mm* review: ‘Abstract’ on Netflix

TV programmes dedicated to exploring the craft and business of art and design are pretty few and far between. They either feel a bit exclusive and high-brow, designed for an audience who will just get it, or seem so watered down that they focus on the superficial and bypass any actual insight or process of design.

So thank goodness for Netflix and their recent series ‘Abstract’. Netflix are noticeably pushing the boundaries of the traditional TV format, because they see the value in giving as much thought, production and budget to their TV series as big studios give to box office films. Excitingly, they are also influencing mainstream traditional broadcasters to raise the bar.

The Abstract series profiles eight different designers, across a spectrum of disciplines, from interiors to photography. Here’s the episode list:

  1. Christoph Niemann: Illustration
  2. Tinker Hatfield: Footwear Design
  3. Es Devlin: Stage Design
  4. Bjarke Ingels: Architecture
  5. Ralph Gilles: Automotive Design
  6. Paula Scher: Graphic Design
  7. Platon: Photography
  8. Ilse Crawford: Interior Design

Each episode brings to life a creative world by following a designer through their day-to-day – this series is as much about the personalities and processes as the final work. It’s accessible and gives real insight to those who don’t work in the design industry.

Some have criticised the programme for focusing on the individual and not enough on the wider design industry. Personally I found the insight into their lives, what motivates them and their opinions the most compelling. Any documentary that focuses on individuals at the top of their game will have an element of ego, but I found the context really helpful in understanding their design output.

Of course, a lot resonated with how we work at mm*. It was not only reassuring (these are some of the best people in their field), but exciting to have my experiences and feelings about the potential of design reaffirmed: what it can achieve, how it affects our lives and the power it has to make a positive difference in our day-to-day.

The key themes that resonated with me were:

Human needs and desires

Ilse Crawford (interior design) has a simple mission of putting human desires and needs at the centre of all she does.

“Empathy is the cornerstone of design”

A lot of the time, there is a tendency to focus on the end goal, the marketing objective, the desired outcome (which is all valid and important). But sometimes when looking at ways we communicate for brands, it’s important to remember the people, the experiences, the emotions which all work together to make us behave the way we do, often without us even realising…

Inspiration isn’t confined to a studio

Across all the disciplines shown in Abstract, a clear theme is that inspiration and design work doesn’t just happen sat at your desk between 9am and 5pm. It can happen anywhere, at any time – creative is not confined to the hours we work, it’s part of our blood.

Design is everywhere

The varied themes showcase how much of our lives are impacted and influenced (unknowingly) by design. Bjarke Ingels (above) devotes immense energy and passion to changing perceptions of how architecture can influence behaviour, breaking the boundaries of what buildings can mean to people.

“You can take things that are considered infrastructures like highways, bridges, power plants and crossbreed it so that it actually has positive and social environmental side effects.”

– Barkje Ingels

Paula Scher’s episode touches on the serious impact bad design can have, especially when it really matters. She uses the example of a recent election where the ballot paper design was confusing and unclear. She believes this led to people accidentally voting for a different candidate than they intended, which potentially affected the final result of the election.

The programme reveals commonalities across the designers regardless of specialism, but equally it’s a celebration of their differences. People at the top of their professional game, brought to life through a beautiful visual feast of a production (don’t get me started on the camera work). So if you find yourself with a bit of time (perhaps over this bank holiday) I cannot recommend this series enough.

Drop me a line if you do check it out, I’d be really interested to know what you think.

Written by Emily Wright

About markmaking*

mark-making* is an award-winning creative agency specialising in branding, campaigns and communications