Objectified and the Waste of the Rapid-Design Culture

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This eagerly-awaited new documentary (from the creator of Helvetica: The Film) all about product design isn’t just about our object-fixation, although it looks at that too. It asks hard questions about how much “stuff” we create, consume, and throw away. It could be the most important film of the year.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Gary Hustwit’s documentary film Helvetica. It was a minor hit, extremely popular among designers and still quite talked-about online today. And over the last several months he’s been steadily promoting his anticipated followup. Called Objectified, it bills itself as the first professional documentary all about industrial/product design. But there’s something incredible you probably don’t know about the film: it could make you sick. And this is a good thing.

Featuring interviews with some of the biggest names behind scores of products we use everyday (including Apple’s Jonathan Ives and Braun’s famous Dieter Rams), it also features some extensive commentary from one of my favorite columnists, the New York Times’ Rob Walker.

 

The Waste of Design

Actually, that’s the tip-off that we’re in store for something a little deeper: that a smart, environmentally-aware commentator like Walker should feature so much in the film means this isn’t just a worshipful series of profiles on some of the best designers of our time. Right there in the film’s title and poster, we find an indication of Hustwit’s larger and more questioning eye. ‘Objectified’ isn’t always a positive word, so even while he might be chronicling the history of industrial design and profiling some of its shining stars, the film is hardly uncritical of design’s physical and environmental results.

Just as in Helvetica, which gave a solid amount of time over to those who consider the ubiquitous Swedish-styled font to be both limited and an oppresively universal shorthand for ‘clarity’ in typography, Objectified will be spending much of its running time not only examining the coolness and greatness of the objects we love, but the philosophy behind why we buy them (this is Walker’s territory, as covered in his recent book Buying In) and, the best part where we here at Greener.Ideal are concerned: the environmental impacts that lie behind our culture of object-consumption.

There simply is no other film out there that analyzes with any level of sustained quality the drive to consume more and more manufactured objects, and a film like this simply could not come along at a better time.

 

Consumer Spending Will Save Us All

As we all know, the American economy is struggling heavily under the strain of a recession. Government bailouts are presented as possible ways to “get Americans spending again,” and one of the primary reccomendations after the 9/11 attacks was to “get out there and shop.” Despite the housing crash and the subsequent big-box recession, the idea that the continent might simply pick up where it left off in 2008 and return to a relentless frenzy of flatscreen buying and computer upgrading still has very strong currency. Objectified should be required viewing for anyone thinking that straight-up consumer spending is sustainable, much less desireable.

The film is just now receiving various special screenings around the country (and the world), and some of the early reactions have been telling. One of the most-repeated anecdotes comes from the New York screening, where one of the audience members, during the Q&A session afterwards, exclaimed that Hustwit’s film “made him physically sick.”

 

This Film Will Make You Sick

The influential Jason Kottke talked about the line of questioning in a recent post:

Not that the movie was bad but that it was powerful. The man was a product designer and the film raised a lot of issues for him with regard to the waste — both physical trash and human energy, if I was catching his drift correctly — produced during the course of making these billions of mass produced items, most of which end up in landfills in pretty short order. He seemed to be asking himself and the audience: how can we, as designers, in good conscience, keep doing this to ourselves?

As Linda Tischler, writing in Fast Company, says: there’s a tension at the heart of the film, one between the designers doing great work and churning out ever-more-innovative rapid prototypes, and the same intelligent, conscious designers struggling with the fact that these prototypes (plus all the final products they eventually evolve into) are ultimately destined for landfills around the world.

 

A Divided Subject

It’s a film that is divided, not in a dissonant sense, but in the same way that we, the ‘conscious’ consumer, are divided every time we try and buy with our brains while still feeding that desire for the latest, greatest, and most coveted. How many first-generation iPhones (or second, after a few years) will be reused or recycled in any way? Tischler continues:

Karim Rashid suggests that anything that has a shelf life of 11 months or less–electronics, etc–should be made of cardboard, for maximum disposability. The New York Times columnist Rob Walker suggests shopping in your own closet, for stuff you bought and rarely used.

What’s unspoken in this film is the role that marketing plays in the endless round of product introductions–the need to goose the bottom line with a new gizmo with a new, marginally better (or not) feature–to satisfy earnings expectations on Wall Street.

The role of design in all this? To create the products compelling enough to seduce us to buy. And then to relegate our old stuff to the landfill. And the beat goes on.

It’s fitting that a film designed to explore the fine work done in industrial design should also explore the massive underlying costs of object-manufacture, and it seems as though Hustwit’s film does far more than just scratch the surface. Will it make you sick, too? “Maybe that’s what we were trying to do,” he told the audience member.

Objectified will be released sometime this year–as a small documentary it has no fixed release date, so try and find a special screening near you and get tickets, as all of them will go fast.