In February of 2017, Netflix released an original documentary series called Abstract: The Art of Design. Each episode is self-contained, follows one person, and showcases their abilities and accomplishments in their field.
One of my past jobs was working for a production company that made documentary shows for A&E and The History Channel. This was before the alien pawn stars with storage lockers replaced shows about the history of guns, trains, and war. This has made me extremely skeptical and critical of anything that calls itself a documentary series.
Yet, I found that the series is extremely deceptive because the descriptions sound boring and seems to be about people you have never heard of nor know their work.
If you thought like I did, then you are completely mistaken.
The Overall Series
The word to focus on in the title of this series is “Abstract.”
Dictionary.com defines it as “something that concentrates in itself the essential qualities of anything more extensive or more general, or of several things; essence.”
The series is less of an A&E style biography of the specific designers and more about how design plays a role in the world. Because of this, it is not weighted down with linear backstory, detailed resume, or defining the specific details of their current job title. The episodes have pieces of all those things sprinkled throughout the episode as ways to illustrate something being discussed.
Since each episode is just under an hour in length, they are able to spend time with each person. It is not a fast-paced, over-cut montage sequence that highlights only the basic outline. They show you not only how they work on a project, but their work and home life as well. It has a nice rhythm and pace to the episodes.
The Episodes/The Designers
Because each episode is self-contained, you can watch them in any order. Here is a list with some keywords to better help you pick an episode to start with:
Christoph Niemann – New Yorker illustrator, doodler, fun Instagram posts
Tinker Hatfield – Nike shoe designer, Air Jordans, sports
Es Devlin – Set designer, music, concerts, works with Beyonce and Adele
Bjarke Ingels – Architect, environment-friendly, fun looking buildings
Ralph Gilles – Car designer for Fiat Chrysler/Dodge/Ram/Jeep, designed the Viper
Paula Scher – Graphic Designer, creates logos, NY Public Theater, font trend-setter
Platon – Photographer, Time Life Portraits, Social Justice, Human Rights
Ilse Crawford – Interior Decorator, works with IKEA, designs furniture
They are all very engaging, diverse in their backgrounds, and seem very down to Earth with how they got their start and how their careers have progressed. One thing that a lot of them have in common is that their parents wanted them to be engineers.
The Visual Style
Much like the subjects of the episodes, the creator of the series, Scott Dadich, is someone you recognize by his former title, Editor-in-Chief of Wired Magazine, more-so than by his name. His goal in the visual style was to not make them like other design documentaries.
“Restrained, polished, pretty – so many of them look like a moving version of a coffee table book. You’ve got softly lit interviews, esoteric conversations, and subtle tracking shots of wide landscapes beneath unobtrusive music. Most of it is clean, minimal, and boring as hell.” – Scott Dadich, Wired.com
Design is incorporated into the way the subject is presented. It is more than just talking heads, background footage, and stills. It is fun to watch and moves with flair from one topic to the next without overdoing the amount of edits.
You may wonder why you should watch this when you are not interested in design at all.
This why the series is so engaging. It is hard to fathom how much these people effect the things you see, the places you go, and the products you use every day. The work they do sends ripples out into the rest of the world.
Now You Know…