Like everyone else who enjoyed the typography documentary Helvetica, I’ve long been anticipating Gary Hustwit’s second design-related film Objectified, which premiered Saturday at SXSW. Objectified focuses on industrial design — the every-day objects we covet and the people who design them. It explores the meaning of design, the relationship between the designer and designed object, and what the objects we use say about those of us who own them.
My first reaction as I watched the parade of gorgeous objects that are featured in the film was sheer consumer delight — product porn! I also felt a sense of pride to be a part of the design community depicted and watch our story unfold before me. My next thought was that this is the movie I want my mother to see. Not just so that she understands what I do — she’s been practicing her explanation for years now — but to give her a better sense of what designers think about, and an inside peak into the intention that goes into the design of common objects like her OXO kitchen tools.
The movie format, much like Helvetica, is structured around a series conversational vignettes with industrial design superstars such as Jonathan Ive, Naoto Fukasawa, Dieter Rams, and Bill Modgridge, and thoughtful commentary from design critics Rob Walker and Alice Rawsthorn and MOMA Curator Paola Antonelli. The film takes us through the design process: a view into the trademark post-it note brainstorming sessions ala IDEO and the iterations on the design of the OXO potato peeler at Smart Design. Johnathan Ive talks about the manufacturing process that goes into making the new Apple unibody laptops, and their need to also design the machinery used to do that.
The film speaks to the role of design in mass consumerism, with sweeping surveys through Ikea and Target, and touches on the responsibilty of designers to think about the way products are made, not just how they’re disposed of. Alice Rawsthorn points out: “It’s about redesigning every single aspect of a company’s process, from sourcing materials to designing to production to shipping, and then eventually designing a way for those products to be disposed of responsibly. That’s a mammoth task, so it’s no wonder that designers and manufacturers are finding it so difficult.”
Interaction design makes an appearance in the film as Bill Moggridge, who coined the term, tells the story of designing the first laptop, and the mechanical considerations that went into it; and then realizing that the program it ran once he opened the thing was just as engrossing as the object itself, and also needed to be designed. The integration of interaction design and industrial design didn’t get nearly enough screen time IMHO (I’m biased, of course) but Naota Fukasawa’s explanation of it really resonates with me:
“Nowadays the term ‘interaction design’ mainly refers to software or the screen, intangible components. But the way I think about it, designing hardware, things that we can touch, solid objects, is all interaction design. People tend to think of interaction design for mobile phones as talking and pushing buttons, but I think of having the phone in your pocket, or having it in your hands while talking, as interaction design, since it’s a part of the communication. Touching an object without thinking means that your fingers are interacting with something.”
The other parts of the movie that struck me, to the best of my recollection are:
- A sequence that focuses on the objects that surround us in every day life, from brushing our teeth, eating breakfast, etc, suggesting that it’s not just the products themselves but their role in our lives that gives them meaning.
- The manufacturing of the Jasper Morrison Air Chair…luscious. Even scraping off the excess plastic once it’s run through the mill is something of craftmanship.
- Dieter Rams listing several timeless principles for design that really made me wish I’d had a pen.
- French designers Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec talking about the relationship they have with eachother and the engineers that bring their work to life, and get in a dig toward Marc Newson to boot.
- Dunne and Fiona Raby’s Technological Dreams — it’s great to see Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s exploration of the implications of smart objects make it into the film. But I wish their work was situated with a bit more context around it.
- Everything Rob Walker said.
- And while I’m certainly a fan of IDEO, I felt like their part in the film came closest to being a sales or recruiting video. They make a lot of important points, including addressing sustainability and service design, but they’re on screen for quite a while.
In the end, it’s Rob Walker who brings us back to the meaning of things — what does our stuff say about us? to us? what would each of us take with us in a hurricane, and how can we hold onto what we have right now?