Thursday 7 May 2009


"Everything that fills your world has been designed."

"Every object tells a story if you know how to read it." - Henry Ford

"Design is the search for form."

Gary Hustwit's previous film "Helvetica" played to sold out audiences at Hot Docs a couple of years ago and made people ask the question: "Who knew anyone cared about fonts?" A big part of its popularity was also its style - the great cinematography showing the Helvetica font used in everyday life combined with carefully composed frames and the rhythmic score of the band El Ten Eleven.

The follow-up, "Objectified", stays firmly in the very same mold and is yet another stylish, carefully composed film about design. This time out the subject is a bit wider in scope as Hustwit takes a crack at industrial design. Cars, computers, utensils, kitchen gadgets, chairs and pretty much any other object that can be mass produced is up for consideration. Actually, it's less about the objects themselves than simply the concept of design - what does design accomplish, what should design be accomplishing and when should we even be doing it? In comparison to "Helvetica", the questions are bigger, the ideas are grander and the discussions provide much more to chew on. It's just not as entertaining.

As mentioned above, the style remains very similar and is executed brilliantly at times (the presentation of objects is just beautiful throughout the film), but it just doesn't bounce along at anywhere near the same speed. Perhaps it's because there's less passion coming from some of the designers being interviewed. Their ideas and statements provide excellent insight into what we consume, how we consume it and whether we should be consuming at all, but I missed the vigour and humour with which the font designers argued their sides. There's far fewer laughs in "Objectified" and it's the poorer for it.

Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't some compelling ideas expressed in its 75 minute run time. One of the most important concepts raised is that of sustainability and how major companies are having a hard time adapting and adjusting to "green" requirements. Typically, it seems that design caters to the 10% of the population that already have too much stuff. The other 90% simply need the basics, but they aren't the target. It's those that want what's "Now" and what's "Next" that are buying, but what they are buying typically doesn't last. So that leads to more buying...

The point could be argued that design came about simply as a requirement for mass production. One of the talking heads in the movie relates the story about archers in ancient China who all made their own customized arrows for their bows. However, if they were killed in battle someone else couldn't simply use their arrows to keep fighting. So the Emperor insisted that a common bow and arrow be made and given to all soldiers. And thus design and production was born. In the modern age though, for the longest time it was thought that designers should simply give individual character to something that is produced. Don't worry about end to end design, just finish the product with some nice flourishes. Today, designers say things like (and I'm paraphrasing all of these):
  • Understand the extremes when designing and the middle will take care of itself.
  • Remove what is unnecessary.
  • If you are frustrated that something doesn't exist (something you want to see), that will drive the creation of that thing.
What do these new models of thinking lead to? Well, for one thing: Apple. The company's Senior VP of Industrial Design has a prominent role in the film as does the recent iPhone. Interaction design, as shown by the thought put into the iPhone's interface, has now become a field unto itself. People will always tweak the designs given to them to meet their own specialized requirements, so how do you better understand how they interact with the products they buy?

There's plenty more ideas and objects strewn throughout "Objectified" and it's already made me want to see it again to pick up on things I may have missed. However, with fewer entertaining subjects, shorter musical interludes and less fun overall, I'm not looking forward to my second viewing as much as I'd hoped I would.


Shannon the Movie Moxie said...

Wow, Bob you summed it up better tahn I could have! I didn't get a chance to see Helvetica yet you could certainly feel the energy in the room at the screening I went to people were really looking forward to the film.

I am gonna nit pick and re-quote them as saying "Industrial Design is for mass production". Which is, designing the pattern for something to be mass produced.

We design on an individual level every day, how we place our food on a plate, what we decide to wear, the make up of a email or blog post - that is all design.

I found the film interesting but really wanted to hear a lot more on things it only touched on such as sustainability. I also felt it cater to a particular class. And I don't believe that designing for the extremes and the middle will sort itself out makes any sense at all - to be honest, at that point I started listening with an overcritical ear. The point of design is to serve it's function, but not just for the extremes - Imagine if everything was designed for Andre the Giant? It makes no sense.

Bob Turnbull said...

Hey Shannon...

Your nit pick is correct. I think as the film went on, they began using the shorthand "design" to indicate "industrial design" and that's what I pretty much did in my post too - but it's a good point that the film's statements were mostly directed to the industrial variety.

I don't agree with the extremes quote either, but it did show one way of thinking about an approach to design and at the very least shows a different breed of designers than we may have had previously. The extremes idea doesn't work as a general rule at all, but there are situations or elelments that fit within it well. For example if you are looking to choose a material for a certain object you will be manufacturing, you probably want to focus on what kind of extremes it will face (hot versus cold; strong enough to resist being dropped, but light enough to lift easily; etc.). Of course that's only one element...Once you bring in something like sustainability, maybe you have to sacrifice a bit at the extremes.

Shannon the Movie Moxie said...

Aha! Glad to see we agree!

"Once you bring in something like sustainability, maybe you have to sacrifice a bit at the extremes."

I think that is the crux of the disconnect I felt with a lot of the film, given the state of the planet things like sustainability (and/or not living in excess) are needed for the world if not the user. It adds a new level to what should go into design but it's doesn't seem to be happening, at least not enough.

Daniella said...

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