Gary Hustwit made the biggest design geek film of recent memory: Helvetica. Now he’s gearing up for a follow up that casts its net a little wider; Objectified will look at the objects we own, the humans who design them, and how we’re all intertwined.
We sat down with Gary in a rustic email client overlooking a limpet field of packets to ask him about filming the documentary and how it’s changed his own relationship with his objects.
Let’s look back a little. How has object ownership changed in the last few decades?
30 or 40 years ago consumers put more thought into every purchase, took better care of their manufactured objects, and repaired them when they were broken. Who repairs their DVD player now? Come to think of it, who even buys a new DVD player now? We’ve had a totally new technology like DVD go from introduction, to being in almost every home in the country, to being practically obsolete, in just ten years. And obviously the concept of owning media in the form of tangible objects (CDs, DVDs) has completely changed. But lately people are consuming less, whether for economic reasons or environmental ones. Personally, I just feel like I don’t really need so much stuff, and the objects that I do have should be really meaningful.
Is there a way to rectify the problem of owning items, especially gadgets and consumer electronics, that by the nature of progress must continually be upgraded?
I thought the original iPhone was a step in the right direction, since it was screen-based and the software could just be upgraded. But then a year later, hello, here’s the 3G iPhone. I still have my 1st generation model. But I used to have a cell phone, a digital camera, a Palm Pilot, a portable hard drive…so instead of five or six gadgets needing constant upgrading, at least now I just have one. So that type of convergence or dematerialization will continue to evolve.
Did it feel to you in your interviews that the designers are isolated from the real world use of the products?Not at all. Most of them have fairly normal lives and have the same frustrations as the average consumer when something they buy is not designed well. For instance Marc Newson recently became a father, and we had a really funny conversation about how poorly most baby products are designed. So maybe in the future we’ll see Newson-designed pacifiers and strollers…
Did Helvetica get you entree with any of these designers?
It was certainly easier, since a lot of the designers had seen the film. When I was pitching Helvetica, there was a plenty of head scratching while I described the sort of film I wanted to make. This time I just sent people the DVD of Helvetica, and at least they had an idea of what I do.
But there were a few areas where this film was much more difficult to make. Graphic design is a lot less secretive; I think most influential designers know that the style of their work will be copied once it’s released, so they’re not so covert about their process. Product designers are dealing with patents, trade secrets, client confidentiality agreements. At almost every studio we went to, assistants were running around trying to hide certain things or cover up projects before our cameras started rolling.
How long have you been working on the film? When will it be out?
It’s been a year and a half now, which is about the same time it took to make Helvetica. Six months of research and pre-production, six months of filming, and six months of editing. The editing is really the hardest part of the process, because in a film like this there’s no set “story”…the themes and narrative arc of the film come out of the conversations I have with the designers. So we end up in the editing room with like 75 hours of footage, and try to narrow it down to 75 minutes.
How did working on the film affect your personal interaction with the things you already own?
It’s definitely made me think more about the objects I own, and the decision making process I go through when I’m buying new things.
If I buy a chair now, I have to say to myself, Will I keep this chair the rest of my life? Is this something I won’t get bored with? I don’t mind spending more for an object if it’s the highest quality, and if I think it’s going to last. Obviously that’s harder with gadgets and tech items, but for everything else in my life, I’m approaching consumption differently. I want to simplify my life, which includes all the stuff around me. It’s not that I want to stop buying things altogether, I just want to streamline my lifestyle.
Maybe that’s just me. But at several times during the making of the film, I’ve wanted to get rid of all my possessions.
How is object design better than it once was?
Overall, I think it’s less frivolous. There are a lot of designers out there who will turn down work if they don’t see a real need for the product, and I think that’s an interesting development. In the midst of an economic downturn that’s a much harder line for designers to take though. But in general there’s much more thought put into the design of all these objects, and especially into the materials. I don’t think Charles and Ray Eames were thinking about whether fiberglass was bad for us or the environment in the 1950s; they were looking at the materials they had access to, and coming up with the best way of designing with those materials. That’s all changed now, of course.
On which designer or company should we be keeping the sharpest eye?
All of them! I really think designers are going to save our asses and turn this economic situation around. When the economy is tanking, companies need to put more thought into redesigning their systems and products from top to bottom. If a designer can come up with a way to make my product with 25% less material, that’s a huge savings if I’m making millions of products. Better design makes that product less expensive to the consumer, more profitable for the company, and it’ll use less material resources. So we need to design our way out of this depression!