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I’m no expert on industrial design, but I’m fascinated by stories about how the tools we use came to be. The bar of soap, for instance, is not rectangular, but saddle shaped, the advantage being that one side fits your hand, the other side fits your body. The book The Design of Everyday Things has some great anecdotes about teapots, light switches, and nuclear reactors.

I make most of my money not by reviewing movies, but by programming computers. I work closely with designers who are paid handsomely to think about how real people interact with abstract things like databases and computer programs.

So I had high hopes for Design on DVD.

The Six-Pack

Design is actually six separate 25-minute documentaries. They were produced in collaboration with the Pompidou Center, the modern art museum in Paris. All six are of even quality; they are shot on video, in a studio. The footage is intercut with archival clips and has plenty of splashy transitions and layerings. The six are produced not so much like documentaries or TV shows, but like video art installations.

Not all six are of equal interest, though. The most interesting documentaries are on the DS 19 (a car), and the Bubble Club Sofa. The least interesting is on the Hoover 150 (a vacuum cleaner). There are also segments on the Bic Cristal pen, Akari lamps, and the iMac computer.

iMovie

When these segments are good, they are informative and insightful. They provide you a history of the object, of the designer, or of the material. The Bubble Club Sofa, for example, is made of the same stuff and in the same fashion as a kayak. The segments suggest ways to think about the object that you might have overlooked. The Bic Cristal, for example, is aptly named because it is six-sided, hard, and clear. And by the way, clearness is specifically a design parameter, so you can see the ink level.

When these segments are bad, they are either dry, featuring long segments of video showiness without much substance. Or they are pretentious, ascribing superlative qualities to the objects that they don’t deserve. I’ll entertain notions of the “aerodynamic” design of a vacuum cleaner or the emotional qualities of the egg-like shape of the iMac, but let’s not get carried away and pretend they really ARE aerodynamic or nurturing.

I also have to wonder whether the 25 minutes are used as wisely as possible. What do computer punch cards have to do with the iMac? Ditto for mousepads and Microsoft. Then again, the bubble sofa segment includes references to Louis XIV settees, so maybe a little history is justified.

The Fast-Forward Button

Design isn’t as fascinating or packed with anecdotes as I had hoped. I loved the history, the biographies of the designers, the context of the eras these objects sprang from.

But there is too much filler and not enough substance. Design walks the line between information and artsy entertainment, I wish it had walked closer to the information side.

Picture and Sound

Always intended for video, Design doesn’t suffer all in the transfer to DVD. Both picture and sound are slick, although there is no glorious cinematography or sound design to bask in.

How to Use This DVD

Don’t try to watch it all at once. At 25 minutes each, these segments add up to 2 1/2 hours of material. I watched four in one night, and that was one or two too many.

There’s no need to go in order, so pick a topic that appeals to you. Then just for kicks, try the one you think will be least interesting. You might be surprised.