The Elusive Jackalope

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The current issue of Bike Magazine features a column by Mike Ferrentino entitled "Grimy Handshake." Here, he explores the mountain biking jackalope: a bastardized product of endless tinkering and a basement full of parts familiar to most seasoned cyclists. Many of us have jackalopes in our past, and recognize those we see around us with the nod of a veteran. Side projects, ad-hoc constructions, what-ifs and misguided explorations are everywhere, "all grafted together with hope and booze and maybe just some blind spots where critical reasoning should come into play."

For those of you new to this term, a jackalope is a mythical horned rabbit. The New York Times attributed it to a Wyoming man named Douglas Herrick in the early 1930's. Herrick had returned from a hunting trip with the idea of sticking antlers onto a jackrabbit carcass and exhibiting it in a local hotel. From those lowly beginnings, a creature was born. The jackalope is much more than a rabbit with antlers however; in many ways it embodies the weird sense of humor, creativity and inventiveness that's missing from much of the manufactured world around us.

As Ferrentino says, "Every swap meet, every bike shop basement filled with that which the market deemed unfeasible, is a rich breeding ground for wheeled jackalopes. All the stuff that didn't quite work right the first time around and got tossed on the junk pile gets a second chance in such places. It won't work any better than it did then, but that kind of cold logic never stopped a dreamer."

In a world where we are confronted with perfection in our iPhones, cars and appliances, when are we ever given the permission to swap parts and create something unique? When everything is prepackaged and vertically integrated to death, how do we create something new? Perhaps we designers should be thinking of new ways to engage our users, not simply by creating "conversations," but with something far more substantial. The desire to play, to create new things out of old, is fundamental to human nature. When designers exert complete control, not allowing users to shape or alter the things we design, we're stifling the opportunity to discover or rediscover, retask or redefine the things we've created.

Our goal should be to design open-ended things that become new again through the imagination of the user instead of closed systems that get thrown in the trash as soon as interest wanes. A product with a limited emotional lifespan may sell a lot of units for the manufacturer but is no way to ensure prolonged use of love from the consumer. The addition of interchangeable, functional elements (e.g. adding a set of horns to a stuffed rabbit) gives users the opportunity to recombine the familiar and create the unexpected. Of course, many of the things people create will likely be horrible Frankenstein creations. But some won't, and these new things will become the valued things of tomorrow. So here's to the jackalope, and a desire to see more of them in design.

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