Making Meaning versus Meaning Making


Noorul Ameen

29 Mar 2019

The Confusion

Whether tomato is a ‘fruit’ or ‘vegetable’ depends on the differences in usage between scientists and chefs. Scientifically speaking, a tomato is definitely a fruit as it develops from the flower and contains the seeds of the plant.


As far as cooking is concerned, tomato may be called ‘vegetable’ because they are used in savoury rather than sweet cooking. So can a chef use a tomato to prepare a fruit salad? Well, the answer is “No”.


In the above example, we are able to understand the underlying fact that when few people define certain objects through a meaning, others enjoy experiences from the same set of objects. The fact that tomato is a fruit is scientifically and biologically proven. So we make meaning out of the facts. However the essence that tomato can’t make a good fruit salad makes meaning and gives the essence.


Here comes the difference between “objective knowledge” and “subjective insights”. While objective knowledge gives us the facts & figures, subjective insights tell us why should certain things behave in a certain manner. This differentiation is present in almost everything we see and experience day-in day-out, both personal and professional life.


Making Meaning

People use this objective knowledge to “make meaning” out of something. Since numbers don’t lie, they use various statistical techniques to either arrive at a phenomenon for a small set of variables or extrapolate the results for a larger set of population. Meaning once made becomes a statement which later turns out to be the usual characteristics of the subject under study.


Meaning Making

Meaning makers strive to find the real essence of everything they wish to experience. They find the absolute minimum to get stuff done and believe the fact anything extra is an “embellishment”. This exercise turns out to be an eye-opener for those who just believe on “characteristics” and fail to put those to the right usage. Adoption to a new or a predesigned experience increases only when its meaning makes sense. In the field of UX Design, we call this match-making exercise as “Form follows function”.


Form follows function

This is a principle associated with 20th-century modernist architecture and industrial design which says that the shape of a building or object should primarily relate to its intended function or purpose. Form is the definition of an object (objective understanding) and Function is the perceived experience the object (subjective essence) is intended to provide. It indicates that form, or the aesthetic design, should be derived from the function that it carries out. When form follows function, the object becomes more usable. However the motivation towards repeated usage of the object depends on other experience design factors like “persuasion, emotion and trust”. While form is tangible in shape & figure, usually function is intangible. It is difficult to subjectively articulate “a good user experience (UX)”.


“Form Follows Function” in User Experience Design

In his 1896 article, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”, American architect Louis Sullivan wrote:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, 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’s assistant, Frank Lloyd Wright, went on to champion this idea ferociously. One of his buildings, the Guggenheim Museum, is a good example of form following function, with its spiral shape designed so that visitors can easily view the artwork within the museum.


From the world of design, we also have this famous quote

Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.


If you’re going to apply form follows function in your web or app design, you’ll have to reach a compromise.




Guggenheim Museum and and Guggenheim Museum


“Form Follows Function”  in Software Engg & Product Development

This principle can be applied to Enterprise Application Architectures of modern business where “function” is the Business processes which should be assisted by the enterprise architecture, or “form”. If the architecture dictates how the business operates then the business is likely to suffer from inflexibility, unable to adapt to change. Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) enables an Enterprise Architect to rearrange the “form” of the architecture to meet the functional requirements of a business.


Furthermore the Agile software development movement postulates techniques such as ‘test driven development’ in which the engineer begins with a minimum unit of user oriented functionality, creates an automated test for such and then implements the functionality and iterates, repeating this process. The result for this discipline is that the structure or ‘form’ emerges from actual function and in fact because done organically, makes the project more adaptable and future-proof.


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