ake a look around you–it’s ok, I’ll give you a second or two–what do you see? Whatever it is, it was more than likely designed by some “artsy” or “creative-type” person. Admittedly, I abhor labels. Maybe it’s my own insecurities about my own work–including the piece you’re reading now–or already stopped reading I assume. Or simply because I feel that those monikers are hackneyed and often misapplied–stereotyping and classifying individuals into the haves and have nots. Some would say I fall in the later. Regardless, ideas and ultimately the process of creating stuff–some of which you interact with daily–doesn’t happen by happenstance, nor is it a result of black magic. That’s not what the dark arts refers to. Rather it’s birthed out of an invigorating, thoughtful, systematic and at times painstaking process. In fact, as Hal Riney said in the 2009 documentary Art & Copy, “the frightening and most difficult thing about being what somebody calls a creative person is that you have absolutely no idea where any of your thoughts come from, really. And especially, you don’t have any idea about where they’re going to come from tomorrow.”
While I believe everyone possesses uniquely primal creative traits, not everyone has the ability to successfully translate their ideas into actual execution, let alone create work, i.e. posters, logos, furniture, etc., that connects with and speaks to others in intimate and powerful ways. That’s evident to anyone who’s ever attempted, persisted or absconded any artistic endeavor. Truly great designers see the world different from most. Above all they’re curious. Drawing inspiration from both the present and the past, and from familiar and even the unlikeliest of places. Listening and always looking to solve pragmatic problems–they just do so in their own, sometimes unconventional–I’d even go so far as to say radical–ways. Great designs are all around us. Some have dramatically transformed and influenced our culture and many have made a profound impact on the world around us. But how did they get that way?
Netflix’s new documentary, Abstract: The Art of Design focuses on such designers, pioneers who are shaping the way we look at and interact with the world. Akin to Chef’s Table, the eight-part series, each episode focuses on a particular artist, exploring the genesis behind their work in the fields of: graphic design and illustration, footwear design, stage and runway design, architecture, photography, and interior design. It’s a fascinating and rare glimpse into the minds of some really unique “creative-type” visionaries, who are at the forefront of artistic exploration and cultural change–where art begets design and design becomes art. The series feels cinematic, and is aesthetically captivating and the approach is extremely winsome. Likewise, each 45 minute episode is singularly focused, fast-paced, chic, and as idiosyncratic as the designers it features. That’s not to say that each one will speak to you, but it’s certainly binge-worthy nonetheless.
Three episodes in particular really connected with me the most. First, the inaugural episode featuring illustrator and award-winning artist, Christoph Niemann, who’s known for his New Yorker covers and Instagram sketches. His quirky, inquisitive nature and playfulness shine through his eccentricities. Whether he’s toiling with LEGOs, explaining communication through design using the Abstract-O-Meter, or working on his Sunday Sketches where he combines traditional art mediums like pen and ink with everyday objects to make beautiful works of art, this episode will surely delight you.
Next, is actually Episode 6 which explores the world of typography, and showcases Paula Scher, who has been described as “the most influential graphic designer on the planet”. From her album covers to her recognizable logos, Scher does more than simply arrange letters, words, and images together: She creates an emotional connection through her work which finds ways to influence our everyday lives including what we read, how we process information, and even our buying decisions. There’s also a lesson in the episode on poor design–in this case, the 2001 Florida ballot fiasco.
Lastly, Episode 2, featuring a former athlete who studied architecture, but whose name ended up being synonymous with sneaker culture which continues to leave an indelible footprint on pop culture, footwear designer, Tinker Hatfield. Nike wasn’t always the brand that it is today, and its success can be directly linked to Hatfield’s designs. While he’s best known for his collaborations with Michael Jordan, Tinker is also a forward-thinker, developing revolutionary, wearable technology, turning sci-fi fantasy into real world applications. He’s a bit of a mad scientist–part Picasso, part rock star–and all around fascinating.
So take a look for yourself and let me know which moments or episodes speak to you.
Abstract: The Art of Design is rated TV-14.