Hertzian Tales Ch 3: Parafunctionality

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para:  1. “with, beyond” as in paralegal or paramedic 2. or “to guard against” as in parasol or parachute

functionality: the artifact’s use, to complete a task

Anthony Dunne provides examples of unconventional features of otherwise conventional products, what he describes as “parafunctional” with designs he showcases. The definition of prefix “para” has many meanings, some paradoxical: side-by-side (along with), to keep from, distinct from, and higher/above. The inherent contradiction of definitions is crucial to understanding the critical design area.

Parafunctional artifacts are glimpses into a heterotopic world. They do not exist in utopia or dystopia but rather in a world that runs parallel to the one we live in now. Heterotopia is the act of world building and establishes the constraints a parafunctional artifact lives within.

Dunnes’s use of “functional” exists within a capitalist society. Parafunctionality is able to exist as a rebellious concept because we currently live within a capitalist paradigm where functionality is defined through efficiency and pragmatism. Well functioning products are desirable by consumers, inexpensive/quick to reproduce, and able to perform specific tasks. Parafunctionality subverts this definition of functionality by also emphasizing the value of provocation, derision, and transgression. Subverting functionality becomes a function. Criticizing a product’s function and exposing the limits of the existing product are functions. “Traditional” function can be partial or implied, creating the possibility of existing in an alternate reality.

The subtext of the chapter title is “The Aesthetics of Use.” The definition of “aesthetic” gives further insight into the purpose of critical design:

1. concerned with beauty, or 2. an underlying set of principles guiding a work

Parafunctional pieces utilized the conventional as well as the unconventional. Familiar objects lead the viewer to make a judgement but distorting the objects’s function forces the viewer to confront a question or truth. What separates a parafunctional object from art is the fact that it is a familiar artifact of sorts. One is able to place it within the context of their own life.

When analyzing the artifacts present in this chapter, Dunne explains how the objects achieve a state of “para:”

 “…within the realms of utility but attempts to go beyond conventional definitions of functionalism to include the poetic”(43).

Each featured item exists within a scenario, and many of the items shift focus from an ordinary perspective of an existing product. One scenario implied by a product: a merchant, who sells alcohol to barkeeps, must drink with his customers to maintain a level of social etiquette present around 1910s. A problem rises when the merchant travels to many locations in a short amount of time; he becomes impaired by the drinks he consumes. The artifact present in the scenario is a walking cane, converted to a tool that drinks the alcohol for the merchant. He can dip the handle of the gadget into his drink when the customer is not looking; he later releases the liquid into a street. The cane is still able to function as a typical cane would, but the addition of the novel drinking-functionality makes the cane parafunctional.

The field of Speculative Critical Design is a contemporary subject; it often focuses on ethical or high-order questions. In this book, Dunne begins to build the field. The walking cane allows a user to remain sober while still drinking alcohol, also inadvertently raises a social question: why is social etiquette linked to the merchant’s decision to not drink? The designer was most likely not addressing complex social norms with this design, but projecting commentary through this product gives viewers a prod. The scenario-based development of the Speculative Critical Design field allows functionality to be critiqued, discussed, and questioned, beyond conventional pragmatism.

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