Thursday, February 02, 2006

It Slices, It Dices: Products that Function Too Well

Products that function too well

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, March 11, 1998 -- How [Image]
would you like to own a wristwatch that "uses the
vibrations of the Cesium 133 atom" to maintain accuracy
to one nine-billionth of a second per day? Or how about a
nose hair trimmer with "stainless steel precision cutting
blades rotating at 8000 rpm along the blade guard"?

I know. You didn't realize you needed these features, but
now that they exist, how could you settle for less?
Offered in the latest Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue,
products like these are a dream come true for the person
who thinks that multiple features or ultra-precise
function alone can make a product worthwhile.

Many people in the function-over-style camp roll their
eyes when I give an impassioned speech about the
importance of design in the joy of everyday life. They
sneer at the apparent frivolity of product aesthetics, or
the supposed pointlessness of focusing on the sensual,
psychological elements of design. Yet they'll go gaga for
super-precise, feature-laden products. They're ignoring
that they, too, are part of a large design trend, best
described as "hyperfunctionalism" or, as one German
design professor called it, "techno-baroque."
Masquerading as a functional-only "anti-style" attitude,
it is in actuality a distinct style in which added
functions and features become ornamentation.

Arguably, hyperfunctionalism has been a trend in consumer
electronics for decades, but now it's broadened to
include everything from tube socks to automobiles.
Hyped-up products often offer performance beyond what the
average user would ever need, like the bathroom scale
that measures to one-tenth of a pound and "is sensitive
enough to detect even one swallow of water," or the
oh-so-hip sport utility vehicle whose wheels never leave

Savvier designers are capitalizing on techno-baroque
tendencies by adding product details that visually
communicate the idea that the object has "enhanced"
functions. Sneaker manufacturers like Nike and Reebok
bank on it with in-store displays that list features
corresponding to tread-like ripples or clear plastic "air
pockets" that can be seen and felt when the shoe is
scrutinized. It's the psychological equivalent of
attaching extra springs and pulleys, Rube-Goldberg style,
to a lamp or toaster-oven.

Don't get me wrong. I think a product should, of course,
perform well, but the degree of necessary functioning is
so much less than what Consumer Reports die-hards are
looking for.

Hyperfunctionalism goes beyond being a fetish for the
physical qualities of the device, and plays into a desire
for knowledge about objects, much the way being
interested in sports is often less about athletics than
it is about the chatter that surrounds the game when fans
try to top each other with info and trivia. In today's
revenge-of-the-nerds climate, hyperfunctionalism is part
of a subculture that revels in minutiae, one-up-manship,
and the satisfying feeling of being in the know.

None of this is to say that there's anything wrong with
relishing the details of a high-tech gadget. (After all,
where would be without its hyperfunctionalist
tendencies?) But we can acknowledge that the function is
not always separate from the aesthetic, and has a
big-picture value above and beyond whatever physical,
tangible, functional characteristics we might think we
need in a product.

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This column is an exclusive.


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