Now that the geeks have inherited the earth, Objectified examines their ethos and process for remaking it through industrial design, and whether the profit motive usurps their frequently cited motivations of simplicity and efficiency. Through a chorus of design pioneers, CEOs, consultants, and critics, director Gary Hustwit, trying to corner the nerdumentary market in following up his font film Helvetica, finds the visionary quality in his talking heads via anecdotes that recount a-ha moments (like the texture of a peeled potato inspiring the palm-friendly shape of a mobile phone) to a brainstorming sesssion on new prototypes for toothbrushes (why not permanent handles with replaceable heads?). Innovators in the field including Braun consumer products giant Dieter Rams, Apple’s Jonathan Ives, and IDEO’s David Kelley are unsurprisingly articulate about their vocation’s role in casting humanity’s future, making intuitive observations about societal trends like the increasing separation of form and function in the digital era. Only occasionally do the interviewees express some overweening vanity, as with the dubiously ahistorical “My job is about what’s going to happen, not what has happened.”
But a mass-use design isn’t worth anything until it’s funded and marketed, and the latter half of Objectified abandons the cheerleading to raise issues of how global capitalism tends to arrest and degrade the evolution of everyday and high-tech tools. What design critic Rob Walker identifies as “the next Now” chases consumer dollars that are drawn by shiny new objects, not quantum leaps in usefulness (a generally successful strategy now being reconsidered in the midst of the worldwide financial crisis). Target’s role in popularizing “the democracy of design” (pooh-poohed as a garbage concept by one of Hustwit’s pundits) leads inevitably to shots of landfill and mountains of computer junk, as the film posits the necessity of sustainability to replace the cash-cow of planned obsolescence. Smoothly compelling with its sleek, mass-produced shapes and beautiful minds that fetishize ergonomics and the ideal of perfectability, Objectified responsibly—almost reluctantly—ends on a note of gloomy doubt over whether the constantly-upgrading m.o. of Western consumerism, now spreading to the East, can be altered. So many things, so few kept.