If You Love Great Design, You Need to Watch This Show
Netflix's Abstract is a deep dive into a little-understood world.
BY Pete Forester | Feb 21, 2017 | Design
Good design is invisible. We don't notice it. We're not meant to. We're meant to feel it instead. We don't have to be taught how to use a well-designed smartphone; it's intuitive. We don't have to know the plot of a good movie poster; we understand the story from the image. We don't need a biography presented alongside a portrait; the subject's life is distilled in the frame.
But good design doesn't appear from nowhere. It must be crafted.
For the last two years, Scott Dadich and his producing partners, Morgan Neville and Dave O'Connor, have ventured into the world of design to figure out how designers work. The result of that exploration is a new Netflix series that launches today. Abstract: The Art of Design is an eight-part documentary series that follows designers while they work and explore, inviting us into that process.
But it's not what you're thinking. This isn't a ticket to a world of brightly lit white spaces, shiny surfaces, and techy buzz words. Real design is hard work.
"A lot of people have this notion that designers are some person sitting in a black turtleneck someplace where there's this great bolt of inspiration that comes down," Dadich says. "But it's actually just a lot of work: putting one foot in front of the other every single day, and doing the work." It's not enough to tinker around in Photoshop or InDesign and wait for circles and squares to make sense of one another. Design is alive and describes relationships between humans—describes all of our relationships with the world. No one can wait at a drawing table and expect that to birth itself on paper.
Dadich and his team invited eight designers to take part in the series, each representing different styles and different industries. Tinker Hatfield (pictured above) is the legendary designer behind the Air Jordan sneakers that made the brand what it is today. Platon is responsible for some of the most iconic photographic images of this generation. Bjarke Ingels' architecture appears in skylines all over the world. They come from all over but share some crucial commonalities.
"The subjects had to be really charismatic. They had to be practising designers, really at the peak of their careers that they've achieved great things, but are still actively working and designing," Dadich explains. But these folks aren't designing in a vacuum, or just for the elite. "They had to be working in design crafts that touched a lot of people."
This is far from the first time that photographer Platon and Dadich have worked together. They've crafted some blockbuster images, not least of which included a raid to Moscow involving highly choreographed misinformation and digital espionage to get the first photograph of Edward Snowden after he absconded to Russia. It's that working relationship that convinced Platon to take part. "When Scott said to me he needed me to just let go and open the gates and trust him, I did," says Platon.
Platon is best known as a photographer, a discipline that most don't think of as being an aspect of design. But as you learn in his episode of Abstract, great photography, like all great art, is much more than what you see image to image.
"I have realised over the last 15 years that I've stopped being a photographer and became a storyteller and an activist," Platon explains. "I started to realise that I think of other peoples' idea of success as just first base." Any given week Platon's images can be seen on the cover of Time, Wired, and even Esquire, but for Platon that's just a jumping off point. Platon's non-commercial work (and even some commercial work) focuses on elevating the voices and stories of cultural actors and provocateurs, and Netflix gave him the opportunity to reach an audience of millions more.
"I have no interest in me in front of the camera; I have no interest at all. But where I do have an interest is if I can leverage peoples' interest in me as a storyteller to get other work out there," Platon explains. "So then the question was, 'Why don't you come with me to the Congo?'"
Most of Platon's images that will be familiar come from portraits in the studio: stark, intimate images of familiar people seen in unfamiliar ways. There's almost nothing between the subject and the camera. It's almost minimalist, but that is, in and of itself, meticulously designed.
"I think people don't really understand that his images in particular are highly designed," Dadich explains. "There's this notion they just appear in his viewfinder, but he actually takes a very considered approach in thinking about how subjects fill frames and how they orient themselves to the viewer." We get to see this in action during Abstract when he jumps in a canoe or yells in Colin Powell's face. It's that process that Abstract reveals to us, a process we usually never get to see.
In some ways that process might take the magic out of the highly designed work we normally consume, but Dadich is betting against that. "I do hope that there's a broader appreciation of that fact when we see that work take shape in these films, sometimes it is frustrating for the designers. They do face failure; they do have things that don't work out," Dadich explains.
When we divorce ourselves from the idea that the designed experiences and objects in our world aren't sung to creators on the wings of angels as offerings from the sky, our spaces can take on new shape. Instead of a story of lines and colours, our world can become a story of human thought, ingenuity, and progress made step by step, design by design, successes built on top of authentic failures.
If Netflix has opened a window into a newly designed human behaviour, it's the ability to binge watch TV shows, a behaviour that some say has changed the way we'll interact with serial stories forever. The jury is still out on that, but we do know it's fun. And Dadich thinks you should probably watch Abstract that way.
"I would binge it because I think the commonalities become really evident when you go back to back, and the differences are even more stark," he explains.
You can start binging Abstract: The Art of Design on Netflix today.
From: Esquire US