Saturday, April 6, 2013

"F" is for Form Following Function

There was a saying among early airplane designers: If it looks right, it'll fly right. The flowing, organic shapes of a well-flying airplane are naturally pleasing to the human eye. In the slide rule era, the saying pretty much held true. But the high-speed computers and more powerful jet engines of the 1970s allowed engineers to use previously unsuitable shapes to unlock new aircraft capabilities, such as stealth.

 The hard lines and facets that were optimal for scattering radar signals in the first generation of stealth aircraft like the F-117 would have been anathema to designers looking for low drag and stability. 
But the latest engines could overcome drag with their enormous power, and computers performing thousands of calculations per second could not only translate pilot input into control surface movements, but instantly correct for instability. The Grumman X-29 with its forward-swept wings, was designed for extreme maneuverability and was reportedly so inherently unstable that if its triple-redundant computer system suffered a complete failure in flight (a highly unlikely scenario), the aircraft would instantly disintegrate in midair.  Form still followed function, but new technology enabled new forms which allowed for new functions.

Of course, those were military attack and fighter aircraft with unique mission requirements. For just about all other airplanes, low drag and good flying characteristics are still paramount, so airplanes will continue to look right and fly right.


When American architect Louis Sullivan famously proclaimed that “form ever follows function,” he meant that designers should eschew ornamentation, design for function and let the form (shape) ensue.

I'd bet that Sullivan approved of the motorcycles of his day. Sand-cast engine cases, rows of closely-spaced cooling fins,  pushrod and bevel drive tubes standing proud, stainless steel spokes and fasteners and fenders; all have a function, all are essential, none are there solely for decoration.  Yet, individually and in the capability and competence of the whole they comprise, they have a certain stark beauty.  They are a riot of shapes and textures, a moveable feast for the eyes. 

The plastic bodywork that encases modern sporting motorcycles isn't strictly ornamental.  It does improve aerodynamics and directs air to the radiator.  Riders like it, but I suspect manufacturers like it because it covers up unsightly industrial-looking mechanicals that are designed with manufacturing cost reduction rather than beauty in mind.  Me?  I agree with Jay Leno; I don't trust any motorcycle I can't see through.  Fortunately, we're in the midst of a "see through" motorcycle renaissance.

Sure, parts on vintage motorcycles are polished and chromed, painted and striped, but polishing aids cleaning and plating and paint protect from rust, and there's nothing wrong with making functional parts look good without compromising function.  But nowadays, there's an entire industry devoted to add-on ornamental chrome covers and assorted gingerbread for a certain popular genre of motorcycles.  One can only imagine what Mr. Sullivan would think

Note:  Monday we'll be taking a break from long-winded techno-geek posts.  You're welcome.



  1. I happen to like techo-geek posts, but now I am curious about Monday. :)

    The breadth of your knowledge and interests sort of blows my mind. I knew you were smart and junk, and I knew you knew a lot about a lot of things, but the DEPTH of your knowledge on these vast subjects is what's blowing me away. You make me feel a bit shallow. Wait, let me go get my coffee. Now I feel better about myself. haha

    Looking forward to the next posts...

    Waiter, drink please!

    1. Smart and junk, LOL. I know a lot of trivia. That and $3.50 will get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Thanks, Coach!

  2. Jerry,
    I'm learning so much every day. After this is over, you'll have to keep writing - I'll miss your diverse posts. :)

    Hmmm, Monday is "H" - I'm looking forward to it.


  3. Thanks, Joan. I'll have to keep writing after this, there are too many topics I didn't get to do!

  4. Love me a good "naked" bike.

    You do technogeek well. Embrace it and don't worry about it.

    1. LOL. Looking for a naked bike and letting my tech-freak flag fly. Thanks!

  5. My father worked at Lockheed during the Skunkworks days. One year, they had an open house in Palmdale, and on display was the Blackbird. It had an armed guard standing in front of it and was roped off so we couldn't get too near it, but it was awesome looking!

  6. The Skunkworks was the pinnacle of the aerospace industry. The Blackbird was maybe the most awesome airplane ever, aside from spacecraft, and set records that still stand fifty years after it was introduced. It was definitely an airplane that looked right and flew right. Your father was part of something very exciting. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Form follows function: I say repeat this to folks looking at graphic design allllll them time. Words to live by!

  8. Your topics may be techno-geekery, but you're an excellent writer and your posts make great, educational reading.
    Nice to meet you!


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