|Sunday, 27 May 2012 22:42|
“When form wins over function, internal communications fail”
Steve Doswell, chief executive of the IOIC, examines how aesthetics sit alongside the functionality of IC campaigns
In a TV drama years ago, a creative agency chief was salivating over the rough cut of a new commercial. ‘Has the client seen this?’ asked a colleague doubtful that it met the brief. ‘Screw the client!’ came the reply. ‘This is going to win us a Lion at Cannes!’
Creative vanity aside, the scene straddles the classic divide of form versus function. It was an American architect Louis Sullivan who coined the expression ‘form follows function’ in 1896. Sullivan said that form has always followed function and that the way buildings were to be used should determine the form they took, so a new use would imply a new type of building (this was the dawn of the skyscraper era) rather than being constrained by a tradition that said ‘this is what a building should look like’.
It doesn’t take much of a leap to see how this applies to internal communication. In IC as in all fields, there is a bias towards conformity (note the ‘form’ in that word) about how things should be done. Of course, there are proven practices based on widely recognised standards. Time and the process by which past experience gets handed down (learning from ‘best’ practice) produces conventions which provide valuable guidance for future practitioners. The underlying insight is that IC techniques that have worked reliably in the past ought to work in the future in similar circumstances.
Those last words are key, of course, because the world of work produces endless variety and no two workplaces are entirely alike. The trouble with convention is that it often hardens from a useful guide born of experience into a rigid orthodoxy: ‘This – and only this – is how to do internal communication’. When that happens, form wins over function and the end result can be internal communication that fails.
I chose to reflect on form and function following a recent discussion at the IOIC about what constitutes ‘good’ design. Clearly there are questions of personal taste and also of outlook – is it enough for the designs of an intranet site or the collateral of a change awareness campaign to do their jobs, or should they fulfil some aesthetic purpose, too? And if the latter, who judges those aesthetic merits and by what measure? Is design ‘art with a practical purpose’ or is it sufficient for it to deliver its purely practical objectives? For the IOIC, these questions come to the fore at this time of year when winter turns to spring.
As our national IC awards competition reaches the judging stage, consideration of form and function in internal communication becomes a serious – and for several hundred practitioners, a nail-biting – matter. This is the time when a panel of seasoned IC professionals sifts through the campaigns, strategies, events, e-zines, magazines and other submissions that form the bedrock of IC practice, armed with questions of their own: does the work address a well-explained business need? Are audiences clearly defined? Was the solution designed with that need and those audiences in mind? What has it achieved? How was that measured? Somewhere in that mix of requirements, the judges also consider the form that the work takes. But it’s no beauty parade. We can all admire a good-looking intranet site or a stylish publication, but those surface attractions should only be an appealing skin over some hard-working inner machinery.
Of course, when the outward form seems to fit the function well, there’s a sense of harmony and it’s when that happens that we often talk of the ‘elegance’ of the design. Sure, function comes first, but when the form fits well, too, our aesthetic sense comes into play. Always make work fit-for-purpose but aim for elegance, too. That’s what makes ‘job done’ work worthy of a place on the podium.