Gary Hustwit on Why Design Is for Everyone
Our next guest, New-York based, Indie filmmaker, Gary Hustwit, on his iconic trilogy of design-focused documentaries: Helvetica, Objectified and Urbanized, his creative process, making design more accessible to everyone and his latest release, short-film, The Map.
[I always think that urban design is the area of design that has the biggest impact on our daily lives. Everything you do when you wake up when you walk out of the door is determined by some sort of urban design principle, or developer, or architect. So, it felt like such a universal subject; it felt like way too big of a subject to get into a single documentary, but I at least wanted to look at what the universal challenges and some of the solutions were.
First, Helvetica examines our visual culture and how a font impacts urban spaces, asking us to take another glance at the thousands of words we see every day. Objectified is a look into our complex relationship with manufactured objects and, “by extension, the people who design them.” And finally, Urbanized — a window into how cities are designed, framing a discussion on their futures.
The latter has a history with reSITE, and we sort of had a full-circle moment. The documentary was shown at one of reSITE’s first-ever events, and reSITE went on to have almost a third of the guests interviewed speak at subsequent events. It’s a conversation that has aged well, and feels more relevant than ever.
His work takes us on a journey into how design impacts our lives, from a micro level to a macro, and has helped many see design through a more humanistic lens — challenging the idea of what design is — is it something to consume or an application to makes our lives better.
In recent years he has followed up with films like Rams, an intimate portrait of one of the most influential designers alive, Dieter Rams, Workplace which focuses on the future of our workspaces. As well as his latest release — a short film called The Map, which follows the redesign of New York City's iconic subway map — one that updates in real-time.
reSITE founder, Martin Barry, spoke with Gary about his creative process, motivation, and evolution, that led to making the kinds of films he, himself, wants to watch.
Martin Barry for reSITE: Hi, everyone. This is Martin Barry, welcome to Design and the City. I'm here tonight with our guest, Gary Hustwit, filmmaker and creative from New York. Gary and I have met several times, mostly digitally, as he participated in one of our reSITE conferences years ago, showing his film, Urbanized, which gave us the idea that there is no better creative, cultural figure to comment on the aspects of cities we care about. So, Gary, welcome to the Design and the City podcast.
Gary Hustwit: Thanks, Martin.
Martin: So, the burning question for me is What's up, Gary? You're in New York now, I guess. Are you in New Hampshire?
Gary: I'm in Brooklyn now. So this has been a very interesting week in the US, and we're still awaiting the final results of the election here. So, like everyone else, I'm tearing my hair out.
Martin: And we're in Prague, but as you know, I'm from Brooklyn. So, I've been staying up until like three or four in the morning, watching CNN every night, trying to pop the bottle of champagne, but it's still in the fridge, unfortunately.
Gary: Yeah, it's getting kind of unhealthy, just this amount of anxiety and anticipation, and all the craziness that's happening in the interim. So, I'm very much looking forward to it being over with, so we can get on to the lawsuits.
Martin: Yeah, I don't know when it's going to be over with, because it seems like it might go on for some time. But I'm looking forward to at least what would seem to be a pretty clear, quantitative decision tonight
Gary: Sure. I mean, I think the election will be called; whether or not we go through weeks of recounts and legal maneuvering is another story. But, you know, even when Biden is declared President, it still doesn't address the bigger issue that 70 million people still voted for Trump even after seeing his behavior for the past four years. So there are much bigger challenges in that division, and we could have another podcast just to talk about that.
Martin: Yeah, I think so. The last time we spoke was probably like a month or two ago, and we chatted a lot about the pandemic, and how you're feeling, and what's going on creatively. I was really inspired by some of the things you said, because for all of us, the last six months or the whole year, frankly, has just felt so long. And creatively, it's been a challenge for a lot of us who are at home or isolated, much more so than we've ever been before. As a social creature, as a creative creature, what have you been up to? Has something changed in the last few months? What's going on?
Gary: Yeah, I think it's definitely changed in the last few months. I mean, in the first couple of months of lockdown, there was only so much any of us could really do. And obviously, for a filmmaker, I need to travel to make films—I want to get people together in a room, in a theater, to show them films and go to film festivals and all that—obviously, that wasn't possible. What was interesting, was that online video watching became a bigger part of all of our lives. So, in a strange way, it ended up being a really busy time because there were so many people who wanted to watch films and documentaries from home, globally. So I was, kind of, navigating that the first few months.
As things started to ease up here in New York City, it got much easier—and I guess, I'm speaking for everybody who's been through this—and we were able to get outside and move around, and even do some filming. I made a short documentary called The Map, which was about the digital redesign of the New York subway map that just happened, from Work & Co, the design group. And I pretty much made that during the pandemic here, over the summer. And so [I was] working on that, and then just trying to look at the bigger projects that I had underway, and figure out how or if to continue with them, and what the future of filmmaking and media is, given the new landscape.
Martin: I think for me, and I suspect for you also, some of the things that we did as professionals that kind of came into question at least during the height of our lockdown—and frankly, we're back in the second lockdown now—a lot of the things that we did, we thought, Well, is this valuable? How can my work change to adapt to some of the needs that people go through in cities, that we weren't addressing before? It has, kind of, served for me as a reflection point. Did you feel any of that?
Gary: Yeah, definitely. Here, and I guess, globally too, the Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd protests, and everything that movement brought up, also really made me question the type of work that I've been doing and what I want to do, going forward. I think it made design, as an industry, as a medium, as a practice, really reassess itself and reassess what we're doing, as designers, or people who think about design, and how it really benefits society. And I think that, for me, was as big or bigger than, you know, the pandemic-related things. To have both of those things happen, this spring and summer have just been a real shift, or it demands a real shift.
What I really get annoyed at is when I see design-related brands or companies just, kind of, carrying on, like it's business as usual. Maybe they haven't wrapped their heads around how the world is changing, and how it's changed, and how design needs to change. But I'm just ignoring it, almost, and trying to pretend like 'let's get back to selling shiny, new things'. And I'm not sure that you can justify that name anymore.
Martin: Yeah, I totally agree with this. It's hard to talk about some of the more materialistic aspects of design or lifestyle that might have piqued their interest in the past, but now, there are so many more issues on the table that need to be addressed, and there's a huge spotlight across them.
Gary: [They are issues] that I think design and designers are really well-equipped to try to contribute to. I mean, there are so many systemic design problems in our systems of government, and urban design, and healthcare, and so many other areas that really need to be thought about by designers, by people who think of solutions and can bring new ideas about how these things can work. So, in some ways, I think it's an opportunity for designers to get involved, and bring their training and their ideas to all these challenges. So, I'm hoping that is what happens, to any degree, because I only think it can be positive, you know, bringing more ideas and more innovation to the challenges that society is facing, period.
Martin: I want to call your attention to something that was fun for us, in the early part of the pandemic in the spring. We were circulating, like once per week, a new film you had released, for our office [which] is not full of designers, and even those who are culturally astute. So, people in our office discovered your work for the first time during COVID. How important was it for you to release the free films, (which we thought was really awesome)?
Gary: It's interesting, I wasn't really sure why I did it. You know, when lockdown started, I just felt like I wanted to contribute something to the greater good and I don't really know how else I can contribute. I have these films that I've made, and it doesn't really cost me anything to let people watch them. So, it just seemed like the right thing to do. So many people were staying indoors, everybody was going crazy, I was going crazy. It just felt like a way that I could contribute.
Then it just kind of took off; it was so cool to see so many people who, as you said, maybe hadn't seen the films. And they were free and had a ton of subtitles, and they were accessible all over the world. And having almost a million people come to the site and watch them, it just felt like something, some way that I could help—whatever it is, I don't know if a film about a font is going to, it's not going to solve the pandemic.
But, at that point and still now, in some cities, people just need inspiration, and need to keep thinking, and need to keep believing that this is a temporary situation and that it can be changed. And again, I just didn't really have any other way to help out. I wanted to just give—so many of my friends, musicians, other artists, and filmmakers were really hurting; everyone was hurting, economically and emotionally—so, it was just a thing that I could give, that hopefully would help that.
Martin: You know, really, we love this. And I can see that some of my colleagues were super excited to see these films for the first time and talk about them.
Gary: It was cool. We also had a "tip jar" that went to different nonprofits for each week. And I can't remember what the totals were, but people who came and watched the film left a little something, provided meals for frontline health care workers, here in New York and in Chicago, and raised a ton of money for food banks and stuff. So, it was just kind of a good thing all around.
Martin: Yeah, I'm sure you remember—I hope you do, because it was such a seminal moment for us—in 2011, we organized what was our first conference and we were like babies, you know. We had never organized a conference or an event before, and we saw that there was this film coming on the market called Urbanized. And I thought, Well, that's a nice coincidence.
So, it was really fundamental to the launch of what we've been spending time on for the last eight years, basically: to think about cities and try to come up with good ideas and good people who can make cities more full of love. And seven of the people, the interviewed architects, and urbanists, in that film, spoke at reSITE; did you know that?
Gary: No, that's great.
Martin: It was, in some ways, coincidental, and in some way just speaks to the quality of the film. I mean, you picked some of the best folks, for comments. Can you talk about that? How important is it? First of all, on some of the things we talked about before—you're totally right. Design and designers are really well-situated to think about solving challenges in the city, but they're also well-situated to help us think about something other than what we're going through right now. And, relative to city-making, how important is it for you? Did you learn something, making that film, about design's role in the city?
Gary: Sure. I mean, I learned everything because when I started out, I really didn't know that much, but I was really interested. And I—both with Objectified and Urbanized, in the early process of making the film—I tried to go to as many conferences as I could, and just learn so much, and meet so many people through those conferences. And the films, in some way, became extensions of that.
I remember I went to the Urban Age conference in Istanbul—I can't remember if this is in 2009 or 2010—but at that conference, I met Enrique Penalosa, and a lot of other people who ended up being in the film. But I remember thinking, as I was watching their presentations, The people are amazing, and their ideas are incredible, but the presentations themselves were so bad; they were just really crappy. PowerPoint, Keynote, you know, just text/bullet-point, kind of things that I'm like, Oh, my God, if there was just better kind of imagery and video.. just the way that they conveyed the ideas, and it was a fairly academic kind of setting, you're talking to other people in civic government and architects and stuff.
So, you know, it didn't have to be that engaging visually, but I think a lot of times, what I do with the films takes those ideas and those people in that context and make it visually engaging and cinematic. And I think that is really important because they're important ideas, and whatever tools you can use to get those ideas across to a bigger audience, I think are really important. So, taking the kind of, dry design conference—and I think it's improved over the past 10 or 12 years since I went to Urban Age—but I think that translating those ideas in a really engaging, cinematic way that makes people interested and want to watch and hopefully think about these things more, is a big part of what I do as a filmmaker.
Martin: Yeah, I've also been to the Urban Age a few times. And actually, I had the same experience as you. I met Penalosa and those guys, and I'm also a design-first thinker. So, one of the things we did at reSITE, said Well, we want to have a super high-quality conference, like Urban Age, but we really want the presentations to be better. So we actually worked with our—a little bit like TED—we worked with our speakers a lot to kind of refine their presentations. And in the early years, what we did I'd say wasn't so creative, but it's a challenge to make these ideas as cinematic as they can be in real life, right?
Those ideas become places in cities, and those policies become physical in the city when they're built. So, yeah, it's hard to draw it out. And who's the audience for this? Because [after] the Urban Age, I come back and I tell my wife or my sisters about this great urban conference that I went to and, you know, their eyes kind of glaze over.
Gary: Yeah, but that's part of it. That's, kind of, exactly what I'm talking about, the importance of who shapes our cities. It's something that we should all know more about, and think more about, and be more involved in, whether it's on our block, or our city, or state, or whatever. And I know, people are interested in those things, but I think that they usually don't get access to those kinds of conferences or hear about solutions from other cities that might work in their city. I mean, I was surprised early on that there wasn't a lot of sharing of ideas between cities.
Things like the Urban Age conference were, I think, trying to do more of that, but I just kept having this thought, Well, if tens of millions of people see a documentary about this stuff, it's going to get these ideas out there. And you never know what happens when you set that kind of thing in motion. So that was really the driving force for me. I thought everybody was the audience for this film.
When it comes down to it, I'm making the film for me; I mean, I'm interested in the stuff and I want to watch a movie about it, but there aren't any, so I just have to make them. But again, I think everyone's the audience for that film. Everybody should be involved in their city, and understand the forces at play, and understand the different stakeholders. But no one had made something that you could watch in 85 minutes and at least get some of those concepts.
Martin: Yeah. I want to geek out just for one more minute on Urbanized, because in the opening scenes—and I remember watching this, I was about 30 years old at the time. And I remember watching this film. I was one of the young landscape architects, you know, super excited about my projects all the time. One of my projects was on the Brooklyn waterfront, at the edge, in Williamsburg; it was one of my first projects out of school. And in the opening credits of the film—Amanda Burden is reviewing a plan, design document, on the table. And on the table is a plan that I had drawn for the Universal Land Use Review Process (ULURP), the rendered plan. And you can see this in the opening credits, I'm sure you have.
Gary: That's so funny.
Martin: You can see the plan really clearly if you're like one second into the film, and I remember watching and [thinking] Oh my gosh, that's my plan!
Gary: That's amazing. Yeah, I had no idea. It was completely random; it was what they were talking about that day. It wasn't anything that I influenced.
Martin: No, because we didn't know each other until, probably, two years later. So that's great; I was so happy to see that. And the park is built now, both phases; I think the last phase we just finished recently. The design was really done by my boss at the time, Barbara Wilks, and I was just the guy doing the fancy drawings. But it was really fun for me to see that.
So, one of the things we love about your films is the aspect of scale; you go from Helvetica, which is this kind of micro-scale of a font—of course, it's outsize impact as a small scale—but then up to this huge scale with urbanism. So is it important to kind of go-between scales in your films? Does that come about naturally?
Gary: Yeah, that was accidental; that wasn't the plan. It seems very thought out, but it wasn't. I mean, Helvetica, in and of itself kind of does that; it's seemingly about just this one small thing. But then, this whole world of people, and creativity, and history comes out from that. After I'd made Helvetica, Objectified, just, to me, it felt like the next thing that I wanted to look at. I'm into product design and gadgets. And again, there hadn't been a film made about it, so it felt very organic as the next thing.
I remember starting to make it, at one point I just felt like God, I'm talking about the same thing as in Helvetica, this Modernism versus Post-modernism, and Rational design versus Expressive design, and all the same ideas. And Helvetica was my first film, so I really didn't know how to make a film any other way. It ended up feeling very much like a part, the two films. Halfway through Objectified, I was traveling so much and seeing so many cities, and I'm into architecture; I was thinking about those things as well. Then I had the idea, sort of halfway through Objectified, of maybe making a film about architecture and cities. So, then I just saw that little relationship between the three films and, kind of, thought of them as a group. But it wasn't something that I thought of beforehand.
Martin: Yeah. I think even another one of your films talks a little bit about cities—it's the Wilco documentary, right? I think at a certain point, Jeff Tweedy is talking about how the bareness of the US landscape as they're driving through, I don't know, somewhere like Omaha or something.
Gary: Yeah, I don't think I was thinking of it much.
Martin: It sounds like I'm the one making the connections.
Gary: Yeah, I've produced a few films that have a lot of touring in them, band touring. And I was involved in independent music, and then when I started to help produce and distribute films, they were music documentaries. Yeah, there's always been a lot of touring and a lot of going to cities, and I'd been working with bands before that, so [I knew] that aspect of travel and of seeing the different scenes in each city.
When I was making Helvetica and Objectified and touring to show them, I went to hundreds of cities, and I saw that design crowd and met so many people from those places. And when you travel, and you come into a city you haven't been to before, you instantly get a sense of like, Okay, oh, is it easy for me to get from the airport into the town? How do I get around when I'm in town? I've got a lot of equipment with me, is that going to be a problem? Do I have to rent a car? You immediately figure out all these puzzles that a city presents. And, you know, what's the social life like there? And what's the community life like there?
So, I had been exposed to so much of that over those years, that it just felt like a natural progression to, kind of, think about it in documentary terms. And I always think that urban design is the area of design that has the biggest impact on our daily lives. Everything you do when you wake up when you walk out of the door is determined by some sort of urban design principle, or developer, or architect. So, it felt like such a universal subject; it felt like way too big of a subject to get into a single documentary, but I at least wanted to look at what the universal challenges and some of the solutions were.
Watch: The Map
Martin: Yeah, I think that's a really good point, particularly with the aspects of bands, I think David Byrne talks about that really well when he's on tour. The Bicycle Diaries book that he wrote talks about how he sees the cities from the road. It's really interesting—if our listeners have not seen it or read it yet. Let's look, I think we're talking about urban films. And the latest film we did was another kind of short masterpiece; do you want to talk a little bit about The Map?
Gary: Sure—for those people listening who aren't familiar with the New York City subway and the map controversies—like everything else in New York City, everybody's got an opinion about it. But the New York City subway originally was built by three independent companies that weren't necessarily thinking about working together; they were just building out sections of the city with tunnels and trains.
And in the 60s, the MTA, the Transportation Authority here in New York, wanted to integrate those three systems. They brought in Unimark, which was a design firm that Massimo Vignelli was heading, to do the signage for the subway system, kind of unified signage, and also to do a map. And Vignelli, along with Joan Charysyn, who was a young designer who just joined Unimark, designed a very beautiful, modernist, geometric diagram of the subway that was more like the London subway map. Maybe it didn't really relate to geography, it was just about: here's a line, here's a red line, here are the stops on it. It was a geometric diagram. And New Yorkers reacted to it in a lot of different, negative ways.
But one thing Vignelli—everything on the diagram is either at a 90 or 45-degree angle. So, to make the train lines fit the grid, he—basically moved the location of the stations, so it would better line up with his graphic design, which is pure Vignelli. And people got angry, because they got out of the station, and it should have been on this side of Seventh Avenue, but it was on the other side of Seventh Avenue because Vignelli had changed the position. So there were public debates, and this was in '72 when they released it.
Then in '79, it was ultimately replaced by the map we have now, which is a geographic map of the city, but it's very busy to look at all the information that is on New York City streets and then [add] the subway. There are different philosophies about it [being] geographic versus geometric. And basically, the technology didn't really exist to make those two things reconcile.
Obviously, with digital [tech] and phones, and also the modernization of the actual subway system, which is still pretty archaic, the opportunity was there to try to do a digital subway map that could, kind of, reconcile those two things. So, Work&Co, which is a design firm here, basically took the challenge on, pro bono, and had been working for the past two years to make this new evolution of the digital subway map. And it's a live map, so it's a web app; anybody can go and look at it online. But it's a live map, so it's reacting to the current status of the system.
In New York City, the lines change a lot, you know, the F line will run on the AC tracks for a certain point, with all the maintenance and stuff. So in the new Work&Co app, you can actually see the trains moving in the lines. It's life, and if you zoom out, it looks more like the Vignelli or it looks more geographic, and as you zoom in, it starts to lock into the actual geography of the streets and the station locations; so it's a blend of the two. Those are all things that I'm a geek about, so I made a short film; I collaborated with Work&Co to see their process, but also go out in the city and film it.
Martin: And Work&Co—I didn't do enough research on them, unfortunately—can you tell us a little bit about their process? How did they get this commission, and was it just, as they mentioned, a labor of love?
Gary: They do a lot of digital design and app design and they were initially a group of designers at Huge, which is another design firm. There are a lot of Brazilians involved in the company. And I think that the genesis of it was [that] they were involved in, basically, a lab that was put [together] several years ago, to think of new ways technology and digital design could help the transit system here in New York, as a tech innovation lab for transit. Then through that, I think, came the idea that the MTA really needed a better digital map, that was responsive and dynamic. Philippe and the other designers at Work&Co just took up the challenge, because they love the legacy of Vignelli and the other map designs of the city, and I think wanted to try to put their mark on it as well.
Martin: Anyone who has traveled through the New York City subway system has gripes and complaints, and particularly about the map. I remember always carrying around a little foldable paper map, poring over it as a kid, trying to navigate the city. It's amazing; if anyone has not tried this before—it's really special—you should definitely do it. You can see it on Gary's website, or also the MTA. The process of your films, Gary, if we can go into it a little bit deeper chart, how do you—I think now you're going through an evolution, probably, like most of us, but if you could speak generally, or maybe even more specifically about something new you're working on, how do you—approach the topic of your films? And what's the process like?
Gary: I mean, they all stem from things that I want to see, [about which] there really isn't anything out there yet. I think that's, pretty much, my process in a nutshell. If there would have been a great documentary about fonts in 2005, when I initially had the idea for Helvetica, if there had already been something, I probably wouldn't have even become a filmmaker. I was so obsessed with the idea of that film, and I couldn't believe that it didn't already exist, and I think that's my process for pretty much everything.
But once I have an idea—I'm a constant scribbler down of ideas—no matter what they are, if I have an idea for something, whether it's a film, or artwork, or a product or something, I'll scribble it down and just go back through those notes, weeks or months later and think, Is this still a good idea? Am I still obsessed with this thing? Or maybe I'll go out and [see] Oh, it already exists, I don't need to do it.
But that's, again, a big part of my process. If I go back six months later, and I'm still obsessed with this thing, and it still doesn't exist, and I think that I'm a person that can take it on, then I start working on it. I don't do a lot of focus groups, or any kind of thing like: Would you watch a movie about Dieter Rams? I'm just like, somebody needs to make a movie about Dieter Rams before he dies, and I'm probably the only person that he would let do it. So I was like, Okay, well, I've got to do it. And then I just start the process and move forward, so it's pretty simple.
Martin: And has it changed in the last few months?
Gary: I think so. You know, again, part of it is looking at what I do and how it affects design, and designers, and young designers, and students who are getting interested in design. And thinking about, Okay, well, what's the type of documentary that I can make, that can serve those people, but also be something that I'm really interested in and passionate about? And that has definitely changed in the past nine months, I think.
Things that I thought of before the pandemic and BLM, now, nine months or a year later, I'm kind of like, Is this really as timely or as important now as it was a year ago? At the same time, Are there other things that I think are more important? So I think a lot of people are, sort of, reconciling that in their own lives and in their own work. It's been a constant process over the past year, just trying to reassess the next films that I'm going to make; am I even going to make films? I mean, I've had a lot of times where I've just wanted to design houses or something, or do some urban development projects or start a bike company, or whatever, just do something other than making films. But I always come back to [it]; I want to watch the movies, and that's the driving factor.
I didn't go to film school; I wasn't some diehard cinephile. I didn't have any desire to make films until I made Helvetica. So, I just keep thinking about—they take a long time to make; they take two or three years to make, and when I'm done, they're just this intangible thing, you know, it's a digital file. And there's—some part of me that really wants to actually also make tangible things too, and design things. I think that my interest in making design films probably stems from me being a closet designer.
I mean, in a lot of ways, I maybe should have just gone to design school, instead of trying to make these movies. It probably would have been more productive. But again, for me, it has been about a way of learning and exploring these subjects that I'm interested in. So, going forward, I still haven't settled on what exactly I want to do. In terms of new films, I have a list of literally 100 films that I would love to see. And for me, it's just about which one of these things is the most timely, and something that I want to spend the next two or three years of my life working on, and maybe 10, or 15, or 20 years talking about. I didn't think I would still be talking about Helvetica 15 or 16 years later.
Martin: Yeah, I can imagine that's really a strange feeling; but it's such an impactful film for a lot of people. I know I would personally hate for you to stop making films. As someone that makes physical places also, in my life, I can understand the need; I've been making physical places since I was a kid, basically. So now it's, kind of, what I do with my career, so I can understand that. And you were talking recently about creating some kind of collective that would work on projects, whether they be houses, or urban designs, or developments or whatever. Is that something that's hot, or is it just an idea?
Gary: Yeah, this was pre-pandemic; I was getting into this idea of almost having a band that makes spaces: having a lot of different people and collaborators, in a lot of different places, that would come together in different combinations to do interesting buildings or either temporary or permanent interventions. And just get a lot of thought and action into building new spaces and thinking about how we want to live, going forward. And having it be a little bit more experimental, but not just a think tank, also making stuff. It's something that I still want to do; and I think that a lot of ideas, for a lot of people, [for] the past nine months, [have been] put on hold, but it's definitely something I'm still interested in.
So, we'll see, that's one direction that I'm thinking of, but even that is something that films and documentaries can be a part of. How many times does a developer, before they develop a project, go in and make a documentary about the city, and the neighborhood, and the people, and try to use filmmaking as part the research and part of the design of a building, or an apartment complex, or something? I would venture to say that's never happened. But it's something that I think would be really interesting; I'd want to watch that movie, and I want to see how that level of research beforehand affects the ultimate design.
Martin: The one of them, I'd say like, You talk about VR, and I know you've worked a bit on VR projects. Yeah. One way you could imagine storytelling and filmmaking making their way into the physical world is, of course, through VR. But I'm thinking of almost putting VR into the public engagement process. Do you think that's something that could be kind of helpful? Because it's a way of using VR to design virtual experiences where people can, kind of, see the future and see the future project. Is that something you'd consider?
Gary: Conceptually, I think my biggest issue with VR is the actual technology behind creating and experiencing it, and the limitations, both from a technical side and also from an accessibility side. It still feels to me very much that just 1% of 1% of people even have access to it. And I know that if you're trying to influence a policymaker, and you can put them in a refugee camp with a VR experience, it does affect people more—when they experience something in VR—versus just watching it on a screen.
How that translates to urban design and equity in cities, I think is a much bigger idea. But, even just taking the time to go in and think about what a neighborhood needs, versus what the developer can make the most profit off of—I mean, I live in New York City which is just stupid, how much profit motive there is for developers, and that's all they think about. Maybe there's a couple of percent of thought that goes into the actual placemaking, and where its context is in the community, but almost all of it is just maximizing the footprint for the most dollars per square foot. And that's not sustainable, and it's not equitable either. So, I think having an urban design and architecture and development practice, that took those things into account, would be something that I'm interested in supporting and being part of.
Martin: Yeah. And tell us about the real experience now on city streets in New York, particularly, because some of our listeners are not from there, they're from all over the world. And I've seen a lot of cities, particularly with outdoor dining, there's almost like this new "guerrilla urbanism" happening. Is it changing the streets for the better?
Gary: Well, I have noticed, there's way more biking. I mean, it's not quite Amsterdam here, but there are a lot of people on bicycles now, because there's a reluctance to take the subway. And that's one thing; New York did invest in bicycle infrastructure and some protected bike lanes. And, as opposed to 10 years ago, I think it's much better on those fronts. And I know, a lot of people criticized the city 10 years ago for doing more bike lanes, but I think it's paid off in terms of people's ability to get around now, so that's been interesting.
The bicyclists are not as organized or as knowledgeable as Copenhagen or Amsterdam cyclists, though, and also the pedestrians still don't [understand]; people walk into bike lanes constantly. And, it's a hassle, but that's one side effect of this lockdown. And yeah, I think the street dining—so many restaurants have been shut down and still are continuing to shut down, because, even with the street dining—it's really not anywhere close to what the volume was before. So, I think it's a good stop-gap, but when winter comes, I just don't think—for a city like New York—it's not going to be feasible.
It's hard; I mean, for everybody in any big city, it's [had] an impact. And if you look at even the political situation in the US, it's so city-versus-rural politically; and the cities have been impacted harder, both in terms of death toll and infection rate, but also in economic impact, than some of the rural communities.
So, you know, even in dealing with this virus, there've been political ramifications that manifested themselves this week in the election here, too. So, I think we're all still trying to figure out, while we're in the middle of it, what the long term implications of this are. We talked before about offices and I made this project, Workplace, that was looking at the future of the office and I think it's still an open question: What is the future of collaborative work and how are we going to address these realities now?
Martin: Yeah, and the street front dining, at least sidewalk dining, the design solutions have popped up in some ways; they bring me joy. Of course, I'm not experiencing it because I haven't been back to New York since February, but it's like this crazy little city developing on the sidewalks. I don't know, from a distance, it feels like there's a lot more vibrancy.
Gary: Oh, definitely, there is, because there's just more street life. But again, I feel like we're in the last few weeks of it, even though they've allowed those restaurants to bring gas heaters onto the streets to keep people warm. I just think in winter, it's not gonna be as vibrant.
Martin: And tell me—I talk a little bit about your storytelling, and I think that's one of the most brilliant things you do: to be able to tell a story that is relatively mundane, and highlight all its intricacies, and make it super interesting and engaging.
Gary: Yes, that's funny, because I don't think of them as mundane. That's probably the only lie. Maybe other people might think they're mundane, but I think that's part of the answer. I'm super obsessed and super passionate, and very engaged with the seemingly mundane subjects, I guess.
Martin: I omitted the word seemingly because, for the general audience, I think that's sort of what I'm referring to; you're telling an amazing story for someone that hadn't really thought about it.
Gary: Sure, sure. And again, I'm approaching it like it is a super exciting subject, and I think all the people that I'm talking to, designers and others, they're also really passionate and excited about it too. So that translates to the screen, and I always feel like, especially with Helvetica, I just had this secret weapon. And all these incredible designers who are just great speakers and super funny and smart people: Paula Scher, Erik Spiekermann, and David Carson, all these people that the design community knew, and had seen at conferences and seen speak, but people outside the design world really hadn't been exposed to them.
So, I got to lean on that; I got to just let them be who they are and, kind of, expose them to a wider audience. So, I feel like that's the thing for me, I feel like it's unfair. I have an unfair advantage because I get to tap into all these amazing designers and let them talk about things that they're passionate about. And I think that's naturally engaging; I love watching people talk about stuff that they're interested in, even if I'm not that interested in it. I appreciate the passion for it.
Martin: How do you translate that? Because you've talked about a couple of things that have been driving you lately; you talked about BLM a few times, If you were to make a film on BLM, could you capture the same energy? It's a heavier topic, right?
Gary: Well, also, the first thing would be, Am I the person that should be doing it? Or should I just be trying to help amplify another filmmaker who's doing it? Because it's really about point of view, you know. It's definitely something like Urbanized, but other design films that I've been thinking of, you've got to do the work to make sure you're getting as diverse a cast as possible. Because it is about representation, it is about students and young people seeing these designers on screen, and identifying with them, or being inspired by them to do a career in design or get more interested in design. So, that's something I definitely, deeply feel now
But, approaching any subject and trying to make a film about it, a lot of it is about pre-visualization, and that's something that I do a lot. When I had the idea for Helvetica, I pretty much saw the whole film in my head. I could really just watch it: going to cities and seeing type in the streets, and talking to a designer there, and then we're off to the next city and hearing the music, which at that time was music I was listening to anyway.
Being able to, kind of, watch a film that doesn't exist yet, in your head, and think, Is this something that's going to be good? Is it going to work? I do a lot of that pre-editing and pre-visualization. So, I think with any topic that I think of, or any film idea that I have, I just try to watch it; I close my eyes and think about it, and [ask myself] Is it something I would want to actually see on the screen?
Martin: It's actually how you think about making places as well. So, I think you have the process down.
Gary: Totally, yeah. You're thinking about what the experience is going to be like, inside this building, or this room, or walking up to it, and experiencing it from inside and outside. Yeah, I think that filmmaking is the same way. Well, they're both about experience design, because I feel that film is experiential. I don't think of a documentary as this learning tool or teaching tool or whatever. I feel it's an experience, it's as much about what you think about while you're watching a film—that has nothing to do, necessarily, with the film, or maybe it does, or maybe it's tangential, but—this idea of getting your mind in the right state to think creatively.
And I think about that a lot in the films, sometimes there are these little breaks, that maybe we're not listening to someone talking, and we're processing what we just heard, and we have to think about giving that space to a viewer of a film. And it's something that I totally think about when I'm watching a movie. You can be onslaught by tons of information, and at some point, it's just too much. You need the room in there for the viewer to draw their own conclusions or think more deeply about what's being discussed.
Martin: I think so. I want you to think deeply about this next question; maybe it's too early to ask you, but you asked the question in Rams, so I think it's appropriate. And it's definitely too early, because you're still in the prime of your career, but knowing what you know now, how would you do it differently? What would you do differently?
Gary: In the beginning, when I was in college, I was kicked out of college twice; I didn't finish school. My friends at the time were all in bands, and I was really interested in music and I played guitar a little bit. I think I was not intimidated, but all the friends that I met were so good; they were naturally super talented musicians and were writing songs. And I stopped pursuing music, in terms of playing and creating music, but I became this promoter of concerts; I worked with record labels, and I booked tours and all these amazing things that definitely informed my career.
But it was only maybe 25 years later that I was looking back and wishing that I would have stuck with actually making music. It would have been interesting to see; I don't know what would have happened if I would have devoted myself to actually being a musician, as opposed to these sort of more support [roles], empowering other musicians, which again, informed everything that I've done, whether it's in music, or books, or film, or whatever. Sometimes I think that if I had to do it again, I would have stuck with playing guitar. And it would have been interesting to see where I would be 30 years later if I would have stuck with that.
Martin: Well, you might not know this, but there are two people on this podcast that were kicked out of college. I think most of the people in my orbit don't know that. But it's crazy how those kinds of experiences at that age—I was 20, I think, which was not a fun call back home to my mom—the aftermath of that shapes so much of who you become, and it really was impactful for how my career developed if you can call it that. It's probably the same for you, right? You started making films, probably, because of that.
Gary: Well, I started working with bands, and DIY, independent music, which was something I was interested in. But at the time, it wasn't like a major in college; you couldn't take that [class]. And I was learning so much more, just doing it, and talking to other people who were doing it; the whole aesthetic was just "do it yourself." So, it seemed natural that you would want to get out there, and do it, and learn from it. And other people were doing it, and they were getting by, so, you know, why not?
But there was a real sense of experimentation and adventure, and yeah, going on a month-long US tour with a bunch of your friends, driving around the country, and meeting people and networking. That model is something that I then applied to book publishing, and films, and web businesses, and things that I've done in the past. At the time, it was something you couldn't learn at school. So, I wasn't interested in anything that was being offered at university.
Martin: I love the process. So, even these tough moments are so important, which reminds me of now; it's a really crappy moment now. But something is going to come out of this for us—something positive, I suspect.
Gary: I hope people try to take it as, maybe not a positive, but an opportunity. It's one of those times where you have a license to recreate yourself or change direction. And I think people maybe want to do something that's more important to them personally, than what they were doing before. It's such a moment of change, with layoffs and companies closing, and I think it's the perfect time to try something new because you really don't have that much to lose right now. And everyone's changing, everything's changing; as I said, you have a license now to reinvent.
So I hope a lot of designers, architects, and creatives take that opportunity. It's not just about hunkering down and making it through this, and then everything will go back to normal. I think you have to look at what you do, look at the current parameters, and think about how you can reinvent what you do to better fit it, or just outright change. Start something that is completely different, that you're secretly passionate about, that you've avoided doing because you thought you had to keep the steady paycheck going.
Martin: Yeah, that's a good point. Listen, we've talked a long time, but we selected a few questions from our audience; would you mind answering, quickly, like three?
Gary: Sure. Sure.
Martin: Ok, we shortlisted three. This one's kind of fun: I'd love to watch a movie about pavements as the identity of cities, can you direct that film?
Gary: Pavements as in what? Because some people refer to sidewalks as pavements, right?
Martin: Yeah, but even in New York you have different sidewalk patterns, and some are stone, some are concrete, some have big squares or little squares.
Gary: Sure, Where is it? Where do they go?
Gary: Yeah, sure I could do that. Pavement, the movie.
Martin: I like that.
Gary: I recently saw I don't think it's come out yet, but there's a film called Tokyo Drive, which is about the Japanese architects, SANAA, or at least one of the partners there. It's like a drive around Tokyo, just talking about architecture, and streets, and everything. To me, that sounds like a model that you could use to make the Pavement film, because it is about experiencing a city, or different cities, from the street. I like the idea of that film.
Martin: Okay, that's gonna make somebody really happy, I think. As someone that designed a lot of city streets, I think you'll probably find a lot of cultural stories in pavement designs, which could be cool. Let's see, there are two more quick ones. Would you consider documenting automotive industrial design?
Gary: Yeah, that's something that does come up a lot, and I've been approached a few different times to maybe do an auto design film. I think it could be pretty amazing. If you look at the history, and how the car changed cities, and the environmental issues, and the technology; and it's really a film about mobility, told from the standpoint of the car. Do we need cars? I think there are a lot of interesting angles to come at it [from] and it's global. Those are boxes that I always have to check, in terms of, if I think an idea's good, I'm like, Is it something that everybody is experiencing? And are there 100 different ways to approach the story? I think that automobile design, and automobiles in general, is something that I could probably make a good film about.
That said, I haven't had the opportunity; it's not the first thing that I would come out within 2021, and start making. But I feel like that's the problem; I'm not the BBC, or someone like [that], I can't make 10 films at once, about all these things, that should be made. Maybe I should just go on and raise like $100 million dollars, and then bring on staff, and make all these things really quickly. Because there are so many things to talk [about].
Before I started Helvetica, there were no design films; there were none. There had never been a design documentary shown in theaters before, or a feature-length documentary about design on television. And now we, sort of, take it for granted. There are a lot of design films, and series, and stuff; but there are still so many aspects of design that have not been explored in documentary form. So, it's one of the things that keeps me obsessed, because there are so many designers and areas of design that should be explored and talked about more, and film is a great way to do that.
Martin: And the last one is probably a viewer of Helvetica: Is there a Serif font that you like
Gary: Wow, like a lot of people, when I first got interested in typography, I did use some Garamond, and some Caslon, and maybe some Bodoni. But somehow I got into more of the Sans Serifs, and that stuck with me, and it wasn't like I was obsessed with Helvetica, and that's why I had to make Helvetica the movie. I used a lot of different typefaces, and I really just wanted to make a movie about typefaces and type in our environment, and the people who design type and use it. And Helvetica, the typeface, just ended up being a good vehicle to do those things.
When I first started thinking of that film, it wasn't about one font, it was about all fonts. And at the same time, Lars Mueller's Little Helvetica, Homage to a Typeface, the book had come out, and there was still a lot of talk about this love-hate thing and the resurgence of Helvetica. Somehow I just saw that like, Okay, well, that's an interesting structure, because it's everywhere in New York. I mean, it's on the subways, it's on the streets, it's on the buses, it's on a million logos. So, if you start looking for something, that's all you see; you notice it. That was the main reason that I made the film, but I'm not some diehard Helvetica user; I use a lot of typefaces in my own work, but I will say I tend to go Sans Serif, I'll just leave it at that.
Martin: Okay, it's a good answer. So, Gary, you've given us a lot of time, thanks so much. Is there something I missed? Do you want to talk about something or tell us something else?
Gary: I think the only thing, that we may be talked about, is the idea of, part of the kind of inspiration for projects is that I see things in other disciplines, or other media, and then try to transfer or think about transferring them to what I do. Yeah. Is that interesting to talk about?
Martin: Yeah, that's a question that I saw; we kind of addressed it, but let's definitely talk about it. So, Gary, a lot of the work that you do, I think, is inspired by cross-disciplinary thinking and behavior. Tell us more about this, because it's a lot of what we do as well, bringing ideas together for the city, particularly design ideas. How does it play into your work?
Gary: It's something that I'm always thinking about when I look at other media, or art, or music, or what other brands or people are doing. One of the first things I think of when I see something that I think is interesting, is, Okay, well, what's the equivalent in what I do? I'm a documentary filmmaker, How do I translate that to what I do?
I had the opportunity to go to Mass MOCA, the museum up in North Adams, Massachusetts, that recently reopened. It's at limited capacity and everything, which is amazing, because I've never been there before, and with limited capacity—it's a massive space—there were probably 20 people there. It was ridiculous; I got to see this James Turrell exhibit, and so many others—there's a whole Jenny Holzer thing there—and it was incredible to see so many ideas in visual art. But remembering how much that is a thing—experiencing art in that setting, and then letting it simmer and thinking about how it applies to what you do.
I remember, there was an exhibit there that was about translation, in the sense of artistic translation, like seeing something in another media and then translating it to a different one. An artist took photographs—I can't remember what the theme was—but then she reproduced them in these large scale woven works, these big tapestries, based on the photographs, a whole series of them. That idea of taking something from one media and transferring it.
And today, there's a story in the New York Times about Brian Eno, an interview with Eno; he just released a compilation of film music that included one track of his score for my film, Rams. Someone's asking about ambient music, and when he started creating ambient music. He said ambient was really a way of saying, now I'm designing musical experiences. He changed from, I'm doing music, to, I'm designing experiences, that are these sound experiences.
This morning when I read it, it was like, Okay, well how do I think about that as a filmmaker? Can I design a visual experience, versus making a documentary? What are ways that you could make a visual experience that doesn’t necessarily require somebody to look at a screen on their laptop, or whatever? You're seeing things that you're interested in, in other media, and using them as prompts to think about, How can I incorporate that, or what's the equivalent of that in what I do?
I don't know how useful it is, but it's something that I end up doing naturally and thinking a lot about. And it's helpful for other people to think about those things too. You might see a film or a painting, and that can influence a building. And it's not necessarily copying one design, but it's, again, thinking of equivalence—How do I translate that idea to what I do? How can I let that inform the structure of what I'm working on? So, it's something that I think about a lot.
Martin: Yeah, for me, galleries, and museums are always such a great escape to be re-inspired about my work. And to recreate an experience I had somewhere else, particularly artistic experience, trying to then make that architecture or make that physical—but it doesn't have anything to do with copying it. It's really hard to describe that feeling, right? Or that process.
Gary: Well, again, a lot of times it's putting your brain into space where you can be creative, and everybody has that something, whether it's playing guitar or going to a museum, or cooking, or whatever. Everybody has some space or some activity that—whether it's a place or it's something that you do—that puts you in that mindset, then you can think creatively, and you can be open to inspiration. So that's something I think about and sometimes try to create in some of the work that I do, too. Yeah.
Martin: It could also be in a podcast.
Gary: Hopefully, people get something out of this conversation.
Martin: Okay, so Gary Hustwit, independent filmmaker, and photographer, from my beloved hometown of New York. Thank you so much, Gary, for joining us.
Gary: You're welcome.
Martin: We learned a ton. I hope you learned something tonight too. And stay healthy, man.
Gary: Thank you. You too.
Design and the City was recorded at the WeWork offices in Prague, with the support of the Czech Ministery of Culture and Nano Energies. This podcast is produced by Alexandra Siebenthal, with support from Martin Barry, Radka Ondrackova, Elizabeth Mills and Elizabeth Novacek and edited by LittleBig Studio.