Finally, Objectified came to Los Angeles for a night. The Laboratory was a bit eager and a bit fan-boy-y. Some stages of hunger for the stories perspective and objectives of design, broadly. We felt like a small transition was made — there was a joke that the Laboratory “got”; there were personalities we recognized along with their subtle insider-quirks; &c.
Here are just a couple of short comments for the notebook.
I enjoyed the director Gary Hustwit’s motivation — a curiosity about this topic and his passion for design as a self-professed “design geek.” Evidently he had some 90 or so hours of interviews, which is obviously quite a bit of material. He managed to edit this down to a point where a lay audience — non-design-geeks — can get a comfortable survey of various waypoints around the design world.
Some of those relevant points were the relationship between an object and the considerations and thoughts of the people who made the thing. This is a crucial, basic and fundamental point regarding design — that it is the expression of ideas. Design sits in a curious and powerful position between thoughts and ideas and their materialization. It may be the one best human endeavor to prove the Latourian point that objects are also always subjects of their coming-to-be, and in this way products of will, politics, conversations, resources, availability, attention and disagreements. All of these things and their actions are what embody the design object. From this perspective, you have to consider the role human agents play in making the world and in that way these designed, socialized objects.
The examples revealed in the film are some quite legible things, which is great to share for the — well, The Laboratory will refer to it as the PBS/NPR market in the United States. Generally, they are well-educated, informed and read folks who would go to a contemporary art museum, subscribe to Dwell Magazine, The New Yorker and The Economist and probably drive a Subaru or maybe a Saab. (The Laboratory does not subscribe to Dwell, but to Cabinet as its subversive substitute, before anyone asks. And a Subaru is sensible.)
What happens then is the audience learns about what happens before an object becomes what it is. We see this from the perspective of folks like Dieter Rams being quite human with some lovely turns of phrase about design with as little of itself as possible, and an ethic of taking-away, taking-away rather than gaudy over-designed things, and then praise for Apple; Jonathan Ive sort of geeking out on CNC tool-pathing and revealing a nugget about the form and surface of things reflective of the contents; Tim Brown and Bill Moggridge and David Kelly talking about design with post-its, interaction design and design thinking; Jane Fulton-Suri talking about looking outward/outside in the design process; Marc Newson teaching us basically the degree to which he is as fluffy you thought he might be; this guy Chris Bangle who the Laboratory does not know because we don’t pay attention to automobile design because it is like designing roller skates for dinosaurs who think a lot about themselves — or who are little people and need a prop to suggest who they think they are a big person, and for whom, inevitably, the car turns them into a parody of who they think they are, like the guys we saw in Laguna Beach last weekend who both were driving the same exhaust-burbling ghost gray Ferraris and clearly could not have been too happy that someone else right next to them had the exact same exclusive car; Karim Rashid confusing us with a mix of quite articulate thoughts and these ridiculous, incongruent costumes with which he has branded himself (seeing him without bubble purple sunglasses drawing in a way that says he’s quite considered made him slightly more human, but still basically a reptile who designs crap dust-buster holders for Target); the Smart Design folks kinda relishing their squishy handled kitchen utensils and the stories that led to them, which reveals this wonderful moment where it was merely a bicycle handle from a kids bike that put them where they got; Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby showing why they are such a wonderful team and presenting the design for provocation/critical design perspective with some of their curious robots — they say enough to make their work legible, although it is still the unofficial opinion of the Laboratory’s Bureau of Categories that Dunne & Raby is/are design for galleries and museums, where it has the most congruence with art-world sensibilities and perspectives and objectives; Rob Walker who stole the show in my mind for being an excellent design critic in the sense that he reflected (or, rather — insisted) on accountability of the sort that almost every other moment in the film left out — accountability to make the world a more habitable place (and not by making tons of carrot peelers that pensioners with life-gnarled hands can grasp, which is important but will not save us from ourselves in the “big-picture” smog-choked world of more and more stuff that has been made by Wal-Mart participating in the process of design by asking for another of those for its shelves, but in pink, please, this time.)
There was more of course. These are the moments that stood out in my mind. The transitions amongst the designer interviews was quite nice, except in that they showed how closed the circuit of conversations were, which I am certain was a physical requirement of getting what could be edited into one film, which is fine. It was a club of designers with us looking in from the outside.
It would have been intriguing to see some DIY design from a more pedestrian perspective — like, people designing for themselves, without the haughtiness of fancy designers who work in fancy lofts with pulley systems to raise their fancy bicycles out of the way while they spend the day using large Wacom screens to digitally emulate MagicMarker style brushstrokes for designing toothbrushes which, in the film, was clearly done by someone who would rather be designing a sleek imaginary racing car because, like…toothbrushes are not supposed to be made to look fast and aerodynamic and this is what this unnamed worker-bee designer was doing, which was hysterical to me.)
What I mean to say regarding “DIY” design is to highlight the mechanisms by which people in unusual places address their own survival needs in creative ways. Or the abilities “we” all have to make things for ourselves that are not accomplished by crappy products. Something that suggests a future in which product design just goes away, in the sense of design of things, called products, which are the result not of human need but of business needs to roll as many things off of assembly lines at such-and-so cost. What becomes foregrounded is the ability of people at another tier of need.
It is not to say that everything goes away, but that there is a direct relationship between an idea of a normal human being and the materialization of that idea in some object form. “I make what I need to enjoy my life, rather than feeding a hunger for more stuff that I never would have thought I needed in the first place.”
And this gets to the point of what we desperately missed: a perspective that showed what might be phrased — design for survival. Design that deliberately takes its briefs from the U.N. Millennnium Goals for example. Design that inverts itself to address the rampant consumerist cycle. Design for a future, one that jumps beyond what we expect to fulfill this weird reptilian urge to have more stuff we ultimately do not need, but a design that takes-away, that looks at the world from a different perspective and with assumptions that do not expect more products rolling off of assembly lines and filling enormous bins at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Seriously.
Why do I blog this? Just to capture some notes and thoughts on this quite well-done film. It will be coming out on public television in the United States in the Fall and available on DVD sometime around September. Hutswit temptingly said he is working on a third film to follow up Helvetica and this one, which had us wondering what it might be, of course. Perhaps a trilogy of sorts that continues to zoom out from the quite specific (type and typography) through to the process of design to something much larger.