The Design Decision Triangle: When & How to Choose Form Over Function

updated May 4, 2019
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(Image credit: Julia Brenner)

The project management scope triangle says that the three components of a project are time, cost, and quality and you can only pick two. If there’s a fixed deadline, either cost or quality will have to give a little. If you want something cheap quickly, well…you get what you pay for. The same is true with form, function, and cost. Here’s how to choose.

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In my recent search for a laundry hamper (I guess it’s the season, Tess?) I encountered the design decision triangle, let’s call it, for myself. Cost is still a component, while the other two points of the design decision triangle are form and function. And isn’t it so true that we only get to pick two?

Assuming a somewhat fixed budget, here’s how to choose between form and function.

Choose function if:

  • The object will be put away or hidden most of the time.
  • The primary purpose of the object is its function and having form detracts from the functionality of the object.

I had two laundry hampers to replace, one in our master closet, and one in the kids’ bathroom. When considering our hamper, I knew I wanted to be able to sort clothes as we were tossing them into the laundry, and I preferred four compartments for handwashing, darks, lights, and whites. Of course I wanted a pretty basket, but to get what I wanted, I would have had to buy two separate two-compartment hampers, which wasn’t quite right, cost-wise or even looks-wise. But since the hamper is hidden away in our closet, I was able to let go of a pleasing form. I think my new hamper looks like some kind of hospital accoutrement, but it was less than the cost of one pretty hamper and it has already made a huge difference in my laundry, ahem, productivity.

Choose form if:

  • The object is going to be “out” or visible all the time.
  • The object has the potential to be decorative or add to the overall look of the room.
  • The object exists primarily for its form.
  • The budget is flexible and you can find something that fulfills its function that is also beautiful.

For the kids’ bathroom, it was important to me that the hamper, which would be visible, match the decor, which has kind of a jungle vibe. I knew that an eyesore hamper was not an option in this spot. I also knew that for our family at this time, the hamper needed to stay where it was, right by the bath the kids use. I was willing to pay more for a nice-looking hamper, and I did. Much, much to my husband’s relief, the New Laundry Hamper saga is over.

When and how do you choose form over function?