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When Form Trumps Function – Part I

In lieu of some technical difficulties, and a speaker that was clearly knocked off his game by them, I am reposting my STL UX presentation here on my blog. Thanks again for attending, and sitting through my train wreck.

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When I think about Form Trumping Function, one inarguable and well-known example comes to mind:  Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, DC.

Listen to her incredible interview with Tom Ashbrook on WBUR’s “On Point.”

Designed in 1981 by Lin, a student at the time, it was immediately controversial. Veterans’ groups, government officials and major philanthropists took issue with the seemingly bleak design, which was mandated to bring closure to veterans, families and the nation without being political. To them, its symbolism portrayed the Vietnam conflict as a black scar on U.S. history.

They also took aim at many of the unconventional usability aspects of the wall. The names of veterans who had lost their lives, another mandate, were arranged chronologically by date of death. Critics scoffed at this and cited that visiting veterans and family members would be unable to locate a name and would simply leave in frustration. Delineation by alphabet, DOB or military ID numbers would have been more conventional and usable. But as it turns out, Lin’s choices were as effective as they were intentional.

Consider this:
• The surname Smith is represented by 667 veterans.
• There are 16 last names with at least 173 entries or more.
• There are 263 duplicate names with the same first and last name (and in some cases middle initial)

By Lin’s design, when a loved one finds “John Smith” on the wall, he is unquestionably their father, brother or friend. They don’t find a list reminiscent of an unfeeling phone book or an apathetic library catolog. They find an individual tied to a specific moment where they and many others lost their lives serving their country. The word “database” becomes an immediately inadequate description; the more evocative “history” or “narrative” are exponentially more appropriate. The wall tells the story of the war instead of simply naming the lives it took.

Similarly, functional concerns surrounded the legibility of the names, embossed in small type. Even Lin’s design peers questioned her at the time. Here’s her take on the situation:

“The text for my pieces tend to be tiny. Half an inch, less than half an inch for text size… unheard of in its time. In fact, I had huge arguments with certain text designers, ‘You can’t do that!’ But you can. You end up putting a book out of doors, versus putting a billboard out there. And the minute you put a book outside, no matter how many people are there, you still have to react to it one-on-one. It’s extremely personal, and very private.”

The small text forces readers to stand feet, inches, from the wall. The close proximity causes an interaction and relationship with the wall and its soldiers which would not exist had she increased the weight of the names.

Those tiny names were also scorned for contrast-ratio crimes, a common functional problem still today. The dark gray names virtually disappear into the deep black granite. This can be justified for the same reasons as the small type, but there’s more. Likened to the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial, when light hits the black surface, it reflects its surroundings. When viewers stand in close proximity to the Vietnam Memorial, simply yet abruptly, they see themselves. This reflection overlays and highlights the names of the men and women who sacrificed their lives, and makes the viewer a part of the wall, a part of the memorial and a part of the historical narrative.

Wow, right? Form trumps function.

Someone is probably nay-saying right now, but I contend, and so would millions of visitors to the wall, that those conceptual and formative design decisions set it apart.

So, I guess I win?

Wrong. A product, interface, grocery store, screwdriver or website must serve the functional purpose for which it was designed. But in the cases where its function is to elicit an emotional reaction, form design might be the most effective.

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Please flip the tape over, and read When Form Trumps Function – Part II

robhuttiWhen Form Trumps Function – Part I
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