Objectified [Full Frame 09]

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.


  1. Matt Thomas Said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 1:32 am

    Maybe some people toss their laptops every few months as you say, but not me. The Mac on which I’m writing this is six years old. Thus, whether something is well-designed, for me at least, is partly a question of whether it lasts, not only in the sense of “Does it still look cool year after year?” but in the more basic sense of “Does it still work year after year?” The more I learn about design, the less interested I am in disposable anything.

    Does the documentary suggest that design has become all about getting people to, as you say, focus on what’s new or what’s next? I haven’t seen it yet, but my impression from the trailer and poster was that it’s more about highlighting design classics such as the Eames Lounge Chair, objects that, like the typeface Helvetica, still look contemporary and still do their jobs well.

    Are designers artists who seek to create aesthetically beautiful objects that also work well? Or are they something more insidious: people who are merely trying to manipulate us to buy things? My hope is that, whatever the current state of affairs is, the documentary at least argues designers should be the former, that good design is by definition sustainable, etc. Am I going to be disappointed?

  2. Chuck Said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 8:35 am

    I would say it make sense to read the film almost as an “Intro to the Theory of Design,” as articulated mostly through the eyes of practitioners, although one New York Times critic is also given quite a bit of screen time. I’d also add that the film itself isn’t endorsing the idea of disposability; in fact, quite the opposite, it also celebrates well-made enduring objects.

    The designers are definitely aware of the complications you describe in terms of design and commodity fetishism (though that old-fashioned word is never used, IIRC). My inclination is to say that the film endorses the “good design is sustainable” position, but it’s also doing so much more than that, so I wouldn’t want to reduce it to that one debate.

    There is, for example, an entire segment devoted to a male and female robot design team, and they discuss the idea of “design as debate,” suggesting that by designing robots that defy traditional categories, they can raise questions about “what is a robot.”

  3. The Chutry Experiment » Friday Links, Part Two Said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    […] of reviews of Gary Hustwit’s documentary about industrial design, Objectified, one of my favorite films at this year’s Full Frame (and one that seems even more impressive as I look back on it).  […]

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