Do you ever stop to realize that another human being carefully conceived and designed every object you will touch today? It's a pretty amazing thought, and after Objectified, you'll be thinking it more often.
And that's exactly the point. Like Helvetica, director Gary Hustwit's previous documentary triumph about the most prevalent typeface on earth, Objectified sings the praises of those very people who, while not necessarily under-appreciated, definitely operate in the background—they design your stuff. It's a secret little world, and through Objectified, we get to live in it.
Take this lamp I bought at a flea market last weekend. I Googled the only thing on the bottom that would identify it ("WINDSOR L-10") and got zero relevant results. It's old, pre-internet for sure, so I wasn't surprised. But who designed it? It's so tiny and Wall-e like (essentially a hybrid of Wall-e himself and the task lamp Pixar uses in their logo)—I want to know more! Someone designed this, and I love imagining the moment of its conception.
My lamp only cost $15, so odds are it wasn't designed by any of the überheavyweights featured in Objectified: There's Apple's Jonathan Ive, Smart Design (of Flip Video fame) founders Davin Stowell and Dan Formosa, the legendary Dieter Rams of Braun, the folks at IDEO (who designed the first laptop, among many other things), Naoto Fukusawa (father of the Infobar), Chris Bangle, the infamous (and former) chief designer of BMW, and many others. It's a star-studded group. Also featured prominently is Rob Walker, who writes my favorite New York Times column "Consumed" in the magazine every Sunday—he is a joy in every scene he is in, including where he dreams of an ad campaign encouraging people to got out and use and be satisfied with the stuff they already own.
But what's great (and where Helvetica also ruled) is that Hustwit is a master interviewer. He gets his subjects to speak about what can be a jargon and marketing-voodoo laden industry with total clarity and comfort that folks that didn't go to design school can comprehend freely. Ive, holding up the single aluminum block from which a unibody MacBook is hewn while trying to control his massive biceps, speaks about how designers are ultimately obsessive, borderline neurotic people. He can't look at an object anywhere without seeing the multiple layers of intent involved-who designed it, who it's designed for, what it does well. To Ive, it's an illness.
To others, it's desire. Marc Newson, who designs everything but is famous especially for aviation-related like the EADS spaceplane, puts it this way: "I want to have things that don't exist yet," which I think we can all relate to here.
One place where Objectified gets somewhat tripped up is in its hesitance to boldly define the inherent conflict of the designer, especially now: good design should last and improve with time, which is often directly opposed to the interests of a commercial designer's clients who want people to keep buying things. This theme does come up in the film, but where Helvetica had the postmodernism vs. modernism conflict-in-a-bubble at its heart, which served as the perfect organizational structure to not only be entertaining, but to also school everyone in design theory, Objectified lacks a similar conflict by which everything can be defined.
I was disappointed to not see more of the good design vs. capitalism conflict mainly because it's going to be the most important concept in gadget design over the next few decades—not only for the environmental concerns, but because software is more than ever the representation of a gadget's heart and soul. This is not a new concept: when fondling the Grid Compass (the world's first laptop computer he helped design), Bill Moggridge of IDEO says it only took a few seconds for the user experience to be completely about the software interface on its 320x200 screen, with the hardware dropping away almost completely. And he designed it! As an interesting contrast, Naoto Fukasawa explains that in Japan, interactions with a tangible object are much more important, culturally, to the Japanese. Which makes sense when you see the horrid software being run by such a beautiful phone as the Infobar.
This concept also fits snugly in with a designer's environmental concerns—since software doesn't fill up a landfill, having hardware that can be re-upped to latest and greatest status over the web makes the earth happy too.
This choice to not hang the whole film on this idea was of course a conscious one, and it probably ensured a broader, more appealing film in the end. I just missed the elegance of everything fitting together into nice ideological halves in Helvetica.
But when judged alone, Objectified gets the job done beautifully and does for industrial designers what Helvetica did for graphic designers: lets us step into their frame of reference and greater appreciate, or at the very least notice, their omnipresent work.
More info: objectifiedfilm.com