Design is how it works: Gary Hustwit’s Objectified

Objectified movie poster


Objec­ti­fied finds its the­sis in a quo­ta­tion from one of history’s prime indus­tri­al­ists, Henry Ford: “Every object, whether inten­tional or not, speaks to who­ever put it there.” In other words, every­thing we select, pur­chase, and inter­act with, was first designed and man­u­fac­tured by a skilled arti­san. That person’s job is to obsess about you, your body, needs and habits, and how their prod­uct might become a part of your life. Direc­tor Gary Hustwit’s pre­vi­ous doc­u­men­tary fea­ture Hel­vetica (read The Dork Report review) was a cel­e­bra­tion of typog­ra­phers and graphic design­ers, and inspired laypeo­ple to rec­og­nize the long his­tory and great labor that went into the type­faces they use every day on their com­puter screens. Sim­i­larly, Objec­ti­fied pro­files the often unknown indus­trial design­ers behind the stuff we buy.

Jonathan Ives in ObjectifiedJonathan Ives’ inner sanc­tum. After con­duct­ing this inter­view, Apple had the film­mak­ers shot.

Apple’s res­i­dent guru Jonathan Ive is per­haps the most famous design auteur fea­tured. Ive is prob­a­bly the sec­ond most famous per­son at Apple, justly acclaimed for his sin­gu­lar design aes­thetic that first caught the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion with the bondi Blue iMac and then the stark, white, decep­tively “sim­ple” iPod. Ive’s boss Steve Jobs famously said that design is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works,” a prin­ci­ple born out in Ive’s work. Know­ing inside and out the par­tic­u­lars of dif­fer­ent mate­ri­als and man­u­fac­tur­ing is just part of design­ing a product’s exter­nals. Ive bran­dishes precision-tooled parts from a dis­as­sem­bled Mac­Book Pro to illus­trate that Apple spends an enor­mous amount of time and resources not just design­ing their prod­ucts, but also the cus­tom machines and processes nec­es­sary to mass pro­duce them.

Naoto Fukasawa in ObjectifiedNaoto Fuka­sawa rethinks the CD player.

Objec­ti­fied spends some con­sid­er­able time on the topic of sus­tain­abil­ity, a respon­si­bil­ity that regret­tably only recently entered the indus­trial designer’s job descrip­tion. Valerie Casey of IDEO relates the incred­i­ble anec­dote of the dif­fi­cult process of devel­op­ing a new tooth­brush. When the prod­uct is finally ready and in stores, she embarks on a much-needed vaca­tion to Fiji. If you didn’t already guess where this story was going, she finds a dis­carded IDEO tooth­brush washed up on a beach halfway around the world. In less than a week, her prod­uct had become pollution.

Objec­ti­fied nec­es­sar­ily makes a brief detour into inter­ac­tion design (this brief digres­sion would be wor­thy of a film unto itself, but in the mean­time, the curi­ous can refer to Steven John­son’s 1997 book Inter­face Cul­ture: How New Tech­nol­ogy Trans­forms the Way We Cre­ate and Com­mu­ni­cate). When we inter­act with most ana­log prod­ucts, their form fol­lows their func­tion. As a thought exper­i­ment, would an alien from outer space (or a Tarzan raised in the wild) be able to infer an object’s func­tion sim­ply by look­ing at it? That is likely the case with a spoon or chair, but not so much with an iPhone. For many prod­ucts of the dig­i­tal age, the out­ward form fac­tor gives no clues as to the func­tion. Thus, inter­ac­tion design was born with the Xerox PARC graph­i­cal user inter­face. Many of our daily tasks are now abstracted onto a two-dimensional screen. The Apple iPhone and iPad have pop­u­lar­ized the touch­screen, which likely sig­nals the begin­ning of another sea change when periph­er­als like key­boards and mice will be revealed to have been a tem­po­rary evo­lu­tion­ary bump, now marked for extinction.

still from ObjectifiedAwww yeah, design­ers know what time it is.

The last images we see are of the devices used to make the movie itself: a com­puter, hard drive, and cam­era. Tellingly, the Objec­ti­fied Blu-ray edi­tion has no menu struc­ture at all. You put it in, it plays, and the sup­ple­men­tary fea­tures fol­low imme­di­ately after the clos­ing cred­its. It’s a com­pletely guided, lin­ear expe­ri­ence that speaks to the film’s ele­va­tion of the cre­ator over the consumer.

Offi­cial movie site:

Must read: A Hur­ri­cane of Con­sumer Val­ues by Alissa Walker

Buy any of these fine prod­ucts from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report:


Purity, Ubiquity & Legibility: Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica

Helvetica movie poster


Hel­vetica (the doc­u­men­tary film) is not about Hel­vetica (the type­face), per se. Rather, it’s about the arts of graphic design and typog­ra­phy, their prac­ti­tion­ers, and how they affect our daily lives.

Each lumi­nary talk­ing head has a dif­fer­ent expla­na­tion of Helvetica’s appeal and longevity: neu­tral­ity, leg­i­bil­ity, per­fec­tion (unlike more ornate type­faces, it is arguably com­prised of the purest state of let­ter­forms and can’t be improved), cleans­ing renewal (tran­si­tion­ing the tacky design of the 1950s to the bold and to-the-point 60s), problem-solving, sooth­ing­ness, and just plain beauty. Its detrac­tors see its ubiq­uity as self-perpetuating, due to design­ers’ momen­tum, habit, and bad taste. The enthu­si­asm of the enthu­si­asts is infec­tious, but the movie doesn’t mock them or hold them up as objects of curios­ity culled from a nerdy sub­cul­ture (as does, arguably, The King of Kong).

A scene from Gary Hustwit's HelveticaThe days when typog­ra­phers had dirty fingers

Thank­fully for its sub­ject mat­ter of graphic design, direc­tor Gary Hus­twit presents a highly pol­ished work full of excel­lent typog­ra­phy, motion graph­ics, and edit­ing. This Dork Reporter bemoans the ten­dency of many doc­u­men­taries (like Spell­bound and Word­play) to use their non-fiction badge as a press pass to excuse grain, sloppy fram­ing, and poor sound.

This Dork Reporter is a self-educated web designer, not prop­erly trailed in the art and/or craft of graphic design. But he knows enough to applaud the film for touch­ing upon two of the biggest aspects of typog­ra­phy that every layper­son should internalize:

  • Know your terms: Type­faces are designs. Fonts are par­tic­u­lar imple­men­ta­tions of those designs. There are mul­ti­ple fonts based on the type­face Helvetica.
  • Arial is a poor Hel­vetica knock-off com­mis­sioned by Microsoft to side-step the expen­sive licens­ing fees. It is an abom­i­na­tion, a blight upon this planet earth, and should be sum­mar­ily deleted from humanity’s hard dri­ves. (q.v. The Scourge of Arial)

A scene from Gary Hustwit's HelveticaWe’d be lost with­out Hel­vetica… literally

Finally, this Dork Reporter must note a major dis­ap­point­ment: I rented Hel­vetica from Net­flix, and the disc arrived embla­zoned with a “Red Enve­lope Enter­tain­ment” label. Bizarrely, there were no signs of the exten­sive bonus fea­tures promised on the movie’s offi­cial web­site. Has Net­flix begun releas­ing “not-so-special” edi­tions of DVDs omit­ting the bonus fea­tures avail­able on retail edi­tions? This Dork Reporter, long a relier on Net­flix to help keep his DVD shelves from groan­ing into a black hole of over­con­sump­tion, stamps his feet in frustration.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy any of these fine prod­ucts from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report: