Behind the scenes of the documentary series exploring the art of design

We speak to co-creator and executive producer Dave O’Connor about Netflix’s new series Abstract: The Art of Design, which features designers ranging from Pentagram’s Paula Scher to architect Bjarke Ingels.

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If you were asked to think about how design is portrayed in popular culture, chances are one of those home renovation programmes which seem to be endlessly replayed on daytime TV would probably spring to mind.

Streaming service Netflix is taking a wholly different approach to tackling the subject with its upcoming series, Abstract: The Art of Design. Focusing on sectors as varied as illustration and set design, its creators are looking to highlight the different stories, personalities and processes behind some of today’s most prominent designers, including Pentagram partner Paula Scher and architect Bjarke Ingels.

We spoke to co-creator and executive producer Dave O’Connor of production company RadicalMedia, to find out more about the series and why design is having a moment in the spotlight.


Design Week: What is the series about?

Dave O’Connor: The series is exploring the world of design in a less esoteric way by looking into the minds and processes of some of the greatest living designers. We wanted to take a multidisciplinary approach so that we could see how designers of different ilks draw inspiration, look at the world around them and take all of those inputs to translate them into the things that shape our world.

DW: What did your role as executive producer involve?

DO: My fellow executive producers, Morgan Neville, Scott Dadich and I managed the day-to-day running of the project on a creative production basis. This included everything from what lenses and camera bodies we used, to making rules about how certain actions would be captured on camera and translating all of that across different directors and cinematographers so people felt the freedom to create within the rules that we built.

DW: How is the series structured?

DO: Each episode focuses on one designer and we follow them through the normal course of their design process. We explore real projects that they are working on, how they develop those projects and what the timelines look like. What we are trying to see is a more truthful picture of how they get through their work.

DW: How did you choose which designers and sectors to include?

DO: We started with the notion that design is just a series of decisions that lead you down a path towards something, and explored the different creative avenues that could unfold from that. We thought it was important to represent some traditional ideas of what design is in terms of disciplines such as illustration, graphic design and architecture. But we also wanted to push into some less explored areas like set and stage design with Es Devlin.

We needed to find people who were established enough in their careers that they had a really solid body of work to draw from but were still vital and working in the field. We wanted provocative designers who have something to say with their work and make an impact broadly on the world.

DW: To what extent did you explore both the professional and personal lives of the designers?

DO: We drew the line where personal lives intersect with work lives, but for a lot of these designers those boundaries are very blurry and for some the personal life and professional life are so intertwined that a lot of what makes them tick can’t be understood unless you dig into their back story. Contextual stuff such as how they interact with their family, coworkers and friends helps you understand the meaning behind their work. It was about trying to show a true portrait of these people.

DW: What was Paula Scher like to work with?

DO: Paula’s episode was fascinating and she was the first person we started filming. She is someone who has such an enormous body of work and a career that has had multiple chapters, but is just as vital today as she was 20 years ago. We were able to go back to her work with CBS Records and creating album cover art that is so mind-blowing. You can see from her earlier designs to her later designs the evolution of a more typography-driven style that emerged in her work over time, and really helped to push that artistic expression.

DW: Have you tried to make the series more accessible to the general public as well as designers?

DO: It was really important to us to push the boundaries of what would be expected from a show like this. We want it to be authentic and true to the work so that people who care deeply about design will still feel like they are able to see the process and learn something, but we also want to make sure it is entertaining so that somebody who is less interested in design can feel that they are having their eyes opened to this world that is all around us but might be invisible to them. We wanted to do something that was fun and captured the spirit and personality of each of our designers.

DW: Do you think that design as a topic is becoming interesting to a wider audience?

DO: I definitely get the sense that through our products, homes and the world in general we are exposed to so much design now that more and more people are just absorbing that lexicon, even if they don’t realise they are absorbing it. I think as we become more conscious of design as a society we are now more open and interested in the people and places that create all this stuff.

One of the big purposes of this show was to try to help people who are aware of design understand that behind all of these things are people. These designs are created with purpose. I think these are matters that more people are thinking about and engaging with than ever before.

Paula Scher
Paula Scher
Christoph Niemann
Left: Christoph Niemann
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