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by Jay Seaver

"Build a better mousetrap. Or toothbrush."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: I forgot my toothbrush when packing for my trip to Texas, and since Austin doesn't have the massive CVS density of the greater Boston area (where you can see the next from the doorway of the one you are standing in), I didn't get around to picking one up until after I had seen "Objectified", Gary Hustwit's new documentary on industrial design. As a result, I gave the process - and the object - a bit more thought than I might have otherwise.

Toothbrushes don't come up until the end of Objectified - the first object considered in detail is the potato peeler. We're told how the standard model hurt the arthritic hands of a designer's mother, leading him to work on a better model. The lesson, we're told, is to concentrate on the outliers; if you can please the 10% who are hardest to satisfy, then the rest will take care of themselves (and also benefit). We then see the same design group working on pruning shears, demonstrating how (and why) something simple like a notch in the handles can improve the long-used mechanical device immensely.

We meet several designers each with lessons to impart. Dieter Rams, retired from Braun, lays out the basic principles; Naoto Fukasawa discusses how these principles relate to the Japanese aesthetic sense - where Western literature, for example, traditionally praises complex works, Japanese masters "write simply about what's there". Apple's Jonathan Ive discusses how his company's seemingly simple designs often involve having to invent radically new manufacturing processes. IDEO's Bill Meggridge makes several points, from how he prefers objects that "wear in" (that is, become better with use) rather than "wear out", to how his design work on the original GRiD laptop computer led him to realize that the next big thing in his field would be in software, or "interaction design".

That's a lot of concepts to explain, but Hustwit and his subjects have the gift of making things clear. It helps a great deal that the principles of good industrial design are like the objects that result from it, in that they almost immediately seem obvious in retrospect. He's chosen a mix of interesting personalities, from acknowledged masters to flamboyant youngsters, and most of the lessons in theory are followed up by an easily-grasped physical demonstration. If Hustwit ever chooses to leave filmmaking, he'd make a heck of a teacher, and what better compliment can one pay to a documentarian?

Of course, part of what makes him such a good teacher is that he is a very good filmmaker. He peppers the film with close-up shots of objects against solid backgrounds, using unusual angles and holding shots for a few extra beats to encourage the audience to not just look closely, but examine the things before he breaks it down for us. He peppers the film with nifty information, such as tracing mass production not to Henry Ford but to ancient China. There's also a very nifty soundtrack and spiffy HD photography.

Hustwit concludes the film with a section on the social ramifications of industrial design, which may seem a little rushed in comparison to the rest, as those issues don't have the clear physical/mechanical solutions seen in the rest of the movie. There are interesting questions raised, from how good design should ideally lower prices rather than mark products as luxury items, as well as the question of environmental impact and sustainability. That's where we get to toothbrushes, an object whose design is often tweaked, but which remains utterly (and necessarily) disposable. We watch a team try to brainstorm ways to make the toothbrush better and more environmentally friendly, even if it means reinventing oral care from the ground up.

My new toothbrush? A mechanized model witha thick, easily controlled handle which can be used forever while the heads are replaced. I wasn't terribly fond of it on first use, to be frank, but now I at least have some ideas as to why.

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originally posted: 03/16/09 19:34:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

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  08-May-2009 (NR)
  DVD: 13-Oct-2009



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