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Under the Microscope: “Abstract: The Art of Design” on Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

A graphic designer recently told me how lucky we are to be living in the Age of Design, how so many businesses and even individuals are using design thinking to inform their decisions.

While I’m a champion of design, I’m unconvinced. If you ask most people who aren’t designers to explain design, they’ll merely scratch the surface and say design is about making things look better. True, smart design improves form, but there’s still a lot of work to be done in convincing the masses that good design is critical for improving the quality of our lives.

The Netflix documentary series “Abstract: The Art of Design” goes a good way to making that case through eight episodes, each focusing on a different designer, a superstar in his or her discipline: architecture, automotive design, footwear design, graphic design, illustration, interior design, photography and stage design.

There’s a lot of stylization, as one might expect from a series about design. But there are glimmers of insight. Tinker Hatfield, the Nike designer who helped popularize the Air Jordan brand (bonus: there are interviews with Michael Jordan in this episode), provides an astute definition of design and how it differs from art. 

“My perception of art is that it is really the ultimate self expression from a creative individual. For me as a designer, it is not the ultimate goal to be self-expressive. The end goal is to solve a problem for someone else. And hopefully it looks great to someone else. And it’s cool to someone else.”

Solving problems for someone else is the essence of design. For Hatfield, it’s to help improve the overworked feet of athletes. For stage designer Es Devlin, it’s about connecting audiences in large venues with the performers, and making small venues more multidimensional despite their limited spaces.

Sometimes design solves problems so elegantly that it feels like magic. Illustrator Christoph Niemann, who designs magazine covers and books, notices the unexpected beauty in everyday objects and playfully gives his audience a fresh perspective and a new way of looking at things. He gives us much-needed reasons to smile in this overly serious world.  

However, “Abstract” is more celebratory than explanatory, a soufflé of a series rather than a full-course meal. It is enjoyable, and indeed, some episodes warrant repeat viewing, especially Niemann’s and Hatfield’s.

If there is a second season, let’s hope it digs deeper, asks more insightful questions and makes us care more about design. The series signifies we’re on the cusp of the Age of Design, but we have quite a ways before reaching it.

Here’s my take on the episodes in order of effectiveness in the power of design, “1” being the most magical:

8. Platon, Photographer
His work is recognizable — black-and-white photographs, usually on magazine covers, that show celebrities in a different light. They all seem paradoxically powerful and approachable, including Colin Powell, whose session “Abstract” documents. Platon himself seems a little too cool to be likable.

7. Es Devlin, Stage Designer
While I find set and experience design fascinating and Devlin’s work looks fantastic, this episode lacked real insight into what motivates her. The episode tried, even interviewing her parents.

6. Bjarke Engels, Architect
This young starchitect is a household name in his native Norway and is becoming famous in New York and other parts of the world for his unconventional structure shapes. For example, his firm designed a power plant topped with a ski slope.

5. Ralph Gilles, Automotive Designer
His story is an interesting one. When he was 14 years old, a family member sent one of his sketches to Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca. The design director wrote Gilles back, suggesting design schools. Flash forward to now and Gilles is global head designer for Fiat Chrysler. However, I wanted to hear more from Gilles about decision making when it came to designing a car.

4. Paula Scher, Graphic Designer
The opening scene is delicious. She’s walking through the streets of New York City, looking at its myriad signs. She shows that typography is crucial for making a sign — and therefore a business — stand out. “Typography is painting with words. It’s my crack.” She created identity for the Public Theater, making it “New Yorkish, loud and proud.” She also makes fun of the Boston album cover she designed in the 1970s calling it “dumb.” But through typography, she gave bands and albums of that era their identity, their brand, before that was a thing.

3. Ilse Crawford, Interior Designer
I love her distinction between interior decorating and design: “We spend 87 percent of our lives inside buildings. How they are designed affects how we feel, how we behave.” She focuses on people in her design process: interrogation, empathy, then imagination. She points out how design is not strictly visual, it’s sensual and about well being. She is charged with reimagining Ikea’s cafes. I’m anxious to see the results.

2. Tinker Hafield, Footwear Designer
This episode truly shows the professional progression of a designer more than any other episode. He grew up an athlete who trained with one of Nike’s founders in college. He also studied architecture. He is an innovator, and it will be interesting to see what becomes of EARL (Electro Adaptive Reactive Lacing) or self-lacing shoes for Nike.

1. Christoph Niemann, Illustrator
From beginning to end, the Niemann piece was enjoyable. I loved how he drew a cyclist on a car window that sped along the streets of New York. In storytelling, one of the oldest sayings is “show, don’t tell.” Niemann doesn’t reveal much about his process through his words, but through his work. His work is worth following, and it lifts the spirit because it embodies the joy of discovery and imagination.