“Function as Narrative” by Weiyi Li

Continuing the discussion that’s been going on with these past few essays on objects is “Function as Narrative,” a statement written by designed Weiyi Li during her time as a MFA student at Yale.

Li’s essay discusses some work she’s done to explore the theme of function as narrative, or this idea that “FUNCTION is the projection of human needs on objects… Objects with FUNCTION indicate a possibility of something to happen. FUNCTION leads to a potential story, thus FUNCTION is indeed a narrative.”

This, of course, is not a novel concept. Even among the most cookie-cutter design-thinking processes, narrative is stressed as a tool to develop empathy and spot pain points for users, often through the use of things like personas and journey maps. What makes Li’s objects different from products of design thinking process, however, is how personal they are. The narratives discussed in these projects do not necessarily address a user’s goal or problem but rather explore the relationships between the users and their products. These narratives are deeply personal rather than practical.

One of her projects is a take on the ring sizer, a piece of plastic with circles of varying sizes cut out to help people find the circumference of their fingers. She takes this idea and creates a new “template,” but instead of many circles intended to measure the same part of her body, she includes many circles, each of which maps to a different part. For example, there is the standard circle for finger size, as well as toes, nipples, tongue, and eyelashes. The template, although it takes a very similar form to the original, now bears a very different narrative. This new object is an exploration in biometrics, and as such becomes almost a form of identification.

In this project, there’s also a certain role reversal that occurs in the relationship between Li and the template. Originally, the ring sizer, with its standardized units of measurements, was mass-produced and provided to help users conform to a certain system. This gets turned on its head once the template becomes a record rather than a point of comparison. The many to many relation between object and user now becomes one to one.

Li’s work in this statement also explore themes of use/misuse and the fluidity of such narratives. She draws on the work of one of her teachers, designer Karel Martens, who used ready-made objects as stamps, and discusses her “ring collection.” This collection comprises objects which were not designed to be rings but could be worn on the finger and considered a ring (i.e. they consist of some time of embellishment or ornament attached to a circular shape which could be worn on a finger).

I think there are interesting connections between this and Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory.” Many of the items in this collection are unrecognizable to me, so to me they register as things rather than objects. This means that they not only lose their original identity, but also that they readily accept any new identity which is prescribed to them. Li labels and sells these items as rings, so they become rings only because we do not know them to be anything else. As she describes it, “I was trying to tell a lie one thousand times to make it true.”