Saturday 23 May 2009

I saw Objectified the other night. It’s a Gary Hustwit (of Helvetica fame) documentary about industrial design, and its effect on our lives. I enjoyed the movie, it’s great to see a little bit behind the scenes of how things are designed, and the people he interviewed were thoughtful and intelligent on the subject.

Early on in the film, he makes the point that every man-made object has been designed, nothing is accidental. But then later, you see stores like Ikea and Target which explicitly sell you on the idea of “Design for the masses”. Which made me realize that when someone talks about “design”, they mean “good design”, or at worst, “self-conscious design”.

But I thought the most telling part of the film was near the end when the journalist Rob Walker proposes a thought experiment: imagine a hurricane will strike your house in 20 minutes, what do you grab? And the answer is that it has nothing to do with the design of things. It’s only about your emotional connection to them, usually based on what you see through and beyond them (photos or heirlooms, for example). It seemed to be a coda to the film that basically said, “As cool as this intentional design is, it doesn’t really matter.” Good design gets products in the door, it may be why you buy something in the first place, but it won’t be what gets it onto your 20-minute grab list.

The designers throughout the film talked about that, about needing to make a connection with people, about understanding them and designing an object well enough to touch them at a deep level, but I don’t know if there’s anything a designer can do to get his work onto the grab list. Good design can surround us with beauty and function and comfort, but in the end, it’s the Rosebuds in our lives that really matter.


Ned --
You and the kids are my Rosebuds. That's all I'd need to take with me.
Most things, no matter how well designed, can be easily replaced. I suspect most peoples "20 minute list" will favor stuff that cannot be replaced, emotional connection or no. (My computer backups, for example)
Exactly as M Reed said: Well-designed stuff is still just stuff. Now that my photos are in the cloud, the only things on my 20-minute list are a few pieces of original art. Everything else can be replaced, and I'd argue that whether you'd include it in a 20-minute rescue is hardly relevant to the effect an object has on your life.
In some ways the repeatability of good design makes it seem pointless. I don't think design is what forms the effect of an environment on me. Indeed, sometimes I desperately yearn for non-design. I find myself enjoying broken concrete, weedy yards, sentimental nick-knacks, the heaving irregularity of an old plaster wall. Ah, but you can recreate such things! You can buy jeans with holes already cut into them! And so design chases after even our desire to escape it.

I know I want to escape it, but I'm not sure how. I like DIY because of this. Not just the essence of creation, but the naivety of the result. And there are markers. Real wood is a marker, instead of particle board with veneer. True built-in furniture. Smooth worn-away finishes on the corners of wood. Real patches on cloth, placed where they have to be, not where they fit some aesthetic. Some hint of decay that speaks to actual use.

Can't get that in an ipod though.
...so, what if someone designed a hurricane-proof house? Then you wouldn't even have to grab anything, cause it's all inside the house anyway.

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