I just saw Objectified at Yerba Buena, last week. I enjoyed getting a peek into the minds of the most respected industrial designers of the last few decades, but it disappointed me as commentary on the profession’s attempts to fill a larger societal role.
Good parts: the visuals were great. If you’re easily distracted by beautiful, manufactured objects (me == guilty), then you’ll enjoy all the nicely-shot closeups of everything from toothpicks to cars. There’s also a good amount of factory porn (CNC machines, injection molding, extrusions) which I particularly enjoy, since I love to see how things are made.
The interviews with the designers are also good. As with many documentaries I like, the filmmaker is silent, letting his subjects do all the talking. We get alternately profound and amusing glimpses into these designer’s minds, understanding how varied their design processes are (and how strange their obsessions.)
Where the documentary began to disappoint me was after an interview with Paola Antonelli (a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.) She provided an interesting voice for design, looking to a future where designer’s role has significantly expanded. Moving past the formal aspects of an object, it’s symbolic meaning, and even its immediate consumer context, she described a role for designers at the highest level of policy (politics, regulation, etc.) She believes that designers should be involved in any place where society’s behaviors are considered, where a system interacts with people.
As an aspirational voice, Antonelli’s point was well made. But that’s not where the profession is, right now, and the documentary doesn’t really provide a strong critique of that lofty aim. There is a well-justified angst these days in the design community over the role that designers have in fueling the endless and accelerating cycle of resource use that we have no hope of sustaining for more than a few generations. True, design is a valuable way to understand how people inhabit the world and to shape their experiences. But the vast majority of design occurring these days is simply a method of creating fashionable things that drive sales. Rob Walker (New York Times Magazine) takes aim at this, briefly, but then to address the point, the film shifts focus to IDEO headquarters where they are hard at work at minimizing the waste in… toothbrushes. The solution? A permanent handle with disposable heads. This Core77 review resonated with me:
At around the three-quarter mark in the film I started to squirm in my seat. The movie’s exploration of the relationship between human and object was all very interesting, but I started to wonder, Is this film going to be critical at all? And wouldn’t you know it, the very next scene cut to footage of e-waste processing centers, with CRT housings being disassembled, parts crashing, tumbling into massive steel bins, and (finally) some mention of what the impacts of all these objects that these venerated designers dream up might be. (Funny that I was relieved to see the dark side rearing its head! Like in all good narratives, no conflict no story.) Again, some good commentary by Rawsthorn, and then some follow up at IDEO, but I couldn’t help feeling that this essential part of the story of stuff was getting severely, almost negligently, shortchanged. I’ve been banging the “designers aren’t in the artifact business, they’re in the consequence business” drum for a long time now, so I wanted Gary to hold this foot closer to the fire.
This is a failing of the entire capitalist system as we’ve structured it so far, so you may say that it’s unfair to put too much blame at the feet of the lowly designer. But if designers are attempting to elevate their profession to the level of policy, I think it’s fair to point out how often they have failed to take the larger effects of their work into consideration.