Abstract

The new Netflix series Abstract is a wonderful exploration of many different fields of design. I would recommend it wholeheartedly as a primer on what design is to family and friends who seek to know the kinds of things that designers do. Standout episodes feature Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield, graphic designer Paula Scher, and photographer Platon.

Anne Quito, from Quartz, wrote a more critical take on the series. She brought up a couple points that I would like to respond to.

The Title

Abstract’s biggest folly is its premise. It starts with the title. The word “abstract” is a term that aptly describes the evocative work of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Wassily Kandinsky, but is totally wrong for design. Designers, in fact, are obsessed with the concrete: specs, measurements, budgets, deadlines, and countless other details. A designer’s creativity is always directed—the quest is to materialize elegant ideas to beautiful forms.

As a working designer, I have to disagree. The work I do, day in and day out, is making the right things concrete, while simultaneously making other things more abstract. To communicate an idea or create a beautiful form, whether it’s an illustration, a shoe, or a UI you have to swim through abstractions. As an example, as a UI designer I often have to think about how the things I design might be used in a context that I did not intend. A card displaying data might be used to show a table, an illustration, a photo, or a Tweet. How can I make a form abstract enough to accept all these different types of content, while still creating a form that meets project, business, usability, and aesthetic goals? As a designer I need to be very specific and concrete about some things while abstracting other things away from their most obvious form.

Over-produced?

In the first episode, the prodigious German illustrator Christoph Niemann enters a white visual field and interacts with his drawing, as if in an Apple commercial. In another, Ingels appears on the screen as a double image of himself; the right-hand Bjarke smirks as left-hand Bjarke confesses his angst. These stylistic reveries felt unnecessary. They might be pretty flights of fancy and fandom, but not only do they distract from the protagonists’ already compelling stories, they also undermine the truthfulness of the whole thing. Is this a serious documentary? Is this an infomercial? Is this a promotional video? Is it commercial art?

Of course this series is a promotion for the field of design. Why else would the series be produced? By and large, there is an absence of counter points and criticism throughout the series. However, the special effects felt like a demonstration and celebration of the very work they were describing. I felt like these visual flourishes and clever compositions drew me into the stories.

I really like Abstract, and if you’re interested in design, or craftsmanship in general, I suggest you check it out.

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