It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human, and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

Louis Sullivan, 1896, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered

Form follows function means the shape of a building or object should primarily relate to its intended function or purpose. This principle emerged from turn of the 20th century industrial design and was coined by Louis Sullivan, Architect (wiki).

The Wainwright Building, St. Louis, Missouri
Architect: Louis Sullivan

The advent of inexpensive steel enabled Sullivan to design larger buildings that supported the rapid growth of cities such as Chicago and St. Louis. This includes the Wainwright Building shown above, built 1891.

One hundred thirty years have passed.

The challenge of how to increase the population density of North American cities has diminished.

Now the challenge for many contemporary technologists is to increase the scale and efficiency of our software systems and delivery processes.

These systems are measured primarily by the work they complete and the cost to do it. Customers’ transactions are valued more than the novelty or creativity of the system’s construction.

The architecture or shape of these systems is primarily determined by how data must flow, be stored, and which computations occur along the way.

That is, most technologists build, maintain, and operate industrial systems that must elevate function over form.

This is the law.

Teams must select the right steel — the patterns, compute platforms, algorithms, languages, and frameworks that form the core of our systems in order for them to function well, or at all. These selections have great import. Just as birds have two wings and not one or three, selecting (or discovering) the appropriate form of our systems enables it to function.

Resume driven development, be damned.

Next week I will share one way to incorporate a bit of Sullivan into your designs using reviews.

I would love it if you pondered your team’s favorite, well-used, over-used, and over-extended forms and share why they do or do not function with me. These could be a particular organizational pattern, reference architecture, design pattern, data transmission, or data storage solution. I may be able to weave these forms into a future post, with your permission of course.


Photo Credit: Jack Boucher, 1986