Designs for life


His first film was about the typeface Helvetica. His second explores the creation of the objects we see and use every day. Gary Hustwit tells DAVIN O'DWYERhow he demystifies design in Objectified, showing in Dublin this week as part of the Stranger Than Fictionfestival

TO GET some idea of the immense scope of Objectified, the new documentary from filmmaker Gary Hustwit, take a glance over the top of this week’s Ticketand count the number of man-made objects you can see. Next, concentrate on three pretty basic ones – a glass, a chair, an umbrella, say – and three more advanced ones – for example a mobile phone, a TV remote, a car. Now, consider where these objects came from – what their purpose is, how they evolved into their current form and who designed them are just some of the themes explored in Objectified.

“It might seem audacious to squeeze the vast world of design into a 75-minute film, and in a way I’m not trying to squeeze it all in,” says Hustwit, a chatty and amiable American whose propensity for deep thinking comes across as thoughtful curiosity rather than out-and-out geekiness. “However, I am trying to get the ideas and the issues that are in the film into a more public discourse, and get people to consider the design of everything around them and consider their relationship to all this stuff. ”

The film is a sequel, or more accurately a companion, to Hustwit’s first documentary as director, the surprisingly successful Helvetica, which was about the iconic typeface. Helveticaseemed simultaneously arcane and mundane, a niche film about a ubiquitous typeface, but its success spoke of the widespread interest in connecting in some way with those design decisions that shape our daily environment.

Helveticawas seemingly simple, because it was about one specific typeface,” says Hustwit, “but it’s really about a visual communication system, a way of communication that we all use every day. Through that system of communication, we were able to talk about so much – graphic design for the past 50 years, modernism, post-modernism, all these things.

“Seemingly simple, but when you really look at it, it’s a lot more complex, and a whole world of creativity opens up behind it. Making the films was a way of exploring my questions about this stuff – I wanted to watch a documentary about fonts and graphic design and I couldn’t believe one didn’t exist, so I made one.”

Hustwit is already planning a third film on a similar theme, though he is circumspect about what area of design it will focus on. As an independent filmmaker, he can’t rely on the backing of a studio, so, to raise awareness of his projects, and also to raise funds, he embarks on an exhausting touring schedule, presenting his films in person and engaging in questions and answers sessions with the audience. This is the “director as touring musician” business model.

“I’m doing 50 cities in 90 days,” says Hustwit. “That schedule is a little bit less hectic than Helvetica, actually, when we did 100 cities in under six months. This time I’m scaling back a bit. Definitely, though, it’s the reality for indie film-makers, you’ve got to get out there and tour it, sell merchandise at the screenings, lay the groundwork for the DVD. I see it all as part of the filmmaking process. There’s no separation from making the film and distributing the film now, it’s a holistic process. And it’s about establishing a direct connection to the audience.”

Objectifiedshares Helvetica’s form and aesthetic, with a languid, contemplative rhythm. While the former film had a chronological narrative momentum as it followed the world of typography from the creation of Helvetica in 1957 to the present, Objectifiedis looser and more conversational, composed as it is of interviews with numerous designers and cultural commentators. Among the talking heads are the hugely influential Dieter Rams, who was the design guru at Braun for 30 years; Jonathan Ive, Apple’s head of design and the man responsible for the design of the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone; Karim Rashid, a colourful New York-based designer whom TimeMagazine called the “poet of plastic”; and many of the senior people at the pioneering design consultancy Ideo. Needless to say, it’s a very talkie movie.

“I like talking about these things and learning more, so the arc of the film is really dictated by those conversations,” says Hustwit. “We shot 80 hours of footage, and when you go back and look at them, you see the connections and threads and similarities and differences, and the way the film wants to be constructed. The most important thing to do as a filmmaker is to get out of the way of the material, and just let it speak for itself, so I don’t try to force a narrative on it. I don’t want to think for the audience – they should have more questions about the subject leaving than when they walked in. That’s a successful documentary, in my eyes.”

What is striking is the inversely proportional relationship between how much thought these people put into the design of their products, and how little thought we as consumers give the design of those products. For many people, design extends no further than the shapes and colours of an object, or worse, design is a way of compensating for a lack of substance.

But, as Apple’s founder and chief executive, Steve Jobs, describes the nature of design: “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told: ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

More than design being about how things work, however, many of the designers in the film concede that design is often about making things desirable. As Australian designer Marc Newson puts it: “It’s all about wanting new things.”

And this is where a divide becomes evident, between the likes of Rams and Ive on the one hand, whose credo boils down to making objects feel inevitable and almost undesigned, and the likes of Newson and Rashid on the other, whose reputations are based on creating products whose design is ostentatious and unmissable, and thereby adds value. In a way, there’s a division between what you might call the engineers and the artists.

The former BMW chief of design Chris Bangle makes the point that people buy cars as avatars to show the outside world who they want to be, and ultimately, it is this relationship with the objects we own that designers are trying to capitalise on. “You’re not defined by the objects you own,” says Hustwit, “but they are part of this story that you want to tell about yourself, about who you want to be and about your history. A lot of people don’t want to admit that, but even subconsciously they’re thinking that when they’re making purchases. Everybody is projecting who they are, who they want to be, through those choices that they’re making.”

Stranger Than Fiction highlights

The major cinematic legacy of this decade might very well be the mainstream acceptance of documentaries, but while some films make it into the multiplexes, plenty slip below the radar. Which is where documentary festivals such as Stranger than Fiction, running at the IFI from June 18th to 21st, come into their own – 17 feature-length documentaries for your viewing pleasure. Here are just some of the highlights.


6.15pm, Thursday, June 18th

The opening film of the festival comes from those anti-corporate pranksters the Yes Men, aka Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, who return with another account of their culture-jamming antics, after The Yes Men was released to amused acclaim in 2003. Victims include the Dow Chemical company and Exxon. Co-director Bonanno takes part in a post-screening QA session.


8pm, Friday, June 19th

This is a harrowing story: in 2001, Andrew Bagby was murdered in Pennsylvania; his ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner was the prime suspect, but she fled to Canada, where she announced she was pregnant with Bagby’s child, whom she called Zachary. This film was made by Bagby’s childhood friend, Kurt Kuenne, so that Zachary might have some idea about the father he would never know.


7pm, Saturday, June 20th

A look at the arts movement that grew out of the skateboarding, graffiti and hip-hop scenes in the early 1990s in New York, when artists such as Shepard Fairey, Harmony Korine and Barry McGee changed the art world from the outside.


2.15pm, Sunday, June 21st

This series of 12 short films focuses on different elements of Dublin’s Liberties community, which is about as “real” Dublin as it’s still possible to get. A well-crafted celebration of a unique area.


8.45pm, Sunday, June 21st

Remember that bearish Slovenian who swam the entire length of the Amazon a few years ago? This is the inside story of Martin Strel, and his adventure looks even more quixotic the closer you get.

Objectified screens as part of the Stranger Than Fictiondocumentary festival on Friday, June 19th at 2pm