4 Stars Movies

Design is how it works: Gary Hustwit’s Objectified

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 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 Objectified
Jonathan 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 Objectified
Naoto 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.

Awww 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

4 Stars Movies

Purity, Ubiquity & Legibility: Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica

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).

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.

We’d be lost without Helvetica… literally

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)

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.

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