Form Versus Function: Learning to Appreciate Beauty

Household items captured in close-up pictures to form letters, spelling out "Form vs Function".“Get a Haircut!”

Let me start with a short story: 

When I graduated college, I had hair down to my shoulders. It drove my conservative dad nuts (which was some of the point). At one point, after several interviews with no call-backs, my dad told me to cut my hair. I laughed – as if interviewers cared what I looked like, when I had such great qualifications! 

Then I got pulled over and almost hauled into the police station over a weird mix-up. Fortunately, I was a white college graduate, so I got to go home. My dad knew the head of the local precinct, so he went down to try to straighten things out. He told me when he came back that the officer who pulled me over said I should cut my hair – it was the only reason he pulled me over. 

I was furious! My righteous anger practically burned the house down! But my dad pointed out that’s more or less what he’d been telling me for weeks – it wasn’t fair, but looks mattered.

After a few more weeks, I cut my hair. A week later, I got a job offer. 

Maybe it was coincidence. Maybe not. But it definitely affected my biases about appearance.

Getting the Job Done

In the battle between form and function, I have been squarely on the side of function. In fact, I take a sort of perverse pride in how ugly-but-functional some of my creations have been. This includes handouts (Times New Roman is my jam!), posters (black text on white, of course – pictures are for babies!), and physical structures (“It will only give you a splinter if you wiggle, so just stay still!”). 

These may be exaggerations – but not by a lot. 

It’s the bane of my students’ (and my wife’s) existence – I can make the thing that does what needs doing, but it’s not gonna be pretty. 

Too Much to Do, Not Enough Time

A major contributing factor in my lack of form has been time. My work may not be pretty, but I get a LOT of it done, quickly. 

At school, especially, there simply has never been enough time to “play” with fonts and colors and backgrounds. There’s too much to do! I need to get it done NOW! 

But lately, I’ve been trying to pull back and give myself more breathing room. I’ve started to appreciate the importance of “making it pretty.” 

It’s An Attention Economy

We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. 

But we do. 

It’s part of the reason librarians have to weed. At some point, even if the title is a classic, it just ages out of attracting eyeballs. And, let’s be honest, we’re now competing more fiercely for students’ attention. 

So I’ve started focusing more on form. I’m learning how to use tools like Canva to make signs that are more than black Times New Roman letters on white paper. I’m not a whiz when it comes to aesthetics, but I’m starting to see what chefs have known for ages: Presentation matters. 

“Slow Is Smooth. Smooth Is Fast.”

Thinking about how things look has also brought a little more joy into my work. It adds another layer of creativity for my brain to play with; what do I need done, and how can I best present that need to pull in others? 

It has also helped me to slow down my frantic efforts to improve my efficiency by cranking out the maximum amount of work in the least possible amount of time. Reduced emphasis on “quick” has let me improve the content as well as the wrapper it comes in. 

I’ve long argued that education is not about content delivery. And yet, I’ve also worked hard to increase the quantity of content I delivered. Now I’m trying to find a better balance. 

Satisficing, But Prettily

Don’t get me wrong – we all have too much to do to allow “perfect” to be the enemy of “good”. There’s importance in “satisficing”, or getting to “good enough”. But the sheer quantity of ugly in the world these days has me thinking more carefully about ways to introduce a little bit of aesthetic care.

As a bonus, I’ve noticed that my mental health has improved since I started thinking about how to add a little more beauty to the world. And I will go to bat for the idea that adding beauty to the world is an important function for educators. 

Put Something Good in the World

I am far from proficient as a visual artist. But we all have to start somewhere when we try to pick up a new skill. I am fortunate that there are so many school librarians gifted in visual presentation who share their ideas online. Having a starting point for sprucing up my practice has been immensely helpful

And so, my thanks to those who share the ways they make their work beautiful! You’re making the world better for your students, and for many others.


Author: Steve Tetreault

After 24 years as a classroom English Language Arts teacher, Steve became a school librarian in January 2022. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!

Categories: Technology

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