve played with lawyers. I’ve played with professors. People from all groups have, on occasion, forgotten where they sat and which clothes were theirs. (To be fair, when you’re tired one pair of pants looks much like another. Not that I’d know anything about that.)
One day I came out of the shower and went back to my spot and it was definitely my spot — that was my bag, those were my pants, that was my shirt, those weren’t my shoes.
My shoes were white. Those ones were blue. Ergo, they weren’t mine. (Oo! Someone open-ended his Notice roll.) I then concisely and effectively communicated this anomaly to the remaining occupants of the room.
“Uhh, guys? Are these anyone’s? Because they’re sure not mine.”
No one admitted ownership but someone was clever enough (this was a group of university professors, after all) to focus on the crux of the matter and ask the pertinent question:
“Who was sitting next to you?”
Of course, I couldn’t remember. (Fumble!) To be fair, I have a bad memory for faces and names at the best of times and when entering a change room the first thing I do is take off my glasses. (After all, there are some things it’s just better not seeing — like Professor X’s back hair. I really, really don’t need to see that again.) Eventually, though, we managed to establish (“Was it A?” “No, he always sits over there. It must have been B. Unless it wasn’t.”) who had been sitting next to me (not his regular spot. Just saying.) so we knew whose shoes they must be and, by extension, who must have left wearing mine. I would have to phone him later. But first, I had to get dressed. My clothes were all there but I’d have to wear the Blue Shoes That Weren’t Mine home. Oh well, at least they were probably more or less the right size.
But they weren’t. They were at least two sizes too large. This meant that I could wear them and wallow in Schadenfreude while contemplating how much his feet must have hurt wearing mine. I thought to myself that he’d probably be in his office with aching feet and waiting for my call.
I was half right — he was in his office. But…
“Oh, hi. It’s Rose. I think you left the change room this morning wearing my shoes.”
“I don’t think so.”
Uh oh — my finely crafted theory appeared to be in danger. But wait a minute — ‘I don’t think so?’ What the hell was that supposed to mean?
“Oh. I have a pair of blue size 12 shoes and I’m looking for the owner.”
“My shoes are blue and I wear a size 12.”
Hmm. Maybe there was still some life left in my theory.
“Um, okay. Are you wearing a pair of white size 10 shoes?”
To make a long story short, I walked to his office, we traded shoes and both lived happily ever after. (Well, maybe not so much that last bit.)
So. He had worn shoes two sizes too small for at least an hour and hadn’t noticed — even when I brought the possibility to his attention. Because of this I learned two things:
The design process is more complicated than I thought.
And the ‘absent-minded professor‘ trope exists for a reason.