After watching Gary Hustwit’s insightful new documentary about industrial design, Objectified (IMDB), I found it impossible not to look at objects–whether iPhones, automobile frames, or coffee mugs–without thinking about the myriad decisions that went into their design. In fact, even items that seem utterly “natural,” such as toothpicks, are designed, the product of countless decisions and experimentation. In exploring these design choices, through interviews with a number of iconic industrial designers, Hustwit allows us to see our everyday world of objects in a new way.
Hustwit’s film works in part because of the sheer curiosity with which he treats his subjects. As he acknowledged in the question-and-answer session after the film, “I’m a design geek,” adding that the film allowed him to answer one of the great design questions in recent memory: “Why did I obsess over the new iPhone?” While this fascination is, no doubt, inseparable from the successful Apple branding and marketing campaigns, there is still something tantalizing about the objects themselves. Significantly, Hustwit acknowledges this role for marketing, citing New York Times design columnist, Rob Walker, who points out the temptation for consumers to focus on “what’s new or what’s next,” not necessarily what will endure. Walker later adds that if he could engage in a multibillion dollar marketing campaign, he would seek to convince people to keep (and cherish) what they already own.
Others address questions about how design itself has been marketed and how designers themselves have become a means of adding value to a product, as illustrated by companies such as Ikea and Target that have “democratized” design. These questions about design are further addressed on the Objectified blog, where Hustwit includes a weekly, “Obectify Me” feature, in which prominent designers write about objects that inspire them.
Visually, however, the film isn’t shy about geeking out on the practices and products of industrial design. As the cinetrix points out,
Form follows function here. The cinematography–the framing alone–is shiny as all get out. Sleek machines smoothly extrude products. And you’ve never seen so many gorgeous closeups of hands [or, er, hangnails] holding toothbrushes and potato peelers.
[Worth noting: A.J. Schnack also points out Luke Geissbuhler's "sharp" cinematography] And in other scenes, I found myself acutely aware of how the design process is based upon other objects. A brainstorming session in which designers seek to build a better toothbrush makes us of Post-It notes. And the Apple designers constantly build upon previous generations of their products.
But I think that what kept me engaged with Objectified were the challenging ethical and sociological questions raised by the film. How do designers, who are tasked with creating products that consumers will want to buy (whether they need them or not) engage with issues of sustainability. Karim Rashad, in a hyperglib pink an white costume (and setting) mulls the idea of selling cardboard laptops that would biodegrade more quickly than the metallic versions we toss every few months anyway. Others seek to create objects that will not become obsolete so quickly, questions that Hustwit beautifully illustrates by showing objects that have quite literally been tossed to the curb, including most notably an old stereo and turntable sitting abandoned on a sidewalk, covered in snow.
Like Hustwit’s previous film, Helvetica, which explored typefaces and which I read as a form of media history, Objectified encourages us to look at our surroundings in new ways, asking us to think about the objects we use on a daily basis. Design becomes at once a form of expression, an attempt to humanize our world, and a form of marketing.