Abstract: The Art of Design

Netflix documentary inspires through design

Shreeyagya Khemka Mar 7, 2017

I wanted to start this article with an amazing quote on design. Something that makes me sound erudite while also being able to fit into the message I wanted to convey with this article. This was a hard task. It led to great delays in submitting this article for copy and a very impatient editor on the other end. However, after many hours of scouring the web, I found the perfect quote. It was said by Paul Rand, the guy who designed the logos for IBM, ABC, Enron, and UPS. He says, “Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.” This quote is easy to understand; it is simple. But it is also complicated because of the time and effort it took me to find this simple yet perfect quote.

Similarly, great design is also simple, but the process of finding it is complicated. Often we forget the time and effort spent by the people who create these great designs. Netflix’s new documentary series, Abstract: The Art of Design, celebrates the time and effort great designers spend in creating magnificent designs through an exploration of their works and lives.

The documentary series is eight episodes long. Each episode covers a designer from a different field. Since each field is different, the episodes are quite varied, but all of them share some common themes. They all cover a famous work of the designer, one that made that designer stand out of the crowd; they follow a project that the designer is working on currently; and they give us a peek (thankfully not the reality television version) into the private lives of the designers. This allows all of the stories to thematically work together as a cohesive whole while allowing each episode to be non-repetitive in structure.

Now, without further ado, let me introduce the designers: there is Christoph Niemann in Illustration, Tinker Hatfield in Footwear Design, Es Devlin in Stage Design, Bjarke Ingels in Architecture, Ralph Gilles in Automotive Design, Paula Scher in Graphic Design, Platon in Photography, and Ilse Crawford in Interior Design. Maybe you are hyperventilating right now because you recognize someone you admire from this list. If not, though, I can guarantee you this: you have seen one of their works at some point in your life. Their creations are ubiquitous and in some cases revolutionary to such a degree that it changed the entire game in that field. So, let’s talk through some of the episodes. First up, "Illustration."

Christoph Niemann is a German illustrator responsible for designing many of the amazing New Yorker covers. The episode on Niemann starts by giving us a feel for the artist. It achieves this by showing Niemann framed unusually by the camera and then by showing discussions between the director of the episode and Niemann about what the episode should be about. I enjoyed this break from the traditional documentary setting and the fact that they showed how the episode was created. It not only broke the barrier between us and the subject of the episode but also in some way allowed us to interact directly with Niemann. It was also a way to show the essence of the process behind creating something, which is what most of the episode is about. It is about Niemann teaching us the process of creation. It is about him instructing us that design is not some flash of inspiration but rather continuous hard work. Through the episode, he walks us through his process of creation: how he is constantly creating and doing things that heighten his skills. This process is made more palpable in the episode when it displays Niemann going through the process of designing his May 16th, 2016 New Yorker cover titled "On the Go." This cover is historic because it is not only printed on both the front and back of the magazine but also when you look at the cover through a digital medium, you can see the cover come alive and reveal a three-dimensional city. This episode was definitely the best out of all the others. To some extent, it spoiled me for the episodes to come.

The next episode was on Tinker Hatfield, the iconic designer behind the Air Jordans. Hatfield's episode was different from the other episodes in that Hatfield is retired. All the other designers shown are still actively working, with many of them having miles of road ahead. Nevertheless, I liked this episode for two reasons: first, the process behind his creation and second, the emphasis on the importance of college. The episode like the one on Niemann spent a lot of time decoding the designer's process. With Niemann it was a discussion, while with Hatfield, it was more of a monologue. In this episode, Hatfield orates the inspirations and discussions that went behind designing each of the Air Jordans. He talks about the errors he made, the number of sleepless nights he spent and the time that he spent away from family to do his work. Next, he talks about how college was the reason that he got into this business in the first place. Hatfield used to be an athlete at the University of Oregon. However, an injury led him to pursue a major in Architecture, but while he was an athlete, he developed a close friendship with the track coach at the university, and it was through this relation that he came into the field of designing shoes. Overall, this episode was a bit of a letdown, but I appreciated the importance that Hatfield placed on college and hard work.

The third episode followed Es Devlin, a British stage designer. Until watching this episode, I didn’t know anything about stage designers, or that it was someone’s job. However, this episode blew me away. Devlin has designed gorgeous, revolutionary stages for not only the theatre but also for concerts for Beyonce, Kanye West, Adele, and many others, each of which are attended by tens of thousands of people. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, my best writing cannot do justice to describing the stages she has created. You just have to see it, to believe it. Through this episode, Devlin leads us through some her revolutionary works — the inspiration behind those works, the process of creation of those works, and the significance of those works. This is helpful for an ignorant viewer like me. She breaks her design process down into concrete ingredients like darkness, time, etc. and then shows how she mixes these ingredients to create the final result. This helps us understand that there is no genius involved, only hard work; it makes Devlin look human, and in doing so inspires us to work hard in the hope that we may be able to create great things as well. Want to hear another inspiring story? Devlin went to college like the rest of us, and the way she was discovered was through a design competition senior year. Now, doesn’t that sound doable? If you can only watch one episode, it should be this one.

Ah, the episode on Bjarke Ingels, the maverick architect. A little backstory: I was initially inspired to watch this series because I wanted to watch this episode. Way back in high school, I had read the New Yorker profile on Ingels, titled "High Rise — A bold Danish architect charms his way to the top," and since then I have been following this man’s rise to the top. This episode was very much Ingels and contained throwbacks to the many things I remember reading back then including his economical, environment friendly, and crazy designs. This man is larger than life and this episode glorified that. It started with the director asking Ingels what he would like this documentary to be, to which he responds, “I want it to be like the documentary version of Inception.” And it ends with the director asking Ingels whether he ever dreams of buildings, to which he responds, “I never dream about my work, actually, interestingly enough.” The last shot is that of Ingels jumping on a trampoline in front of a camera crew to simulate the shot of him flying through the air. I don’t know if you need more context than that to understand what this episode was about, but to summarize it was the camera following Ingels doing cool s***, breaking existing traditions, and occasionally pissing people off.

The next episode was on Ralph Gilles. The description on Netflix for this episode reads, “As Fiat Chrysler’s global head of design, Ralph Gilles steers the brand into the future with sleek new sports cars and a self-driving electric van.” This episode was bad. Okay, it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t nearly on par with the other ones. Gilles is a car designer who reached cult status because he designed the Chrysler 300C; however, this cult status was not well translated into the episode. The episode blandly followed him around coming in and out of corporate meetings, listened to his management philosophies, watched him drive a race car, and for some brief genuine moments showed his struggles against his father. There was no talk about the process of creation or the process of design. We were essentially following a corporate honcho. Being a car fanatic, this was a huge letdown. I was looking forward to an amazing episode where I could see the amount of work that went into designing cars. Instead, through most of the episode, the only thought going through my head was how much Chrysler must have paid Netflix to make this. Not everything can be great, let’s move on.

The sixth episode was on Paula Scher and harked back to the awesomeness of the first few episodes. Scher is a graphic artist, and like Rand, is responsible for designing ubiquitous logos such as Windows 8 and Citi Bank. She has also designed some amazing album covers, which is what initially brought her work to attention. Her work has the power to create brands, for example her work on the Public Theatre was responsible for creating the image that it has today. I could go on and on, but I’d rather tell you what made this episode good. This episode was good because it really retained and made good use of the themes I mentioned at the start. It showed revolutionary work by the designer, it followed the designer on a project she was working on currently, and it gave us a peek into her private life. Also, this episode came back to showing the importance of the process of creation. Take those good ingredients, mix them up, adapt them to the designer, and voila you have a good, if not great, episode.

Overall, though, the series was eye-opening and amazing. I am generally not one for documentaries, least of all biographical ones, but these were different. They stood out. They introduced me to heroes in different fields and inspired me to use their creative processes in my own creations. More importantly, though, the series talks about people who, for the most part, haven’t reached the ends of their careers and still have miles to go. It talks about people who went to school for design — essentially ordinary people who went to school; worked hard; got good, scratch that, great, at what they do; and are now revolutionizing their fields. I don’t know about you, but as a young student, that is exactly what I want to hear.