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Independent Lens: Objectified

Director: Gary Hustwit
Cast: Paola Antonelli, Andrew Blauvelt, Dieter Rams, Naoto Fukasawa, Karim Rashid, Rob Walker
Regular airtime: Tuesday, 10pm ET

(PBS; US: 24 Nov 2009)

To Create a Better Experience

Good design is as little design as possible.
—Dieter Rams

The title of Objectified is a verb, past tense. It’s a partly clever, partly literalizing evocation of what’s at stake in Gary Hustwit’s film, the ever-receding process of designing products, in which the product is out of date as soon as it’s imagined, much less made concrete.

“There is a story embedded in every object,” says Andrew Blauvelt, Design Curator Walker Art Center. This story, he continues, is a function of time—one moment after another, one choice affecting the next. “Every decision was made at some point,” he says. While designers and experts in design might understand such stories within specific contexts, others are revealed in consumption, how users use these objects. The film follows something like a partly coy, partly self-confirming arc, its first interviews focused on familiar, if esoteric concepts of design, and latter talking heads attending to environmental effects of design.

The film’s own design is careful and elegant, as well as unsurprising, illustrative rather than provocative. Following shots of common objects—coffeemakers, alarm clocks, spoons and forks—Blauvelt declares that the aim of design is to “make these gadgets perform better.” Much like Hustwit’s Helvetica, Objectified presents the surface of a process that many consumers believe is superficial.

Even as Blauvelt says the point of design is to improve users’ comfort or the ease of using objects, Karim Rashid concedes that some “70 to 80% of the world is uncomfortable,” owing to lack of resources and affordable objects. This raises a challenge that most designers are not so interested in solving, serving the needs of that majority. Rather, according to Rob Walker, columnist for the New York Times Magazine, designers are paid to do something else. “There’s a company writing the check,” he says, “The company wants more stuff and more people to buy it.”

For decades, selling stuff, in particular stuff that was “now and next,” as Walker phrases it, was an obvious goal. One way to sell that stuff, as Objectified demonstrates, is to combine both newness (a sleeker look, a smaller size, for instance) and familiarity, an identity that suggests consistency or seeming comprehensibility.

One way to design that combination is to make visible the connection between form and function (a Martian, suggests Alice Rawsthorn, Design Editor at the International Herald Tribune, could intuit how “analog” objects like chairs might be used). The invention of the microchip has supposedly altered that connection. Now, the form of a digital object needn’t be clearly related to what it does.

Rawsthorn suggests that digital technology is moving “the culture of the tangible and the material to the increasingly intangible and immaterial culture, but that poses an enormous number of tensions and conflicts within design.” Still, as Rashid observes, many designs revisit “the archetype over and over and over again.” He cites the example of the digital camera, ostensibly loosed from the film camera’s rectangular shape (designed to accommodate the actual film inside), yet maintaining the same basic look.

The documentary doesn’t explore reasons for this revisiting, but at least one has to do with marketing. Any design must be promoted and purchased. And while Objectified doesn’t take up the current economy, consumer concerns underscore an essential conceptual problem for the sort of design described here, that is, design

In Objectified, designers submit their interests are altruistic as well as personal: they want to design and be known for designing; they want to change how objects function. “Design needs to be plugged into natural human behavior,” asserts industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa, as if “natural human behavior” is self-evident. Still, as IDEO CEO and President Tim Brown says, “Most of what we design ends up in a landfill somewhere.” Rawsthorn agrees. “Sustainability,” she says, has emerged as a new concern for many designers. “It’s no longer possible for designers to ignore the implications of designing more and more stuff.” If only.


Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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