Netflix’s design series, Abstract: The Art of Design, returns for a second season with six more creatives in focus. This year’s line-up is slightly different; some designers are younger in their career trajectory, while new areas such as social media are also explored. We caught up with the show’s co-creator and executive producer to discuss why the show is like a series of essays and how he plans to bring more diverse voices to the table.
Design Week: How did you find the reaction to the first series of the show?
Dave O’Connor: One of my favourite reactions was from the creative community at large, just really feeling like they were having a show made about and for them for the first time. We had had many moments with television network executives, where they’d say ‘we would love to be able to make Abstract on our network but we just can’t.” With Netflix’s support, we were able to tap into a global network even if it is smaller than some communities. And it really seemed to grow over time. It wasn’t one of those shows that launched on day one and ten million people told us how great it was — it was a slow, steady conversation.
DW: Has that changed anything for the second series?
DO: It made us committed to find people whose work is global in nature, and whose careers have taken them to different places. We wanted to look even more forward in design with this year’s subjects. We spent a lot of time choosing subjects who were pushing design into a new generation and who were maybe earlier in their trajectories than our season one characters. With some of this season’s subjects, we haven’t seen their signature piece yet. Their best is yet to come.
We have toy designer Cas Holman to Neri Oxman who’s using cutting edge technology to Olafur Eliasson who’s touching on some of the biggest subjects that face humanity today. All of these designers straddle multiple sectors of design and are harder to put into a single bucket.
DW: This season there’s an episode about Ian Spalter (previously Instagram’s head of design, now head of Instagram Japan) which shows the breadth of the show’s focus. Are people surprised about how widespread design is?
DO: We believe deeply that design is in everything and everywhere in small and large ways. With Ian and Instagram, we have a story that seems so ubiquitous now in social media and that we are exposed to constantly, and yet it’s still so new. That was one of the choices where the universality was important to us, to take something that people use on a daily, or sometimes constant basis, and to explore the things that power it. And hopefully it will stop people and give them think about the creativity that goes into a platform like that.
DW: What other areas of design would you like the series to explore?
DO: We want to continue to find people who are bringing work together from completely different parts of the world. For us, the focus is how can we continue to push the envelope of bringing even more diverse voices and perspectives to bear. We do love a classic jam, so finding a new angle on something like graphic design or architecture is interesting to us.
DW: We see some designers, like costume designer Ruth Carter, during vulnerable moments in this series. How important is it to show that they’re human too?
DO: Design fans will watch this show regardless. The real testament to whether we did a good job or not is when the non-design fans can come in and access the show. The generosity of the designers this series and the access they give us to their creative process and private lives is about trust.
We approach this show like a design challenge, so the designers accept us into their world because they see our process as mirroring theirs. That enables real trust and we find some really human and universal moments of warmth and empathy and in Ruth’s case, tragedy, which she so generously shares with us. It helps us understand her work and all that she’s had to overcome to get to where she is.
DW: Are there new challenges when you’re trying to cover different areas of design?
DO: What we focus on with when we pair directors and designers is to find conversations between them. For producers, it’s about finding new ways to push our storytelling. We use some of the tools of our trade, as producers and filmmakers, to find consistency throughout even when all the designers feel very different. One of my favourite things about the show is that each episode stands alone, but if you watch all of them, it gives you a bigger picture — it’s almost like a collection of essays. You can glean more from reading them all rather than just one.
DW: Does documenting designers teach you anything about being a film producer?
DO: Absolutely. One of things we picked up on right away was how immensely close our processes are. There’s a freedom to starting to think about no longer making a television show and starting to think of solving a problem. I think with any design challenge, from creating a building from scratch, or an episode about Jonathan Hoefler the typeface designer, it starts with making one decision. Then another. You try to break the problem down into smaller parts and use the skills and resources and time to deliver the best results. It’s honed my philosophy for approaching projects and made my decisions clearer. Our subjects show me that I’m a designer too.
DW: Do you have any favourite moments from this series?
DO: There’s a mystery and chase that goes on in Jonathan Hoefler’s episode and it’s the quirkiest hunt through history to find highly specific kerning on a letterform to influence a design he’s trying to create himself. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it was amazing to have Olafur Eliasson take us to the actual waterfall in Iceland that inspired the iconic waterfall that he installed at the Brooklyn Bridge in my hometown.
To see the shift in scale from this natural environment to this man-made environment, from a small island in the middle of the Atlantic to a small island populated by millions of people in the Eastern Seaboard of the United States was really incredible.
The second series of Abstract: The Art of Design is streaming now on Netflix.