If you hadn’t heard yet, Netflix recently released a series of eight 40-minute documentaries entitled Abstract: The Art of Design.
The series has divided critical opinion. Some have praised a show that has brought the creative worlds of eight leading designers into the view of a mainstream audience. Others have criticised the show for lacking a critical angle, for focusing too much on the personalities rather the work, and for perpetuating an unhelpful myth about design: namely that it is primarily about aesthetics (“art”) rather than problem-solving.
Abstract is best thought of as profiles of 8 different designers. What we learn about those designers’ professions, we learn by hearing their perspective — and in episodes where the perspective presented is quite limited, the viewer does feel that lack of insight. This was particularly noticeable in the episodes on stage designer Es Devlin and car designer Ralph Gilles. Emotionally, I was left in no doubt about their individual excellence, but intellectually, I didn’t learn much about their process, their teams, or the bigger picture of their disciplines. Put simply, some episodes of Abstract treat their subject too superficially, and as a result test the viewer’s patience.
However, there are three brilliant episodes. These also happen to be the installments that are likely to be of most interest to graphic designers. They are focused on Christoph Niemann, an illustrator formerly based in New York and now working in Berlin; Paula Scher, a graphic designer esteemed for her brand systems and innovative use of typography; and the British–Greek photographer Platon, who has produced some of the most iconic portraits of the past twenty years.
Read on to find out more about those 3 must-see episodes. You can watch the series over on Netflix.
1. Christoph Niemann: Constraints and Creativity
In the first episode of the series, we see into the world of illustrator and designer Christoph Niemann. Although he doesn’t talk in these terms, what we learn about most in this episode is the creative importance of constraints.
Niemann’s emphasis on abstraction is itself a constraint—one that says the end result must have nothing unnecessary. As he puts it, “the abstraction for me is this idea of getting rid of everything that is not essential to making a point.”
He shows us a number of projects that are defined by completely arbitrary constraints. First, we see a little book in which he took a flat iron symbol, and, by rotating it, scaling it, and duplicating it, transformed it to fill a whole volume with pictures of other objects.
Later on, we see his “Sunday Sketches”, which started as an Instagram project. It involves creating a whimsical composition out of the everyday objects found around him. The one pictured below is one of my favorites, but you can find lots more examples here.
The constraints here are multiple: 1) the constraint of routine—doing it weekly; 2) the fact that it has to be a (square) image to upload to Instagram; and 3) the constraint of taking an everyday object and, through looking at it creatively, turning it to a new, disruptive or subversive visual purpose.
The whimsy of his solutions to this miniature task each day points us to an important truth: that art isn’t so much about creating something new, but about taking something we already know and making us see it differently, whether in the simple visual sense, or in terms of how we understand its meaning.
A final example of Niemann’s technique of imposing constraints on his work is his use of Lego to express ideas. He explains: “It’s the restriction of Lego, the restriction of very low resolution—it’s almost like a 3 dimensional pixel drawing—that I enjoy so much.”
3 Christoph Niemann Quotes From Episode 1:
On inspiration: “Chuck Close said, ‘Inspiration is for amateurs. Us professionals, we just go to work in the morning.’ One thing I love about that quote is that it relieves you of a lot of pressure. It’s just about showing up and getting started. All that matters is you have to sit at your desk and draw, and hope for the best.”
On design: “It’s extremely exciting, but it never becomes easy.”
On improving: “You have to practice and become better. Every athlete and musician has to practice every day. Why should it be different for artists?”