“Modern design needs a refresher course, period”
Your background is in producing some of the most seminal music related documentaries ever. What ignited your interest in bringing the world of design, in its various mediums (graphic design, product design and urban design and architecture), to worldwide audiences?
I guess it goes back to the late 1980s, when I bought my first Macintosh computer. It was just magical to be able to use the Mac and the early graphic design programs like Pagemaker on all the silly projects I was involved with at the time, like helping friends’ bands release records or putting on DIY punk rock shows. I could take a crazy idea and with a few mouse clicks and some Helvetica, it looked legitimate! That was when I first got interested in typography, I’d started an independent literary press and was publishing books, and, of course, couldn’t afford to hire a ‘real’ graphic designer so I taught myself the basics.
Fast forward to 2005, when I got into releasing DVDs of independent films and helped produce a few music documentaries. I was still interested in type and graphic design, and I couldn’t believe there weren’t any design documentaries out there. I just wanted to watch a film about fonts, but it didn’t exist. I’d never made a film, but I’d watched the process and it didn’t seem too difficult. So I decided to make Helvetica. The other films have also just been ones that I’ve wanted to watch, but that didn’t exist yet. So apparently I’ve got a very simple creative process!
Can you explain the process of making this film? I understand Dieter is quite a private man, is that true? How did you get access and gain his trust to the point of his agreement to making this film?
Dieter was 82 when I approached him about making the film four years ago, and I think he was just tired of talking about his life and work with the media. He just felt like the stories had been told, and there were plenty of books out there about his work. But I argued that a film could do something that the books couldn’t, which is reach a larger non-design audience, and also pass his ideas and philosophies on to the next generation in a compact, accessible form. And yes, he and his wife, Ingeborg, are very private people. But we’d got on well when I filmed him in 2008 for Objectified. So it took a couple months, but with the help of Mark Adams from Vitsoe I sort of wore him down and got him to agree.
Tell me more about the process of bringing this idea to life. How long did the film take to make? Was it a smooth process or did it throw up some challenges to get it done? Any interesting stories from along the path?
It took about three-and-a-half years to make Rams. This is the first time I’d made a film about one person, as opposed to the ‘collage’ structure of my previous films which had many subjects in them. So that was a challenge that took some time to sort out, like I wasn’t sure how to structure it. I actually used some of the ideas from Dieter’s 10 Principles of Good Design and applied them to the making of the film. Like, “Good design is as little design as possible.”
What was your over-riding out take from Dieter’s approach to design versus what you see around you today? Did he lay the foundations of great design as we know it or does modern design need a refresher course in his approach and sensibilities so the world can move in a better direction?
Modern design needs a refresher course, period. There are too many unnecessary physical products that get designed and made, for no reason but to try to make money. It’s just a waste of resources, it’s not sustainable. And on the digital side there’s so much clutter and distraction online. We need clarity in our lives, in our work, in our political systems, in our relationship to nature. Dieter’s philosophy is: less, but better. That applies to everything we do.
And I think in the film Dieter is challenging the design world to rethink its motives and practices, and to be more involved with society. As he told the audience at the European premiere of the film in Milan recently, “Design is not just about making pretty things. Design has a bigger role to play in shaping our world.”
What do you hope the audience get out of this documentary other than getting a rare glimpse into the life, learnings and vision of one of the world’s most important designers, if not THE most important?
I’m really interested in Dieter’s ideas in the film about how technology has changed human behavior. Dieter doesn’t have a computer, he’s opted out of the digital world. He spent over 40 years at Braun obsessing over how we interact with manufactured objects, but then left in 1997 just as digital devices were really coming into play. So he’s had an objective, detached view over the past 20 years of how smart phones and social media have changed our behavior, and he’s kind of horrified.
He has a great quote about this in the film: “I am of the opinion that all the digitization that is happening right now diminishes our ability to experience things. There are pictures that disappear, one after the other, without leaving traces in our memory. This goes insanely fast. And maybe that’s why we can, or want to, consume so much. The world that can be perceived through the senses exudes an aura, that I believe cannot be digitized. We have to be careful now that we rule over the digital world and are not ruled by it.” I think that’s a really important point that we as designers and users need to contemplate.
What’s the plan for showing the film over the coming months?
I’m in the middle of a 40-city screening tour right now, then we’ll release the film on digital and disc worldwide in December. I like getting out and touring and showing the film to audiences; the feedback and conversations the film inspires are really important to me. But the demand for in-person screenings outstrips my capacity to be on the road and away from my family. So I’ll do this burst of live events, then get the film out online so everyone can have access to it.
I’m particularly interested in your community driven approach to making films. Using the likes of Kickstarter to crowdfund your vision, I would expect this reduces compromise over getting private investment, plus it creates a ready made audience? Is that true? Any other reasons for going that route?
The idea of involving the audience in the creation and dissemination of the films is something that’s always been a part of my process, since the 1980s when I first got involved in music. I’m completely independent, I’ve got limited resources, so I want and need the help of everyone who wants to see these films get made as badly as I do. Platforms like Kickstarter just formalize that relationship. And aside from the funding aspect, I’m not the world’s foremost expert on any of the subjects I’ve made films about. There are people out there who know way more about the various areas of design than I do, and I want their input and engagement too. So I think involving the community makes sense, it’s the most efficient way for me to get these films made.
What’s next? Do you have another design related project / film in you or will you return to music or something else?
I’ve actually got a list of about 50 films that don’t exist yet, that I’d like to make at some point. Every now and then I add to the list, or cross things off if they end up getting made by other filmmakers. So once I finish the screening tour for Rams I’ll take a look and see what’s bubbling up to the top of that list in terms of what’s timely and what my interest level is. Each of these films is a two- or three-year commitment, so I sort of have to ask myself, “What do I want to spend the next three years of my life obsessing over?” I do very much want to make a music film, I’ve produced seven music documentaries now but never directed one, and I’ve got a few ideas there. And yes, more design films. There are so many more design-related themes to explore via film, and while there are definitely more design films being made now, there are still not enough. I just want to watch more films about design, so I guess I’ll have to keep making them.
Rams – A documentary about Dieter Rams has its Irish premiere on Saturday November 24, 8pm, in ODEON iSense, Point Square. The screening followed by interview with Gary Hustwit & special guests. Tickets at hustwit.com, €20.
Words: Richard Seabrooke