Where Does Functional End?
Where Does Functional End?
This week, you're making something. An app, a flower arrangement, a documentary, a dog sweater, a meatloaf.
Whatever's most interesting to you about that thing, ask yourself "how far can I push this particular concept?"
But don't just push it a bit, don't just push it a lot, extrude that concept all the way. You may have never done that before.
Take it to absurdity. What would it look like if you pushed the concept beyond reasonability until it was utterly ridiculous? The results are often wonderfully impractical.
Now, once you've concepted an extreme version, dial it back a couple of notches. Keep dialing it back until it's just back over the threshold of functionality. That's where to be. Right at that line, back from the abyss of absurdity but with a fully manifested, interesting concept that you can now set out to build.
There's a subtle distinction between an object's logical extreme and taking it to its logical conclusion. They overlap, and they often are the same result, but there is a slight difference. While a logical extreme extends, even if briefly, into a state of nonsense in order to find out how far is too far, a logical conclusion is as far as a concept can be pushed while still making sense. In fact, it's the conclusive answer to the question: "how much?" Answer: "this much."
Folk Object was a tumblr that I began in late 2009 and posted to for the year of 2010. Like a bowerbird, I collected an assortment of images that, to me, demonstrated some sort of through-line. Though, I don't think that the ability to articulate that connection developed until I had posted quite a bit of content.
I learned a number of things from the project, most of them rather nuanced. I wish I could tell you that there was an "aha" moment that resulted from Folk Object, but it wasn't like that. It was more of an incremental learning process. And that, actually, was the most important take-away from the project: that posting can be an excellent way to learn.
I don't think that we typically regard posting images to the internet as a learning method. Certainly not when we're posting, say, meme humor. But what became clear to me as a result of Folk Object is that, as a collection gets built up and juxtapositions happen, themes begin to emerge that wouldn't have otherwise been visible in the stand-alone images. You start to see a lot of a certain kind of material that you didn't expect to see. In the case of Folk Object that was textiles. Or, you see a general mood emerge from the aggregate whole or it can be as simple as a color that pops up throughout the collection.
Those are some of the visual things I noticed, and there were more that I could go on about. But I learned a few esoteric things as well. In particular, a theme of logical extremes emerged as a through-line that connected many of the images. It was sort of the connective tissue.
What I see when I look through the archives of Folk Object, is that despite cultural difference, despite differences in generations, geography, distance, and time, that there are people in every community who continue to push the boundaries of functionalism. Startup culture would call these people innovators. What I see is that whether it's quilts, hats, ceramics, masks, canoes, or whatever, there are some people who ask "how far can I push this aspect of this thing? And maybe a "thing" has a huge array of aspects. To me, that makes, say, barbed wire exploring its own limits as fascinating and probably more so than an invoicing iPhone app exploring the latest updates to iOS. Or maybe it's not about being more or less interesting, maybe it simply equalizes them in my mind suggesting that the internet is a folk culture.
The important takeaway from all of this is that we need to periodically review our internet posts as a whole and draw conclusions from what we're seeing. Look for the themes that emerge. I also think that there's an opportunity in the next generation of apps to assist us in doing that: deeper learning from our own content. Let's encourage them to build apps that do more things like that, okay?
The Dirty South's Logical Extreme
The first time I saw a donk, it was 2006 and I was living in rural Mississippi.
What I saw eluded categorization because I didn’t yet know there was a category for it.
The car was an early 1980’s base-model Chevrolet Impala, a boxy four-door sedan that would have otherwise passed me by unnoticed.
The owner had fitted it with outrageously tall wheels, so tall in fact, that the vehicle was proportioned more like a conestoga wagon than a typical family sedan.
That alone was enough to get my attention but there was something even more surprising about it: the car was covered with Blockbuster Video branding.
My wife and I tried to process what we saw with questions like:
Was that an "official" Blockbuster vehicle?
If so, why did it feature out-dated Blockbuster branding and yet have a new paint job?
Why did it have ENORMOUS rims on it?
Since when do corporate vehicles have lift kits on them?
Why would Blockbuster send it to rural Mississippi?
None of it made sense.
In time, we saw more vehicles that belonged to this strange new class of car. Spotting them and speculating on their meaning turned our otherwise drab errands into donk safaris. “The Skittles” car, the “Fruit Loops” car, Frosted Flakes, M&Ms, Chips Ahoy, Home Depot...the list went on.
Clearly, this was a “thing.”
I eventually learned, from students, what donks are.
Donks are customized vehicles; usually older model sedans typically customized with a lift kit large dimension wheels and low profile tires. Depending on the type of customization, they can be referred to as boxes, bubbles, or donks. The umbrella term for this kind of customized car is a “Hi-Riser”, but can also be just called a donk.
While a factory model will typically ship with wheels at a diameter of 17 inches, donks’ wheels are usually average 26 or 27 inches, a height at which “largess” is accomplished while not sacrificing too much in the way of functionality. The wheel height is limited, or perhaps un-limited by the customization done to the vehicle’s suspension. As chassis are lifted above and away from the axles by lift kits, the functional limits of wheel height can continue to be re-written by those who are willing to invest the time, money, and energy to try and reach their cars ever upward.
Exterior paint and markings are another area in which limits of rationality are explored. Typically, a donk will have a theme. Some of them feature food themes: Skittles, McDonald’s, etc. The paint job is a foundation of the theme, usually establishing the dominant color based on that product’s branding or packaging as understood by the vehicle’s owner. It’s also common for the product’s logo to be featured prominently on the vehicle. While some are meticulous reproductions of the product’s branding, others are a close approximation; discrepancies that can be seen best up close. It was a hand painted, incorrect logo which allowed me to first understand that these were not connected to a officially sanctioned corporate branding campaigns.
What I find so interesting about donks is their determined exploration of the bounds of functionality. The quest for one-upsmanship drives donk owners to push the limits of their vehicles in every direction at once. They try to make their vehicle taller, more colorful, more ornate, than the next guy’s. The results are audacious, ostentatious, and outrageous.
In each of these cases, the car’s owner has asked a question:
“how far can I push x?
How high can I make my wheels?
If I take my wheel height from 26” to 27”, is my turning ability comprised? Can slimmer tires offset that difference? Can the chassis be lifted higher?
“How much turning capacity do I really need? What’s legal?”
“How many televisions can I fit into this car?
What the largest screen size that will fit into this vehicle? Where could it go?
They zero in on a particular variable of their vehicle and ask how far it can be amplified until either the functionality is eroded or the budget is blown. If it weren’t for those two constraints, I don’t think that donks would have any limit. And each time they push a boundary, they expand our limits of what’s possible, what’s acceptable, what’s do-able. A decade ago I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to put 30-inch wheels on a family sedan. Now, it’s not even weird anymore.