Proper function

The notion of hacking implies that objects have a proper use, a proper function. The hack itself is a deviation from this proper function – and may therefore be seen as liberating or illegal. Brandes, Stich and Wender (2009, 10) place the “beginnings of Non-intentional Design”, that is design that goes beyond the proper function, at the “development of a product culture which started during the later period of industrialisation.”

Beth Preston argues whether proper function is established by the designer or maker of an object, or by the user who interacts with the object. She distinguishes between two types of function, which are defined as follows:

“A proper function is what a thing is supposed to do – usually understood in the case of artifacts as what it is designed to do. A system function is a contingent purpose a thing may serve on occasion without having been designed to do so.” (Preston, 2006, 17)

In this view on design and objects, the role of the designer implies that an object is given a function: “In other words, if an agent intends an artifact she designs to have a specific function, than that is the function is has, at least initially.” (Preston, 2006, 15) Brandes, Stich and Weber (2009, 183) emphasise the element of time and state that: “Consequently we can say that every object has two meanings: the one that is was given when it was designed, and the one it has received through its use.”

This is turn leads to a passive – or even suppressed – role of the user, as observed e.g. by Vermaas and Houkes (2006, 32):

“Alternative, or improper, use of an artefact is best understood as employing another set of dispositions – the artefact’s ‘accidental functions’; users are under normative pressure to use an artefact as intended by the designers of an artefact, that is to use it for its (proper) function.”

As with hacks, the question arises what constitutes a deviation from the ‘proper function’. Preston (2006, 23) explores this issue in describing many ways in which objects will be modified during its use:

“But in fact many common use activities involve or result in modifications of the artifacts, e.g., maintenance (polishing, washing, sharpening) and repair (mending, patching, rebuilding). These modifications can be quite extensive, and are typically intended.”

Within the discussion of ‘proper function’ the question of who defines this function needs to be addressed. Preston illustrates two possible reasonings behind giving the leading role to the designer or the maker/producer of the objects:

“One obvious possibility is that the intentions of designers might have some special cognitive structure or characteristics that sets them apart from the intentions of users.” (Preston, 2006, 22)

“Another obvious possibility is that production is creative in a way that use is not.” (Preston, 2006, 23)

Regarding technology, Brandes, Stich and Wender (2009, 12) observe that the increased abstraction of highly developed technological products takes away opportunities for everyday design:

“Whereas ‘improper’ use can still be functional when low-complexity products are concerned, or might even endow the object with added value, most high-tech appliances are not suited for NID [Non-Intentional Design].”

This high complexity of new products also leads to a decrease of ‘proper function’ as the intended function is not immediately visible anymore: “Since the new high-tech products hide their actual functions, design has to create artificial indications that facilitate the identification of purpose and use.” (Brandes; Stich; Wender, 2009, 56)


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