Supplemental notes on the Function(s) of Board Game Art

It has been a while since I wrote on the "form follows function" topic (or any topic for that matter due to work obligations), so I thought I would revisit this. A few years back I addressed form/function in this article which received some passionate responses. I reread the old article again for the first time in a long time, and I have to say, it covered more than I remembered. So, I'm linking back to the original article and treating this new article more as a supplement to that old one rather than a rewrite. In itself, this entry is a bit incomplete without reading the older one but still works fine as a first read or on its own.

The Form follows Function Fallacy

I'll start with the term "form follows function" as it seems to have a sort of grand and specific meaning for many. I have heard "form follows function" and "functional art" often referred to in the blogs and forums. Phases like, "the art isn't functional" or "because, as you know, form follows function" or something to that effect often can be found. Well, what does that really mean, anyway? No doubt what the writers mean – in the context of game art – is function = usability. Period. Anything that falls short of the writer's expectation of usability is then "unfunctional art." In the end, I find this a fallacy which is masked with a kind of intellectual air to validate the point. The inclusion of this term, I believe, is more to suggest a knowledge, scholarly insight or some sort of undeniable truth as shorthand. This rather than dive into (or consider) a full discussion or appreciation of the design problems at hand that art is working toward.

With regard to the "form follows function" statement, the problem (and the general failing of that term) is that "function" remains open to interpretation and is a matter of word play more than anything else. In the end, it can mean anything one wants it to. It then has the potential to pollute any criticism or deep understanding of the process through misidentification of the problem(s) at hand.

The first question to ask in any design process or final evaluation of a product is "what are the functions of this object as a product to be sold?" Or one can ask, "what are the design problems needed to solve to?" It is the same question. From there, it can follow what the design solutions are or can be directed toward. Unfortunately, the problems at hand are not necessarily clear. When they are clear, they are not always easily weighted (that is, to what extent is function A more important than function B or what is a successful mix in this particular situation). This can be challenging as one can really never know for sure exactly how important each design problem will be within the context of the changing marketplace.

To put it in history, "form follows function" was championed throughout the 20th century by architects and industrial designers as a rationale to describe certain design principles which followed an object's utility. The original point was that the utility of the object would guide its ultimate physical manifestation through design. For instance, the thinking for the design of a juicer might go: a juicer is about getting juice out of fruit (that is its utility), therefore all design considerations should stem from how best to do that. If a design aspect does not work towards juicing, then it is not relevant - it is simply decoration and should be avoided. (This, as opposed to the function of the product as a whole – juicing PLUS consumer attitudes, aesthetic tastes and conditioning, badge value, etc).

Coined in 1896 by Louis Sullivan (Frank Lloyd Wright's mentor), the term came into being in a time when economic forces and haste were at serious odds with the expensive and time consuming production of fanciful elements. Soon after, another modernist phrase "ornament is crime" began to find itself linked to the "form/function" phrase as moral principles to design by. With the association of the two phrases, the problem then began that the phrase "form follows function" was as much a mantra for an aesthetic inclination (reduction, machine age modernism look) as it was a rational design solving process in its fullest form. Unfortunately, by eliminating from the equation ornamentation and or stylization (which could be used as attraction and for other benefits), a whole facet of design tools and opportunities are lost.

A counter to this severe reductive process is the appreciation of the benefits, indeed functions, that ornamentation and aesthetic considerations (that go beyond an object's utility) can possibly deliver. In architecture for example, ornament can aid in wayfinding, attract customers, cue warmth, be invitational and create unique global identities for properties and cities (particularly in a sea of design simplicity). Here are just a few of many business applications for the ornament in this context. Ornamentation becomes functional. It is then more than the primary utility of the building (or a juicer).

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao with its characteristic Gehry look. A modern Baroque and certainly different expression of ornamentation (or perhaps "style" is a better term). Nonetheless, the function of visual identity was profound in establishing a memorable mark for Guggenheim and Bilbao – attracting tourists from around the world to this old port.

The automotive designers realized this in the 30's. As testing in aerodynamics was leading car design to a single tear drop look, they came to the conclusion that "utilitarian function" would drive the industry out of business if they didn't address aesthetic tastes (decoration). And so it is that designs took on looks driven not solely by the utility of the object (like the juicer example above) but also were inspired by the aesthetic cues from popular culture (the look of rockets, for instance). This at the expense of utility (physical drag, efficiency, etc). So here, ornamentation drove design as part of a business decision. It defined the look, feel and character of brands that helped to create brand loyalists out of customers and carve out unique identities for companies. Form was the function, along with many other utilitarian considerations – like the utility of physics. These days, if one is to look far deeper, the definition of function could include environmental responsibility. This then goes back to the physical utility of less drag and less energy used to move the car and thus less pollution (back to a teardrop shape).

Here, we see the Aptera which seeks to address the functional needs of physics (less drag), and consequently greater efficiency (less pollution), while establishing a unique brand look and aesthetic appeal (brand definition and attraction). The degree of consumer appeal (the function of attraction) and acceptance is questionable though as it could be too different – weird – for the masses. Though perhaps the Apple aesthetic has trained audiences to appreciate this pure, stylish and spartan look (which I personally love).

So it is then that "form follows function" becomes subject to definition. Physical utility of the object's purpose? Consumer attraction (tastes) and sales? A greater or higher moral obligation? Sometimes these problems all complement each other and other times the problems are opposed. To the extent that all the problems weigh in becomes more a subjective call than mechanical or scientific one. The right mix is generally not perfectly clear. All these then wrapped up in the constraints – financial and technological – within the manufacturing process.

In short, form DOES follow function as long as one truly and fully understands ALL the problems that need solving toward and one grasps the weight or gravity of each topic against the whole. Otherwise the statement is quite useless as a talking point. For this reason, I much prefer the term "problem solving" as it forces one to acknowledge the process and ask "what are all the problems at hand", rather than just refer to an empty phrase linked often to a shallow definition of function. ...Of course, "problem solving" it is not nearly as catchy ...or authoritative sounding.

Defining Game Art Functions

Here now, we come to game art design. Before speaking of successful design (or begin evaluating it) one must identify the function of game art.

It is very simple. Game art functions to enhance the endeavor of the game. That is all game art is for, nothing more, nothing less.

We must then ask, "what is the endeavor of game?" From here, there can be found at least three primary game goals. Firstly, for the consumer, it must entertain. That is, in fact, the only reason to buy a board game product. Entertainment can take many forms which I will describe later, but from the consumer point of view, that is all our games are for. Secondly, for the publisher, it is to make money and further an enterprise. A product can be the best of its kind, but if it does not make money or cause a publisher's brand to rise in perceived value, stature, or selling power it has failed in its endeavor toward the seller. Finally, the game champions the game cause. This is a greater good level which seeks to elevate the category as a whole through the product's own excellence.

In terms of the first point (the consumer pov), game entertainment takes a number of forms (not limited by this list):
- the enjoyment and company of others sharing in a common experience face to face
- the mental brinkmanship
- playability/mastery - the enjoyment of feeling in control or more skillful than others (with what ease one can navigate the game and feel "masterful")
- the particular puzzley mental stimulation board games provide
- the physical (touching materials, fiddling with pieces, viewing depth of field)
- the excitement of competition
- potential to learn something new
- collectibility and admiration of one's collection

In terms of the second point (the seller's pov), a game should:
- provide good profit
- expand a publisher's portfolio in a positive direction
- reflect on the publisher's brand in a positive way
- potentially reach new customers who might seek out other games in the portfolio

In terms of the third point (the category's pov), a game should:
- provide the board game category with a more positive image and a reason to participate
- conversely, dispel negative perceptions of gaming/gamers (child's play, hobby for losers/geeks)
- encourage and facilitate those who do participate to "catch the game bug" and become a gamer themselves

Here is how art can address the needs of the game:

Information Design
- Information design provides newcomers confidence that they can learn the game and the teacher confidence that it will be a successful teaching experience.

- Assists with pattern recognition which can make a game easier to play

- Ramp players up quickly to feel "masterful" in their game.

- For gamers, familiar conventions can be reinforced to facilitate the learning of new or unusual gameplay

- Attractiveness draws people into the game
- Can help make a title an easier "sell" to bring out of the closet and onto the table
- Gives us entertainment during downtime
- Provides atmosphere
- Can drive sales
- Can generate news/talking power/buzz
- Potentially reach out to new consumers (non gamers) previously unaware, but attracted to box.
- Positively impacts the hobby as a whole (can make it seem more legitimate – seem less a hobby for children or "weirdo/geek/outsiders")
- Positively impacts a publisher's portfolio
- Help to open distribution channels for publishers (especially with their first games).
- Heightens collectibility and admiration of one's own collection – makes collecting fun.

Thematic Detailing
- Thematic detailing brings one into the spirit of the theme
- Makes the game all seem a bit more believable, to the extent that is possible.
- Can facilitate in the learning of a game (familiar theme concepts can support game mechanics)

Information design, attractiveness, thematic detailing

I have heard game art design equated to information design (like illustrative charts and graphs). This is certainly very true. Game boards and components can be information heavy – sometimes very information heavy. (Indeed Titan had a massively dense board, with each 1" hex space being one of eleven terrain types, and having 3 different entry points that had 4 different types of entry methods. All this multiplied a good 80 or so hexes). I have also heard folks make connections to Edward Tufte (a graphic designer / teacher who advocates strong information design). Indeed, you can find a recommendation of his books on this blog, one of my first entries from a number of years back. He is really a great read and full of enthusiasm! There is much to learn from him and use in certain specific game art situations as well.

The board for Titan is a very information dense one. With around 80 hexes with 11 or so terrain types, 3 entry points and 4 types of entries, each hex had many potential reads. Unlike traditional maps, the terrain does not follow natural patterns (like clusters of hills, valleys, mountains, tree areas) but rather geometrically spaced patterns which are hard to decipher.

What one must remember though is his investigations relate to something somewhat different here. Yes, both games and the work he covers are information driven subjects. The difference is that games are entertainment first and foremost. Information design being the primary, but not by any means, exclusive driver of the entertainment values. This is the heart of the matter as many discount or simply cannot realize all the functions that art simultaneously serves. Some parts of game art are pure information, some parts are a combination of information and aesthetic and theming detail, and some parts serve no game playing information but are purely for enjoyment.

I have also heard it said that all this is fine, as long as the function of usability always comes first before other functions. Again, I say this misses the point. It assumes a simplistic process that is black and white, on and off. "Is function decor (or any other function) sacrificing the function of usability? If yes, then bad design." Well no, not necessarily, I say. Because it is all a sliding scale. It is all a matter of degree. In reality, the design process is a long continuum of very discrete interrelated decisions. For instance, it may be the case that a small loss or insignificant loss in information generates a big gain in theme entertainment. Or perhaps the loss could be made up for through another less direct design move. Here, things are not so black and white. Again, it comes down to understanding the weight or gravity or each element with respect to the overall project's endeavor.


A (less than ideal) case example

I added "less than ideal" as, admittedly, the work I will describe was for me not perfect. In the end it fell short of what I had hoped it would deliver. However, I do believe that the investigation was correct – it's final implementation didn't quite make it to my satisfaction though. The investigation illustrates, for me, some of the push and pulls of a few functions at work.

A project I did a while back, El Capitan, presented itself with a number of design challenges. One challenge centered on the names of the different sections of the board. The board is divided into a 3 x 3 grid where each of the 9 grid spaces is a different city. It is in these cities that the game actions take place. In the original game, Tycoon - which El Capitan was modeled after - the theme was about global travel. Here, the city names (the 9 grid spaces) had clear geographical significance. The cities had names like New York, Mexico City, Tokyo, etc. From these names, it is easy to visualize exactly where each city would sit within the 3 x 3 grid relative to each other as everyone has the basic world map burned in their brain. One need not ever have seen the game to guess which space was which.

The remake, El Capitan, was rethemed to Medieval European cities using their indigenous names. The problem here is that the geographic relationship between the cities is not really known by most, particularly when assigned to a rigid 3 x 3 grid. Add to that, the city names are at times unfamiliar variations and add to that some of the names sounded alike and then we have a bit of a problem. The theme, while much more rich and romantic (to me anyway), was not as easy to play. (Note, this is not to disparage the idea behind the retheme but merely introduce the graphic design challenges inherent within the concept.)

If the names themselves were a blockage, no matter how clear they appeared on the board, they would cause confusion. So it was that I knocked back much of the utility of the names - through decoration - and introduced an iconographic reference system on the cards that referred to the board grid rather than the names. Just as the theme and the cities that were chosen had served as romantic decoration, so too the type was treated as a decorative element through the selection of a heavily ornate font. This added quite a bit to the look (compared to a simpler serif font). The function of the type readability then transferred, in part, to the aesthetic appeal function and the thematic application functions. The newly developed icons - found on the cards - would then hold much of the weight of the information design. These icons were a graphic of a 3 x 3 grid with the appropriate city positions highlighted. The rationale here is that if names are causing a blockage, which they were, it was better to redirect attention to a simpler, more intuitive system – the grid icon or, as I called it, "the pip system" (as the icon highlights looked like dice pips). No language is needed to understand what area each card effected.

This would have been great, but I did not push the strength of the icon enough (it was too small on the cards and the non highlighted pips were too subtile). This made it a little harder to see than it should have been. Add to this the production printed much too dark (which highlights a frustrating problem of artist control within this industry). This dark printing negated the contrast of the pips and intensified the situation. (Some thought it was too hard to play upside down as well; the brain needed to reorient the pips. I found it easy to wrap my head around when the board was oriented upside down to my position. However, we could have added a smaller reverse oriented icon for "upside down players" if need be. In hindsight, I probably should have explored this).

The point here is that the apparent information design function of the type (its readability) was not as obvious as many thought. Some commented that the type should have been more readable. This to increase what seems to be the information design function. The problem was that in so doing, a player would spend too much time directly using the type for reference or information gathering (rather than the pips) and fall into the trap of rechecking each time to make sure a city was Tunis rather than Tanger, Valencia rather than Venezia or Athina rather than Alexandria... and then double checking that for the position on the board because they would get the location mixed up in the grid. To me this sort of checking and making sure during the game was disruptive. In short, the names were not effective carriers of information.


I continue to write on the "function topic" as it is not what I believe many think it is. The term itself is a good one in theory, but in practice is is more a shorthand to subject to opinions on definition and consequent misidentification of problems. It is a fascinating subject though which highlights the design and problem solving process.

– Mike