Abstract: The Art of Design on Netflix
Written for Media Workshop: The Design Media Landscape, taught by Spencer Bailey at SVA.
When the first season of Abstract: The Art of Design released on Netflix in 2017, I was thrilled. Finally, this thing that I do—graphic design—and the thing that no one really understands (design in general), was depicted in eight binge-watcheable episodes for all to see.
The series features one designer per episode (five men, three women) each from a different design discipline and follows them across the western hemisphere (New York, Denver, London, Copenhagen) as they create work for brands and cultural institutions like Nike, Kanye West, and The New Yorker. We get to watch them as they sketch (stage designer Es Devlin), inspect models of cars (head of design at Chrysler, Ralph Gilles) and go for walks around Berlin (illustrator Christoph Niemann). We get to see how the magic happens.
Producer Scott Dadich, the former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, wrote in an editorial for the magazine that this Netflix original is “about visionary designers who shape the world around us.”
I have to ask: the world around who, though?
For all its slick production, powerhouse directors, and earnest cast, Abstract’s fault is similar to that of most design media today: it is too prescriptive in its definition of what design is. We see all Western, and with the exception of Ralph Gilles, all white designers spectacularly solving problems for places we never really see and people we never hear from. And despite being the first of its kind on Netflix, it is content with being an enjoyable, inoffensive television show that discreetly tucks away any indication that these seemingly glamorous, brilliant designers exist in an imperfect and chaotic world. Logos fail, buildings go through wear and tear, and cars contribute to more issues than I have space to list. The designer’s job doesn’t end when the last Final_FINAL.psd file is rendered. The power of design today to solve larger societal, environmental and political problems and not just the aesthetic enhancements it was relegated to in the past is clear, and urgent. To ignore that in a show on design in the 21st century is especially offensive.
Creating design is a messy, non-linear process that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a made-for-television trajectory. Most designers would tell you that, unlike Renzo Piano’s colourful, inside-out design for the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris directly inspiring Nike’s Tinker Hatfield’s design for the Air Max, there aren’t as many ‘Aha!’ moments as one would imagine. But Abstract relies on the glory of the genius, and messy doesn’t cut it. To explain one trope with another: the almost reverential, beautifully shot profiles feel very Chef’s Table-ish. Beautifully shot in what has perhaps become Netflix’s characteristic style, the narrative arc of the child sketching cartoons growing up into a world renowned starchitect (Bjarke Ingels’ parents share this story in perhaps the most endearing segment in the series) is so predictable that it verges on fiction. It is also vain. Even though it is all so endearing, I struggle not to roll my eyes. But I can’t lay the blame completely on the show or on Netflix: stage designer Es Devlin’s New Yorker profile is obviously the more nuanced portrayal of her than we see on the show, but I didn’t find it especially different in its uncritical, exalting approach. Profiles of creatives need to be radically reinvented if they are to tell fresh stories that haven’t been told countless times before.
Abstract is confident and cool, and has the design world’s glitterati backing it up: Paola Antonelli makes an appearance, as does oddly enough, Jay Leno. In Netflix it finds the perfect partner, the platform giving it an incredible stage, even if that means the show remains formulaic and glossy. And for Netflix, beautiful, dramatic design-in-the-making makes for good watching., and consequently, good viewer numbers. Eventually, despite its flaws I’m grateful it exists at all. I just hope season two tries to reframe the world’s understanding of what design is and what it can do, and especially who it affects (you and I). Because the producers job, like the designers, doesn’t end once the show is available for streaming.