A little over a year ago, I decided to make a short documentary tracing the "family tree" of an everyday product—the kind of thing that exists in the world without anyone ever wondering who put it there. That product was the red plastic party cup, manufactured by the former Solo Cup Company (now owned by Dart Container, a former competitor). Shows like "How It's Made" focus on the fascinating engineering and manufacturing of these mundane items, but I was interested in something different: the people behind them. Who were some of the fellow human beings out there who made the decisions that made this red party cup a part of our world?
The film—called I, Party Cup—introduces three of these individuals, and in meeting them I learned some unexpected things about that ubiquitous beverage container. I produced it in association with Grist and our 302 backers on Kickstarter, and you can watch the whole thing here:
One of the characters I met in the film was one of the product designers of the current version of the party cup. He told me with conviction and delight about how he considers this thing—which most of us absentmindedly chug beer out of and then chuck in the trash—to be his "baby." He's proud of it. It's meaningful to him. (He even took ergonomic inspiration from motorcycle handgrips when designing the pebbled grooves Solo added to the side of the cup. The goal was to make the cup unable to slip out of your hand even when condensation from the cold beverage inside makes it slippery.)
That designers take pride and responsibility in their work, no matter how invisible or mundane it might be to the other human beings who encounter it, shouldn't come as much of a surprise. What was more of a surprise to me, as I made the film, was how the other two people I met—a former employee of a cup manufacturing plant, and a marketing manager at Solo—expressed the same kind of pride and responsibility for their respective roles in creating the red party cup. When I began the film, I was hoping to find an "author" or "first mover" behind the product—a single person from whose mind the thing sprung. The choices and intentions of this person—this designer—would be, I assumed, the ones that really mattered. But this ended up being a very limited perspective on things.
Only one of the three characters in the film identifies himself as a "designer," but in a way they all are. Not because they exercised "creative" influence over the red party cup—but because they took responsibility for their role in creating a part (no matter how insignificant or overlooked) of the world that we all live in. The quote from the film Idiocracy that closes the documentary says it all: "I think the world got the way it is because of people like me." We are, all of us, collectively and continually designing our surroundings by the choices we make, the actions we take, and our intentions behind them. That's a much broader definition of design than the one I started out with. But it's also a much more powerful and awesome one. I thought that "design" meant creation or authorship, but what I learned in making this film was that it can be much bigger than that. To design is to take responsibility: even for your own small part, whatever that is, in making the world the way it is. The three people in I, Party Cup all did that. And they're no different than you or me.