“I might record two or three hours worth of interviews with one designer,
only to use less than two or three minutes of it in my films.”
Gary Hustwit is not a designer. He is, however, a huge fan of design. As a filmmaker, he sets out to create the films that he himself would want to watch. Eight years ago, Hustwit noticed a lack of films about design, and more specifically, type. This is the origin story for the documentary, Helvetica (2007). The film was extremely successful and led to two more design-centered projects, Objectified (2009) and Urbanized (2011). These films have become known as the Design Trilogy, and are not only cherished by the design community, but have been credited with expanding the general public’s awareness of and appreciation for design.
To create the three films, Hustwit interviewed over 75 designers—everyone from up-and-comers to pillars of industry. In a recent interview with Fast Company, Hustwit discusses his open-ended interview style: “I don’t go in with a set list of questions, but just invite designers to talk about what interests them, which really shapes the narrative,” Hustwit [says]. “I might record two or three hours worth of interviews with one designer, only to use less than two or three minutes of it in my films.” Such a glut of recorded material cut down to three hour-long documentaries leaves a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor.
It was the thought of that unused material languishing away on some remote hard drive that spurred Hustwit to start his latest manifestation of the Design Trilogy, a book called Helvetica/Objectified/Urbanized: The Complete Interviews which will be completely funded through Kickstarter. Hustwit admits to cherry-picking the soundbites he needed from the interviews to support his films’ narrative arcs. Yet, the entirety of the conversations form a repository of knowledge and insights about the current world of design that the director felt was too valuable to keep to himself.
But rather than going the traditional cinematic route—releasing the extended director’s cut of each film—Hustwit decided the information would be more suited for a more archival—even academic—role: a book. On September 18, 2013, Hustwit launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the transcription, editing and arrangement of over 100 hours of interviews. The project has already been fully funded, even with more than half of the campaign’s time remaining. This clearly demonstrates that the design community (and fans of design) are not satiated with Hustwit’s work yet.
Designing the Archive
Gary Hustwit was interviewed by Don Lehman on a recent episode of Core 77’s Afterschool podcast. During their talk, Hustwit mentioned that he is interested in making films on a variety of other topics, and developed the idea of making his design series a trilogy to “give him an easy out” when the time came to move on. So why revisit the material again so soon? The answer lies in the cold truth about time itself…
…it keeps on ticking.
Several famous graphic designers have passed away in recent years, including Saul Bass (1996), Paul Rand (1996), David Carson (1996) and Storm Thorgerson (2013). Massimo Vignelli, Wim Crouwel and Milton Glaser are all pushing their mid-eighties. When they are no longer with us, a vast amount of design knowledge and skill will also vanish—unless it is properly archived. Hustwit has always been saddened by the fact that there is no dependable online repository for designer interviews. While he is continuing to move forward with other film projects, Hustwit felt it was necessary to get these full interviews into the public’s hands as soon as possible, in the hopes that it might instigate a push for a more permanent archive.
While online portals such as Design Is History and RIT’s Graphic Design Archive are excellent resources for design artifacts and biographies, there aren’t very many places to view extended interviews with those figures who shape, promote and change the field of design. By making his full interviews part of the public discussion of design, Hustwit is furthering his cause to bring notice to design and its effects on our world. The anecdotes and opinions contained within Helvetica/ Objectified/ Urbanized: The Complete Interviews that didn’t make it into the tight structure of the films will now paint a more complete picture of design’s cultural importance.
But Why a Book?
So why is a 400-page paperback volume the best format to package this information? Shouldn’t Hustwit stay within his directorial wheelhouse and deliver the extensive interviews as feature-length bonus footage, as it were? Could some important visual aesthetic be lost when we no longer see the person telling us their story, but rather, simply black (Helvetica) type on a white page?
I could take the pessimistic view and say that Hustwit made a choice to simply deliver a collectible product that would be desirable enough to guarantee full funding for his Kickstarter project. Or, I could say that it’s highly probable that no one would actually be willing to sit through 100 hours of unedited video content.
But I think it’s more than that.
With this book project Hustwit has embarked into the realm of the designer himself. Like the concentric thematic rings of his three films, he is the one now adjusting type and layout; he is the one creating the object fit for our consumption; he is the one participating in the formation of corporate space (in this case, the online community of Kickstarter). Sure, Hustwit wants to promote the importance of a public database for an oral design history. And I’m sure this tome will advance that cause, for the benefit of us all. But in addition to that, Hustwit is synthesizing his learned knowledge into a fitting (and practical) homage to the discipline he loves so much.
Cue music. Slow fade, and…cut!
About the Author
Patrick Gosnell is a graduate student and teacher at Texas State University San-Marcos. He has a background in fine art photography, and currently focuses on international typographic practices. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on Twitter or check out his blog, TYPEATX.