The form versus function battle

The paradox of creating modern bikes

In use-value terms, bikes have always been like adjustable spanners. A great bike is eminently adaptable, really useful to lots of different types of people and a thing of functional beauty.

But spending time at Eurobike and Interbike this year made me realise that the relationship between design form and design function has been changing over the last few years. As superb... well, let’s say acceptably good... function becomes the bike industry norm, more and more efforts are going into form. Many would go as far as saying that the way things look is starting to get the upper hand over the way things work.

I decided to ask a few industry players/designers what they thought. The question?

"Is form becoming more important than function these days?"

Here are their replies. It’d be interesting to know what you think...

Dave Turner, Turner Bikes

“The truth is that real technical advancements are becoming fewer and farther between, so style is the only way for many companies to keep current and sell to customers easily swayed by ‘new’ looking kit. I am a minimalist minded designer that really believes that the shortest distance between 2 points really is a straight line, so if I can use a straight tube to join 2 parts I will use it. A mountain bike to me is a machine to access the fun in the dirt, having tubes designed at the art college does not make it any better.  At the beginning of each project I have a list of features and the geometry of every size that is over 3 pages long, there is not one line that says ‘pretty’ or ‘swoopy’ when describing any part of the bike. Ya know what they say about opinions!? Well that’s mine.”

Torgny Fjeldskaar, Cannondale’s Director of Industrial Design & Advanced Products Division

Cannondale has always been performance-driven and we will still have a very strong focus on our traditional strengths, so we will continue to try and make sure our bikes have enough Cannondale DNA to look unique and compelling without sacrificing performance. Our System Integration philosophy means we won’t let convention stand in our way if we find new and innovative ways of improving function or aesthetics, but you won’t see us do (for example) bent top tubes on our top-level elite road bikes, because we believe form has to follow function for products where performance and weight is top priority. Now for an urban bike the priorities might change slightly and allow for more styling, but we don’t believe in so-called ‘design bikes’ that look great but perform poorly and weigh too much.”

Ian Alexander, Designer, Marin/Whyte Bikes

“I tend to think that function has been quietly and constantly improved in the last 5 to10 years in particular areas such as geometry, suspension performance and efficiency of suspension systems and their component parts, take the function of suspension forks for example. They are now unbelievable compared with 10 years ago, and yet in aesthetic terms at a glance they look not too dissimilar... that’s probably because forks are predominantly engineered rather than created.

“There are probably two main drivers behind why form has become as important as function in frames: firstly, the development in technologies associated with designing them with the advent of complex 3D surfacing software packages with the latest computing power... and secondly, the structural and aesthetic opportunities inherent in the materials and in the processes now being used to construct them.

"At Whyte we switched the design office over from 2D to 3D CAD modelling in around 2002. We’ve developed Finite Element Analysis and other analysis software recently, and this virtual manufacturing technology has dramatically changed the way bikes are designed... for example with 3D CAD, something as basic as being able to see a rendered 3D model in perspective is something that wasn’t considered with 2D AutoCAD frame drawings.

"With carbon fibre manufacturing, and hydroforming in metal, the possibilities of what can be achieved in aesthetic terms with the materials are much greater, so overall these two factors combine to allow us to devote just as much time and energy on the aesthetics of frames as to how the suspension performs or the frame geometry talks to you out on the trail...

“Concept bikes help to set out and establish future design directions, or re-establish and push the boundaries of aesthetics a little further. Thanks to virtual design and manufacturing I can send 3D files to a machine and have a full size Rapid Prototype of a concept frame made inside 6 days. This can be built into a non-rideable sample for us to look at and it costs a fraction compared to commissioning a clay model from a modelshop, so you can explore and develop more new ideas far quicker.”

Andrew Herrick, Director, Crank Brothers

“Let's get the function question out of the way immediately. If you have a product that doesn't function well, you have no chance. You need to make a great (not good, but great) product to be successful. There are just too many great choices out there.

“Now, if you already have a great product, you can begin to talk about form and style, so let's do that.....

“Human beings are strange but somewhat predictable animals. Whether we like it or not, we’re quite aware of what we wear, what we use, what we drive and understand how that transmits messages to other human beings. Simply put, we're vain creatures, but we hate to admit it. We love beautiful things - we can't fight it, it's our human nature.

“Bicycles are beautiful and the ownership of one is a proud moment for all of us. As we own it, we understand its inner beauty and why the bicycle is such a wonderful part of our lives. By giving the bicycle an outer beauty, we get to share that emotion with others. This makes us all feel good about our bikes and ultimately ourselves, twice.”

Brant Richards, On One Bikes

“I’m just going to go out for a ride on my round tubed hardtail, in the mud and the dark.”

Keith Bontrager

“Purely functional bikes or parts are not easy to sell. The bike biz is a fashion business and it has been for at least a couple decades, and the importance of the artistic side of design has increased significantly in the last few years. That's the way it is.

“Fortunately, high end bikes are, inescapably, very elegant, technically demanding machines to design, so designers well versed in shape and form but not very fluent in mechanics don't get the last word, or shouldn't anyway. But these folks do play a critical role in the biz, and so do you as the consumer of things with two wheels. They work hard to design bikes that stand out somehow, that demand your attention, please your senses, or stimulate your imagination. You reward them for their efforts and ensure their continued employment when you buy those bikes.”

Nick Larsen, Designer, Charge Bikes 

“Form has always been an important factor in the success of bike related products. Think about the purple anodised stuff in the 90s or Tioga disk drives, and white Onza Porcupines. That stuff sold so well because of how it looked, not how it performed. 

“I do think aesthetics plays a vital part in the success (or failure) of a product, and that it always has done. With regards to frames, personally I find simple round tubed bicycles more pleasing in terms of aesthetics and it is the colours and graphics (and parts to an extent) that provide the aesthetical finishing touches of the products in Charge's range (but then we don't make any suspension frames, where alloy or carbon works best).

“For me simplicity is aesthetically pleasing, eg: if you can make a tube juncture strong enough to perform without an ugly afterthought of a gusset (using butting or tube manipulation) then fantastic. The simpler and cleaner the better in my opinion, and at the same time it is usually in fact a better mechanical solution. 

“It does baffle me that some of the moulded carbon and hydroformed alloy products being produced seem to have a greater emphasis on form rather than function. I do think that some of the latest alloy and carbon frame designs could in fact be lighter / or stronger had the designs been mechanically resolved first before exterior shape became such a factor. I do understand why it is such an important factor, but in a product like this the initial emphasis in the design / development process should be the function and my guess is that is some of the current designs out there have a lot of room for improvement.”

So, what do you think? Is form becoming more important than function?

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