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     Style: Image and Function


by Alex Brown




What is the difference between the 'Wassily' chair designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925 and a chair designed by Philippe Stark in 1990? Or, what is the difference between a 1954 Ford Thunderbird car and a 1992 Honda Civic? In terms of their function, the 1925 chair does the same job as the 1990 chair. So too the Thunderbird does the same job as the Civic. So, apart from the obvious engineering advances from one period to another, we can look at the differences between objects of the same kind as DIFFERENCES IN STYLE.


That is, while the functional concept (which determines the overall shape of the object)  remains the same, its image changes over time.


So:     FIXED CONCEPT - EVOLVING IMAGE  (or: fixed function - changing form)


Design gives physical shape to a concept by bringing to bear the latest technology and stylistic preferences. Apart from its function, a product also has a public meaning which allows it to fit neatly into the general world of products and be accepted as relevant. It is possible, for instance to design a product which functions well but looks out-of-date and clumsy. Such a product would not do well commercially. It would be rejected by the public because it looked 'out of place' or meaningless in terms of other products of the same kind. It has NEGATIVE ASSOCIATIONS.


Style gives an object a recognizable public meaning- it matches the product's image with that of public expectations.




a)          Design:       

            1.      To give shape to an idea or concept in some form, (eg. drawing,  modelling or written description). There is an intention or purpose to this idea. It is the solution to some problem previously defined.


             2.       To coordinate the form of an object with its functional and semantic context.


b)         Style:  A recognizable set of forms which together provide a unified, familiar and meaningful image.

c)          Meaning:   The familiarity of an object's shape relative to other objects of  the same kind.




Design integrates style and function into a coherent single image. There is no conflict between Form and Function, Ie. between the need to style a product and the use of the product. The Design Process unites these two aspects:


1.       The form the machine needs to have in order to carry out its function


          Including the ergonomics, materials and technology required for it to do so.


2.       The meaning of that form to the consumer who uses it.


The shape/materials & colour provokes pleasant or unpleasant psychological associations Including feelings of 'friendliness' or aggressiveness, or  warmth, speed, power or serenity. (For example: a baby's cot which looks like a war machine = a major contradiction between the function and the final image. Or, a sports car which was styled to look like a delivery truck = another contradiction).


The issue then  is how to find the APPROPRIATE IMAGE to represent the function of the object. The Appropriate Image gives 'clues', messages and explanations about the function which the object carries out: what the object DOES or IS.


Style stands between the perceptual, psychological needs and associations of Man and the raw mechanical shape of the Machine: THE MAN - MACHINE INTERFACE.




Shape, colour and texture can create definite psychological associations. By adjusting the form of the object (its shape, colour, materials) to suit certain desirable psychological associations, Style provides the object with a clear-cut identity by EMPHASIZING certain of its characteristics at the expense of others. For example:


1.          Psychological association: Speed/Power: smooth texture, sleek, rounded, ribbed, elongated shapes (streamlined), Example: Lamborghini Contach

2.          Psychological association: Fun/Play: Primary colours multicolour graphics, (toys or Walkmans or Swatch watches).

3.          Psychological association: Toughness/Ruggedness: texture, emphasized joints or  seams or other functional features  (jeans or Susuki Jeeps).

Selective emphasis on certain features gives an object an unique and definite  image.



Designers select forms from an existing repertoire of stylistic images produced by previous designers and recombine them for use in a particular NEW context. The REPERTOIRE (eg. visual vocabulary) is the sum total of all the images available to the designer as imitative or reference sources. Eg. from previous work, personal experience, books, magazines, TV and Movies.


The Design Process therefore looks like this:


1.          SELECTING 'bits' from different examples of the same kind of object


2.          RECOMBINING them into a new form.


3.         MODIFYING the form (making it different and unique) to suit a particular context (by  emphasizing certain features).


4.        IMITATING previous forms. That new (and different) form then becomes an IMITATIVE SOURCE for other designers to select from and re-combine with 'bits' from other examples, and so on.


A Style is built up by this continuous process of selection, combination & modification of existing images. In this way, a style (like a language) is developed by many people over a long period of time.




Styles change with time: EG. Art Nouveau to Art Deco to Bauhaus to International Modern to Postmodern, etc. One can look at the same kind of product (eg. the chair), as it changes character (style) throughout these different periods. How does this happen? Why does style change at all?


1.         A style is the continuous, COLLECTIVE result of many designers' activities.


2.       The selection-combination process produces forms that are both FAMILIAR (combinations of existing images) and DIFFERENT (adapted to a new context).


3.       MULTIPLY this process many times, for many designers (exchanging images with each other) over long periods of time where these now different forms are themselves selected.


The result is a gradual shift in the character of a style.


(Remember: the 'something different' is an emphasis of some characteristics rather than others). The shift is towards a more complex, 'emphasized', and articulate character in the style.




While the evolution of styles is a self-propelling process to do with the exchange of ideas and forms described above, one must look at how other factors like science and technology influence design styles.


Technology doesn't say what the designer should to do with what he/she has available, only what he/she cannot do. The decisions about the character of design remain centred on the Function and Appropriate Image issues. Based on this we can outline the influences of Technology on design in the following way:


1.         Technology offers a range of materials and production processes some of which MAY OR MAY NOT be appropriate for any given design.


2.         Technology does not determine what a design will look like. That comes from analysing the Function and Image issues of the brief and the clients needs.


3.          As Technology develops, it offers a wider range of technical possibilities -  choices and opportunities for the realization of a design. (Sometimes the problem is too much choice requiring a more definite analysis of the function and appropriate Image for the product).


4.          The inherent qualities of a material - smoothness, plasticity or colour - can provoke or stimulate the designer to redefine and enrich the image.




Looking at the history of Design since the Industrial Revolution till now it is clear that decoration and ornament have played a major part in the design of products. In fact MOST of the products designed during this time have involved decorating the basic form with ADDED and essentially non-functional forms and details.


In Western design history, decoration usually involved adding Classical or Gothic details to basically functional forms.  Even steam engines and large span bridges had Classical details fitted to their utilitarian forms.


The Modern Movement rejected the idea of decoration in favour of 'pure' & uncluttered forms - smooth, colourless and preferably cubic in shape. Indeed as early as 1908, the architect Adolf Loos commented in his essay 'Ornament and Crime':


"The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects". 


The situation now, however, is quite different. Decoration is seen to have a definite design function. Sometimes we call it styling and it usually  based on some marketing or commercially-driven sense of image.




What, if any, is the function of decoration?


Decoration is used when the basic shape of an object (determined by its function) does not fully express the unique character or identity of that object. 


Decoration is a REMEDIAL operation carried out on the form of an object to give it additional visual clues as to its meaning (both functional and public). As above in '3.0 STYLE: THE APPROPRIATE IMAGE': the meaning of an object is the associations the object stimulates in the observer. At its simplest this means "what does it remind you of?" or "What do you associate it with?" The study of 'meaning' is called SEMANTICS.


MEANING:   the significance of an object in terms of its probability relative to other objects. (If the form of an object is improbable (unlikely) relative to other objects - it is meaningless. So too if it does not produce associations in the mind of an observer - it is meaningless).


Sometimes the purely functional shape does not carry enough associations: the object seems boring, too simple, lacking in interest and so on.  In other words, the object is not rich in meaning. The easiest way out of this is to ADD extra forms to the object which carry appropriate associations with them. Decoration is like 'portable meaning'.




The general attitude now - in the PostModern Age - to decoration and ornament is quite different. There is greater freedom of expression in design (as against the rigid 'purist' rules of the Modern Movement) The symbolic, tactile and complex imagery which decoration represents is recognized as a necessary aspect of an object's SEMANTIC FUNCTION. That is: WHAT THE IMAGE MEANS TO PEOPLE.


There are essentially two types of decoration: integral and additive.


Integral:  Exaggerating the character or shape of the form (eg. tailfins on a 1950s American car: Cadillac or Ford Thunderbird).


Additive:   Adding non-functional colour or fixtures to the form (eg. the chrome trims and grills on a 1950s American car. The colour schemes and material changes on a Memphis-designed product).


In each case, however, the decoration exists at the level of the detail. The primary shape is still determined by the Function and Appropriate Image of the product. What is changing is perhaps the colour relationships, the texture, a softening or handening of images, superficial details which are all about image.




"Those who reject History are condemned to repeat it".


History is a STORY. It is the story of how things came to be the way they are now. It is a story of differences and changes from one period to another and the people and forces that brought it about. In looking at history, it is possible and useful not only to look at the differences between one period and another, but also their similarities. Human beings haven't changed that much in the last 200 years, but their products have. How is this possible?


Designers work on material that has been produced by the generation before. They select from a repertoire of already-produced material. The design process is pretty much the same but we keep working on continually up-dated sources. For the 19th century designers the source was Classicism or the Gothic. For us it is the Modern -Bauhaus, American International Style or Postmodern work such as Memphis or the Deconstructivists.


The generation after us will use our work as source material for their designs.


The question is whether they will find our work rich in meaning and associations and worthy of reference. In looking at the past - at history - and the infinite number of design  images it presents us - we are enlarging our vocabulary of design ideas, images and  associations. We are making ourselves DESIGN LITERATE. This will be reflected in the designs we produce.




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