Friday, November 27, 2009

Every Object Tells a Story

The first class I ever took in college was called American Autobiography. The secret to writing college-level papers on autobiographies, it turns out, is to realize that memoirists do more than just write down the things that happen to them. There is always both an agenda and a designer. Here's an excerpt from a paper written for that class:
Franklin describes in great detail his initial experiences in Philadelphia. He was dressed in his work uniform, and was weary from a long voyage. He relates that "I was dirty from my journey; my pockets were stuffed out with shirts and stockings; I knew no soul, nor where to look for lodging" (pg 92). He made his way to a bakery in order to purchase bread with what little money he had. Even such a simple task was difficult in an unfamiliar setting. A difference in dialect prevented him from effectively communication to the baker which type of bread he preferred. Eventually he managed to purchase "three great puffy rolls" (pg. 93) but was forced to meander down the street "with a roll under each arm and eating the other" (pg. 93). He admits that made "a most awkward, ridiculous appearance" (pg. 93).
Why does good ol' Ben Franklin go through such length to describe this seemingly embarrassing and un-educational experience? He confesses that "I have been the more particular in this description of my journey, and shall be so of my entry into that city, that you may in your mind compare such unlikely beginnings with the figure I have since made there." Aha. Franklin is nice enough to explain his agenda for the inclusion of this particular passage. But even if the memoirist declines to share her motivation, don't doubt for a second that she has one. Said James Young, a historian of memorials, "The motives of memory are never pure."

I just watched an hour-long version on PBS of a slightly longer documentary called Objectified, directed by Gary Hustwit. Objects, it would seem, are a whole lot like autobiographies: the really good ones make you forget that they were designed at all. But if we can look and think again about our objects we'll realize that someone (hopefully) thought long and hard about how our objects work and look. The film includes a great interview with Jonathan Ive, a designer at Apple, who explained the thinking behind the little sleep indicator light on my MacBook. It should do its job, he explained, but then it should disappear when it no longer needs to indicate anything. And its cool to see how he accomplished that: my 18-month old laptop's sleep indicator light is still visible when the computer is not sleeping; but the latest MacBook iteration features an indicator light that just plain disappears when not in use.

That's just one example of how maybe the least significant feature of one product is the result of deep thought and design. The movie is great in all types of ways, especially if you're interested in chair design (designers, apparently, love talking about chairs), why form no longer follows function, how designers are starting to think about issues of sustainability, and attempting to bring a fresh perspective to all the things that fill our world.

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