What is Functional Design?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Design refers to the planning that is the foundation of making things. There are different design philosophies, approaches, and methods. Design strikes a balance between a number of different components, and depending on the situation, it can give more weight to one or another. For example, one might focus on materials and ask what could be made with a certain collection of items, or one could focus on aesthetics and try to imagine the most beautiful object to place in a certain setting. Functional design can refer to a focus on function rather than aesthetics, a concern with objectives rather than components, or it can refer to the use of a complete requirements document to guide development and testing or to a computer modeling technique. In addition functional design is an integral part of functional design specification.

Similarity of design to existing products and well-done documentation can contribute to the end user's experience.
Similarity of design to existing products and well-done documentation can contribute to the end user's experience.

Most often, functional design is used to mean that the product’s functionality is taken into account in important ways as it is imagined and built. For a product to end up being functional, both the end user and the client need to be considered all the way through the design process. It may take some work to describe the target audience accurately.

The process of functional design begins with the goal of the product: a clear statement of what it is supposed to do. This does not mean that what the client wants it to do is the only thing that the user will, in fact do with it. It does need to do well what it was made to do.

Usually the end user is not represented directly in the functional design process, so his or her responses have to be imagined. Designers must also imagine his or her ability to learn how to use the product, to integrate it with other products he or she already has, or to adapt it to his or her unique circumstances, if it is the kind of product that is meant to be personalized. Similarity of design to existing products and well-done documentation can contribute to the end user’s experience; that is, thoughts about things that are not intrinsic to the product itself can help the product to be more functional for the user than it would be otherwise.

With any product that has to be plugged in, a feedback system needs to be established. People are used to the light that tells them that the vacuum is plugged in and the funny sound in their word processing software that tells them that they’ve tried to do something that has no reasonable outcome. Part of functional design is letting the user know that the product is or isn’t functioning. Furthermore, if something isn’t working or the user attempted something that failed, a well-designed product will assist the user in getting things back on track.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to EasyTechJunkie about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@empanadas - You should always have good lighting in any functional design whether you are designing an in house movie theater or an office. It's a good idea to browse around office stores for furniture because they will often tell you what the special functions and features are of that piece.

While Ergonomics is great and everything, the fact is that functionality goes all over your home as well. A lot of pieces coming out now a days have what I like to call the "double duty factor." As an example, think of a storage ottoman in the living room: it hides your magazines and the kid's toys, but it also provides more seating.


@empanadas - Surely. You can actually look it up online and find several different sites that will walk you through the reasons that you should incorporate ergonomics in your home and/or office space. The entire ergonomics angle is that it will make you more productive and give you the ability to be comfortable, which (if you ask me) goes hand in hand with productivity itself.

Basically you should incorporate an eye level computer monitor, a comfortable chair where your thighs rest parallel to the ground when flat footed and seated, a wrist rest for both your mouse pad and keyboard, and good lighting. These are just a few suggestions and standards incorporated in the functional design of Ergonomics. Good luck!


@BelugaWhale - I would like to make my current office design more functional. Do you have any recommendations and could you elaborate on the entire "ergonomics" aspect please?


Ergonomics is a great example of functional home design. It is actually a great example of office design as well. Ergonomics takes into account (often times, but perhaps not ALWAYS) the comfort of the user as well as the ability of that user to not only properly perform, but perform their functions well. For example, there are standard heights that a chair or counter top should be in order to be "comfortable" and functional. You might also consider ADA standards to be a form of functional design as well.

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