Getting Over Functional Fixedness

by teresalaynebennett

photo of pickup cab converted to an elevated deer hunting stand on wheels

“Bubba” clearly has no functional-fixedness.

Is functional fixedness a familiar term to you? I’ll bet not. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and it sounds kinda geeky, doesn’t it? I first heard about this functional fixedness concept over 35 years ago. Labeled object fixedness then, I learned about it on a PBS children’s science program, no less.

I still remember the city-block-sized light bulb that came on in my head: Whoa, I’ve got to stop thinking like this! And ever since, I’ve tried very hard to practice the opposite of functional fixedness. I do this mostly in very tangible, material ways, but also in more intangible, ethereal ways.

Functional fixedness means
just what it sounds like it means:

fixing something in our minds as functioning only in one way or for one purpose – the one which the maker intended. Getting over functional fixedness simply means redefining anything’s intended use. Stated like this, I’m quite sure you’re thinking, I already know this. But you’d be surprised how we all, even the very creative amongst us, get caught in this narrow, functional-fixedness mindset sometimes.

Real-life examples
run circles around definitions.

If you’re a visual learner, visit a well designed, upscale, antique store to see creative examples of how the experts get over functional fixedness. No time for that? Visit etsy.com or a similar site, instead. Observe how its Repurposing Mavens have taken an item, let’s say a heavy metal pair of ice tongs (manufactured for ice men to deliver blocks of ice for 1920s and ’30s household ice boxes), and turned it into something else – a paper towel holder, for example. Or maybe you’ll see just the metal part of an old garden rake, hung on a wall, and repurposed as a hat-and-coat rack, wineglass rack, kitchen utensils rack, or necklace holder. These are prime examples of getting over functional fixedness.

photo of metal rake head holding necklaces

photo of metal head of old rake holding kitchen utensils

These rakes won’t see soil again!

Junk stores, thrift stores, charity shops, second-hand shops (and most likely, your grandparents’ garage!) are awash in these very items – the kind found in trendy, up-market stores that have been manufactured to look like these old items and marketed to function as the very items I’ve listed above. When I first started practicing the opposite of functional fixedness, there was no etsy.com or any other similarly cool site. I had to hack out new ideas all by my lonesome. If you’re a wannabe Repurposing Maven today, lucky you: you have all kinds of websites to help you overcome functional fixedness.

Here are some
no-functional-fixedness examples
that have warmed my heart.

Let’s start with our opening photo of a Bubba deer hunting stand made from a pickup cab, elevated – and on wheels, no less. Those West Virginia boys don’t miss much, do they? And they obviously have a few tricks to teach the rest of us about getting over functional fixedness. Oh my, do they ever.

My own examples are a good deal, well, a good deal less “interesting.” I could use other words (silliness-on-stilts comes to mind), but I’ll be tactful, for once.)

We used to have a beautiful oak cabinet in our bedroom that held sweaters and socks, but it began life as a Victrola cabinet. You know – thick, chunky, 3/8-inch-thick phonograph records played on a unit which was hand cranked? At one time, our cabinet contained the guts for playing records in its top and a bottom section for storing records. Long before it was gifted to us by some garage-cleaning friends, someone had removed all the phonograph guts and the vertical dividers for records. Technically, it was still a Victrola cabinet, but we used it for clothes storage.

On our previous home’s breezeway, I once had a display of rather clunky, lidded, hinged boxes that were delivered to my father in the 1950s and 1960s, filled with guns that were broken down and packed in grease. With them I’d stacked old wooden drawers, salvaged in the 1960s from a hardware store opened in the mid-1800s. As I had them displayed, they looked as if they were all of a piece, even though they were only seven old drawers and packing crates placed on end or sideways to hold gardening books and supplies. They were no longer a motley collection of crates and drawers; they’d been repurposed into a single storage unit. (Not as colorful as Bubba’s deer stand, but every bit as practical and useful.)

A friend of ours was recently paying attention on Craigslist when she snagged a printer’s table from the mid-1800s, complete with its original three-inch-thick marble top and vertical slots below the table top for printers trays. Since she’s no printer (and printers haven’t used the antiquated technology which necessitated this table for a very long time), she’s repurposing it into a seriously sturdy foyer table that can withstand any amount of abuse from a household of teenagers.

Proud of yourself, aren’t you?

You’ve already, though perhaps unconsciously, begun your own process of overcoming functional fixedness and repurposing objects, haven’t you? In fact, we’re all probably way better at this than our grandparents or great-grandparents, possibly because we get more practice. Technology is changing our lives faster than our ancestors could’ve possibly imagined.

Things are outliving
their intended purposes
right before our eyes –
almost monthly.

Certainly yearly. Pay attention: now that your music lives in cyberspace and is accessed by your smartphone, iPod, etc., and you’ve hauled your CD collection to the thrift store, what will you do with that pricey, cherry wood box that once held your favorite CDs? If you find yourself relying more and more on the ether version of movies and shows, what will you do with that box of drawers housing your DVD collection (after you also cart them to the thrift store)?

And that nifty little piece of furniture – the one in your parents’ family room – complete with nicely paneled doors that was manufactured to store VHS tapes? Do you suppose they’ll ask you if you want it, since they’ve finally retired the VCR? And what do you suppose you could store in it, if not VHS tapes? Too shallow for books. Too narrow for the sections of your fly rod, so no-go on the fishing equipment. Hmm. Not to worry. You’ll think of something.

And that’s the point.
If you’re PAYING ATTENTION…

you’ll find that for almost every item originally created for a specific purpose, which it no longer needs to fill, you can think of a way to repurpose or reinvent it to serve another purpose. And as you can see, it’s easy. Actually, it’s a hoot to see what your clever noggin can devise. (I’ll just bet those West Virginia boys had a rip-roaring time converting their pickup to a deer stand.) The quirkier and more specialized the device, the more creative your solution will have to be. 

Next up: Pass it on: share your skills! (If you’re the queen of Repurposing Mavens, that’s a skill others would love for you to share.) 

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: "I don't think outside the box; I think of what I can DO with the box." – Anonymous

My artist-husband’s response: “There’s a box?”