The history and theory of modern design isn't exactly the barn burning type of topic you'd ever consider spending four hours investing yourself in. Sure, maybe a nice 45-60 minute documentary hitting all the highlights would be fun, but really, four hours of the stuff? I'd have put myself in the latter category any day of the week, even as I popped in the first disc of the BBC's four-hour documentary "The Genius of Design" which examines the impact design has on our lives. However, like any properly made documentary should, "The Genius of Design" takes that minor interest and shows me why the topic is important and does so in a relatively fascinating way.
The series spreading over the course of five, 47-minute episodes makes a made dash through the mid-to-late 18th century before ending up in the early 20th century, where many of the revolutionary innovations in design still have effects on modern life. Denis Lawson (you may remember him as Wedge Antilles in the original "Star Wars" trilogy) is the pleasant narrator guiding us through the ups and downs of the design world, stopping along the way to let those in the know tell us why we should care. The series, by-and-large is a rousing success, especially in the second and third episodes, where the focus is on design for the home consumer and the role of design efficiency in weapons of war for World War II. History buffs may find extra value in this episode as there are a few historical facts covered.
While, the final episode, which highlights our modern society's quest for materialistic consumption is the most relevant to viewers, it is easily the most frustrating and at points hits us over the head with everyone's favorite buzzword "sustainability." While I appreciated the filmmakers ending on designers trying to address the need for innovation and style, while remaining environmentally friendly, it still felt a little like a betrayal, shifting an otherwise objective documentary into very subtle soapbox mode. That however, is a minor quibble, but worth mentioning as "The Genius of Design" does start incredibly strong, but finds itself winding down in the closing hour or so. It's still incredibly top notch programming and does a far better job of engaging the average viewer in an exploration of design than I could possibly imagine.
The take-home message from "The Genius of Design" is to stop and appreciate, once in a while, the hard work that goes into making something as simple and common place as a computer mouse both fully functional, relatively aesthetically pleasing, and most of all easy to use. Getting to see a prototype mouse, little more than a push button attached to a wired, rough wood box, makes you appreciate how elegantly the modern mouse fits into your hand, so much so that when you spend an hour or so browsing the internet that you forget you're holding it. Before watching the program myself, I would have said Bauhaus was an awesome late 70s goth band, but now I know it was a groundbreaking German design school, and I would have never guessed how many pieces of common household items owe some inspiration to the Italian designers of decades past. It's these little things that make "The Genius of Design" a successful series, adding another layer of appreciation to our everyday lives.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is spot-on, with solid, above-average detail and natural color levels. For a show about design the production doesn't skip in the visuals department.
The English Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is a very solid stereo offering. Narration and dialogue is crisp, distortion free and properly mixed with effects and a very unobtrusive score. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
The bonus features are sparse, consisting of text-based biographies of designers on both discs and the standard Athena physical text supplement covering a small number of topics handled by the series.
Consistently insightful and well paced, "The Genius of Design" is an unlikely hit documentary series. While the beginning is arguably more fascinating than the end, from a purely historical perspective, viewers should walk away with at least a handful of new facts from each episode, even if design isn't their bag. Recommended.