Great design is like any art form: It’s hard for anyone who doesn’t make it to understand where the inspiration comes from. But designers literally shape the world we all live in, creating everything from clothing and furniture to buildings and cars — and that makes their jobs endlessly fascinating.
The new Netflix docuseries Abstract: The Art of Design, which premieres February 10, doesn’t aim to de-mystify the design process, but to unpack how and why designers work: what motivates them, what excites them, and how they get around roadblocks.
Abstract: The Art of Design offers a glimpse into the minds and working habits of eight of the most interesting designers working today. Graphic designer and painter Paula Scher has created branding identities for the Museum of Modern Art and the New York City Ballet; she’s also known for her innovative maps. Es Devlin designed the 2012 London Olympics closing ceremonies and designs fashion shows for Louis Vuitton. Tinker Hatfield is a legendary athletic shoe designer at Nike. Architect Bjarke Ingels creates housing developments, parks, and buildings with a focus on sustainable development and renewable energy. Ralph Gilles is an award-winning designer for Chrysler. Interior designer Ilse Crawford is known for her work on the Soho House in New York. Photographer Platon takes portraits of some of the world’s best-known figures and leaders. And illustrator and designer Christoph Niemann’s designs and illustrations have been featured in publications all over the world, including the New Yorker and the New York Times magazine.
In the vein of Netflix’s popular food docuseries Chef’s Table, each of Abstract’s eight episodes (which are all roughly 45 minutes long) centers on one designer, primarily focusing on their working environments. The show is as interested in the ways they work as the work itself — so we see their studios and workspace and come to understand how designers do what they do.
Netflix debuted two episodes of Abstract at the Sundance Film Festival in January, including the one about Niemann. In it, Niemann discusses his attraction to abstraction as a design concept and the process behind some of his most famous work, including his distinctive New Yorker covers and the “Abstract Sunday” column he illustrates for the New York Times magazine. The episode was shot by acclaimed documentarian Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Best of Enemies), who serves as an executive producer for four episodes of Abstract.
I recently spoke to Neville and Niemann about their episode, their work, and the challenges that authenticity and empathy present to both storytelling and design.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What is the appeal of abstraction as a way of representing the world?
“Abstraction” can sound like it is about design that has few ornaments or avoids realistic representation. For me the process of abstraction is taking something very complex, and then stripping away unnecessary elements until you reveal its very essence.
Is there an equivalent in film?
Abstraction is another way of representation without the complexity of realness. Documentaries are also highly reductive. How much can you put in a film to get to the truth of the character or story? It’s really not that much. I think what I responded to in Christoph’s struggles to pare down to essential abstractions, is a question about how much I need to put into a piece to also capture that truth. Does a shot of someone brushing their teeth really tell you anything? It’s a question I’m trying to answer.
When you begin to approach a new project — whether it's a film or a design project — what's your first consideration? What's your launching point?
I always start by listening, because my preconceived notions about what the piece will be are never as complex or interesting as the real thing. I think that the film itself should be part of that process of discovery, not just a reflection of it.
My first question is always: What does the reader or viewer already know? How much new information do I have to convey? To tell a tight story, I have to have a good sense of the reader’s initial perspective.
In Christoph’s episode of Abstract, he talks about how great pop songs don't do anything particularly new, but the best ones get it right. What, for you, is the trick to being able to shake a project out of its rut and get it right?
On the one hand, it has to do with making a lot of small, seemingly benign decisions. Worrying about little details in terms of the concept and the way the idea is rendered. But ultimately, you also have to rely on a gut feeling if something is good. Routine is very important, but nothing can replace an undefinable ability to just feel when something is right.
I think documentary filmmaking is an exercise in empathy — in understanding other people’s experiences and recognizing some elemental truth from your own experience in that other person. The hard part is trying to impose an order, which is compelling. Most real life doesn’t come in a neatly compelling narrative.
I think much of my job is looking for the latent pieces of a story that exist naturally and trying to make those puzzle pieces fit together into a singular picture. Editing is a slog with few tricks. I just remind myself to step back, squint, and try to see the rough shape of the thing I'm making.
Near the end of the episode, Christoph is reticent to have the specifics of his life filmed because, as he says, "nobody wants authenticity." This really struck me as interesting: What do you mean? And do you think people do want to see authenticity in documentary, or is it something else they're looking for?
The reason I tell stories that involve personal experiences or everyday situations is not because anybody is interested in my life. The only way these ideas can become relevant is if they express an emotion or experience that the reader shares (like fighting with mosquitos or being exhausted on a red eye flight). When I come up with a twisted idea of a toothbrush, I want the reader to connect this to their experience. Stories are fun when they are honest and not overly polished. But real (and authentic) life in general is terribly boring.
I may not make films as abstracted as Christoph’s work, but I love the approach. I would say that Christoph and I are both looking to capture an essential truth. That essence can sometimes get lost in the pursuit of “authenticity.”
The added benefit of freeing yourself from “authenticity” is that it trusts the viewer to bring their own knowledge to complete the picture. I love trusting the viewer.
All eight episodes of Abstract: The Art of Design premiere on Netflix on February 10.