Carl Barenbrug

Product design, creative direction

100% Functional == Beautiful

If something is 100% functional, it is always beautiful. There is no such thing as an ugly nail or an ugly hammer, but there's lots of ugly cars, because not everything in a car is functional. Sometimes it's very beautiful, if the person who designed it has very good taste, but sometimes it's ugly.

– Dan Gelbart

This is a strong statement from Dan, who publishes an insightful and ongoing YouTube series on building prototypes. And it made me think about how objective or subjective such a statement is. Can a design that is 100% functional be undeniably beautiful? The short answer is yes, it can be. But is it beautiful 100% of the time? And does one fully functional design differ from another that's fully functional? Can it ever be ugly? Can a 100% functional object become ugly over time? And just because something is not ugly does it therefore imply beauty?

Let's take a step back though. How can something be 100% functional? What criteria determines such a rating? Even taking the basic tool of a hammer as an example. Hammers can differ in size, weight, shape, material, grip, and construction. And as hammers are designed for humans to use, one hammer may feel fully functional to one person, but to another it might feel unusable. Does its function then come into question? If so, Dan's statement might fall apart and open itself to subjectivity. Yet, the parts that make up a hammer are entirely functional defined by its simplicity, as opposed to more complex designs that may have attributes that offer little to no functionality. You could say, the more complex a product is, the higher probability for ugliness.

I want to believe in the beauty of 100% functionalism. It's an equation that makes sense to me. There's beauty in the ability of an object that allows you to perform something perfectly—it goes beyond aesthetics. If a design has been built to be useful above all else and it does so efficiently, effectively, and reliably, it cannot be disliked, therefore it cannot be ugly. Of course, things can be subjectively beautiful and far from functional, but that's not the point here. This is a matter of beauty determined by functionality. So can both be simultaneously objective? Or is there intersubjectivity at play here?

If you have an opinion on this topic, please let me know. I'd love to hear your thoughts regardless of your conclusion.

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