Airing Tomorrow on PBS: OBJECTIFIED, a Documentary About Things

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Objectified airs on PBS stations in the US on Tuesday, November 24, as part of the Independent Lens series. I highly recommend that you set your DVR to record this film, if you're interested in: documentaries, computers, how things are made, how things work, or why some toothpicks have that little sculpted circular part on one end but are pointy on the other. In other words, I recommend it for everyone.

Objectified is a special documentary: it's basically about nerds, but classy ones, and definitely smart ones. It's about the particular sort of nerd who designs objects (generally known as an "industrial designer") -- objects like your can opener, car door handle, computer mouse, light bulb, toothbrush, the chair you're sitting in right now, and so on. Whether we realize it or not, all of the man-made objects we use are designed by somebody. Some are designed better than others -- and by this, I mean they work better, not just "look cool" or "are high-tech," which are often confused for good design. Objectified is a documentary about those people who design objects, but it's also about objects themselves, filled with little examples of interesting design elements that I had never considered -- flourishes that make something work better or be more delightful to the person using it.

To get back to the toothpick example I hinted at earlier, in Objectified it is explained why certain toothpicks have one pointy end and the other end rounded, with two circular bulges. I had always assumed this was purely decorative. Actually, it turns out that the circular-sculpted-end can be snapped off and used as a toothpick tray, so you can reuse the toothpick, resting the pointy end on the little tray (see a photo here). How could I have used toothpicks my entire life and not known this? Well, if you think that's handy, just imagine an hour of little tidbits like that from designers who brought you all sorts of daily objects -- like the OXO Good Grips folks, designers from Apple Computer, Dieter Rams (famed designer for Braun in the mid twentieth century), and many many more.

Objectified is by the same filmmaker, Gary Hustwit, who made Helvetica a few years back -- that was a film about typefaces and those who create them. According to Hustwit there's a third documentary coming, to finish a trilogy of documentaries about design. I can hardly wait. Here's the trailer for Objectified, which airs tomorrow night (Tuesday, November 24) on PBS stations on the Independent Lens program. If you're setting your DVR to record it, search for Independent Lens and you'll be more likely to find the program.

Note: the version of Objectified shown on Independent Lens has been edited down by 15 minutes to fit the available broadcast slot. If you want to see the rest of it, rent the DVD, which is available now. Also, if you have Netflix, Hustwit's film Helvetica is currently available for on-demand streaming.

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November 23, 2009 - 4:16am
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