Form vs Function, Style vs Substance


Few years ago I had written a blog post about Form vs Function and Style vs Substance. I lost that post few years ago. I deleted the blog (on after taking the backup; unfortunately, that blog could not be imported into the new blog and the archive got corrupted. Anyways, I remember the core theme, but since then there have been a lot of other reading/ experiences on the theme, so this blog would read totally different now.

I first thought about this way back in 2002 when I was a novice Software Developer. And the context in which I had heard words Form and Function was purely technical (related to Software Development) and not philosophical or spiritual.

I was writing programs using Computer Programming languages such as Visual Basic, Borland Delhi or Java. We used to have application screens which were referred to as “Form”. A form was basically a container which would have many objects such as a Textbox, a Button, a Drop-down menu option etc. And there would be certain “actions” done on the form – such as typing some text in Textbox, or selecting an option from drop-down, or submitting the form after filling all the information. The “actions” would be accompanied by “functions” or routines in the background. For example, Submit action would “call or invoke a function in the code” to validate the contents of the form and then post the contents in the back-end database.

Now a days the “Form”  part has become a highly specialized domain called UI/UX (User Interface/User Experience). You would get developers who work only on UI/UX. But in those days the same development team would work on the Form as well as Function.

The reason I started thinking deeply about the Form/Function in the philosophical sense was the arguments and fights we used to have during the Software Development phase over how the screen should look and how it should function. Some users (at client location), or some Business Analysts (from our team who were responsible for gathering User Requirements) used to be super finicky about the “look and feel” of the screen. They would want the perfect alignment of each text box and buttons and wouldn’t approve the software if their expectations were not met. Some other users would be very easy going on the look and feel and would say that they “didn’t bother about this facade, as long as the screen didn’t look totally ugly” and that they would “rather focus on the core functionality and performance of the application”.

This got me thinking about Form vs Function analogy in other walks of like. Often we would use term “Style vs Substance”, but in essence it means the same. Style is equivalent of Form and Substance is equivalent of Function.

There used to be a time when what was being said (substance) was more important than how it was said (style). And often Style and Substance were considered to be opposite of each other. For example, if someone is flashy, loud, colorful and a bit over the top it would be assumed that he would be superficial and would lack substance.

However as I thought more and experienced more, I realized that it was not about Form vs Function or Style vs Substance, but it was about “Form and Function” or “Style and Substance” packaged together in elegant manner!

In the era of social media and visual imagery Form/Style/Looks/Appearance etc are integral part of the core feature/functionality or substance. Probably it was always so – just that it has become more vivid and more tangible now.

I admire Steve Jobs a lot. I know he had his shortcomings and he was far from being perfect; but he was also an original thinker, and more importantly excellent communicator. In one of the interviews in early 80’s he was asked whether Apple is a Software company or a Product company. He said: “Apple prides itself in aesthetically build products with excellent design and User Interface and an Operating System that works efficiently. Apple users would not need user manuals to configure the Mac or to use the Application Software”.

In nutshell, he was talking about Apple having great Form and Function. And truly, Apple is rich on style and on substance too (and hence, also on Price!).

In today’s world, where people live their lives through FaceBook, Form/ Style seems to have overshadowed Function/ Substance. And that is really sad. It is not only true about individuals but Corporate as well.

I watched an interview of Rajiv Bajaj, MD of Bajaj Auto, one of world’s leading two-wheeler maker. He is a fan of Yoga and he was explaining principles of Yoga and linked them to the Business World.

I liked his talk a lot and thought over it.

Yoga is all about alignment. The same way, an organization is all about alignment of different departments and functions such as Marketing, Production, R&D etc. When your body aches or when there is some pain in the joints, you know there is some misalignment and you try to correct it through Yoga. The principle is – Form Follows Function. So you start performing Yoga to the extent possible and keep at it and slowly you’ll find that you overcome the stiffness and become flexible. The same is true about organization. Form should follow function. The organization should continue to function in the way it is supposed to; and should not try to fix the form. Often the management falls for the fancy word called “re-organisation” and comes up with a new structure, new titles/designations/roles and hopes that it would fix the problems. What they are doing is just changing Form. Org Structure should not dictate the functioning  or organization. Rather the functioning or organization should determine how the org structure should be.

This principle “Form Follows Function” is now well established in the modern product design concepts. However it has a long way to go in other fields.

I often see this confusion in the IT world. Earlier there was a lot of hype of different Project Management methodology. Then Agile/Scrum became popular, and every management wanted their teams to adopt Agile. What they ended up doing was just adopting Agile for namesake and continued working the old way. Agile/Scrum/DevOps/Classical Old Project Management are mere forms/styles. They do not ensure results if the form is not aligned with function.

The same is true about Governments. I’ll pick on my favorite Government, the present one in India, because I dislike them from the bottom of my heart. Here is a narcissist, egoist, self-centered man who came to power with a false promise of changing the Function and all he has done in change some bits of Form.

He has total hatred for all the institutions and structures that were built by previous governments. So he dismantled the Planning Commission and re-organized it as NITI Aayog (NITI stands for National Institution for Transforming India). He changed the Form. Then he renamed several old schemes and programs of the past government and re-launched them under different title. Again, changed the form. He literally renamed several schemes, several cities, train stations and claimed that it would now make the people of India feel proud. He setup a separate ministry for cleaning up the river Ganga (The Ganges). Again, just a facade or a form (Ministry structure), and no real work done in the last 4 years.

His coterie of Chief Minister is no different. For example, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra (the state/province I belong to) recently took a historic decision of changing the name of “Chhatrapati Shivaji Termius” (CST), an iconic Railway Station in Mumbai set up by the British, and a World Heritage Site in Mumbai, to “Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus” (CSMT). For those who missed it let me rephrase. He added “Maharaj” (the Emperor) in the name of a railway station! Such a historic and bold decision!

Those who know something about his party wouldn’t be surprised. The earlier government of the same party had renamed the same iconic station in 1996 from “Victoria Terminus” (VT) to “Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus” (CST).

Changing the Form – and not function. But the idiots (and there are about a billion of them in India) do fall for such gimmick.

I guess the logical extension of this would be that the station would be renamed “Go Brahman Prati Palak Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus” (GBPPCSMT)! For the uninitiated, that (“गो ब्राह्मण प्रतिपालक छत्रपती शिवाजी महाराज”) is how people worship and chant the name of the Maratha Ruler, and pride of Maharashtra State, Shivaji in whose memory the railway station was renamed.

My only worry is: It was very easy to tell a cab driver, “Bhaiya VT chalo” (“Buddy, take me to Victoria Terminus”). It’s a bit weird to say “Bhaiya, CST/ CSMT chalo”. But imagine how awkward it would be to say, “Bhaiya, GBPPCSMT chalo!“. You may miss the train by the time you say it a couple of times and manage to get a cab 🙂

So much for form and style…and facade!



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