Decoding Design

Film trilogy examines design's broad power, from fonts to cities

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"Urbanized," a new documentary by Gary Hustwit, completes a series that looks at how designers influence our lives from micro to macro levels--from typefaces to gadgets to architecture and city planning.

The topic of design can be considered either esoteric or universal. Graphic designers are likely to obsess and argue over the subtle differences of fonts. Toddlers and Nobel Laureates alike can equally admire an iPhone's elegantly intuitive design. And all of the above can appreciate how easy it is to navigate the ultra-simple grids of Manhattan streets.

Fittingly, documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit has just released the last film in a trilogy of movies on design that reflects the wide--and wild--spectrum of ideas and individuals that influence the sprawling subject.

You may have heard of Hustwit's 2007 film Helvetica, about the typeface of that name. Known for its clean lines and instant readability, Helvetica is used in the logos of the world's most famous brands and organizations, from 3M to BMW to American Apparel. Clips from the film showed in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the documentary screened at numerous film festivals. In 2009, Hustwit then released a follow-up documentary called Objectified, which peeked behind the curtain at some of the world's most prestigious design firms, such as Smart Design, as well as offered a remarkably long and candid visit with Jonathan Ive, Apple's vice president of Industrial Design. This month, Hustwit premiered a new film called Urbanized, in which the filmmaker widens his lens dramatically and tackles the subject of how cities are designed. It made its debut in mid-September at the Toronto Film Festival.

Here's the trailer:

The film features interviews with a wide variety of urban influencers, from some of the biggest names in architecture (Rem Koolhaas, Sir Norman Foster), to the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro (Eduardo Paes), to Joshua David, a co-founder of New York City's High Line, a run-down elevated railway that was transformed into a successful public park.

Urbanized takes viewers on an international tour of metropolises of all types, from Beijing to New Orleans to Cape Town, all in varied states of constant invention and re-invention. The idea is to explore a type of designed mega-community that most of the Earth's population currently inhabits (75% of the world's population will call a city home by 2050, cites Hustwit) by presenting both successful and unsuccessful examples.

So far, the reviews have been good, even when there's been some honest criticism. In the entertainment-industry publication Variety this week, for instance, Justin Chang wrote "if [Urbanized]'s city-by-city structure feels a bit rote and repetitive by comparison [to Hustwit's earlier films], the discourse proves typically energetic, stimulating and even eye-opening."

Just for fun--and for reference, of course--here are the trailers for Hustwit's previous films in the trilogy, in reverse chronological order.

Zoom in closer from the concept of urban design to a more intimate view of how the everyday products we use are created, from chairs to computers, in the Objectified trailer:

And now zoom in further to a very focused look at the power of design, by examining the influence of a single font, in the Helvetica trailer:

In each, you'll notice the same straightforward and yet investigative style. Hustwit's consistent, engaging tone illustrates that he has a keen eye for designing very effective documentaries--and a trilogy, no less,  challenged by a subject that is staggeringly broad and a scope that is both grand and ambitious on many levels.

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure