In the spirit of melding form and subject, “Abstract: The Art of Design” is one of the most dazzling-looking shows anywhere on TV. The Netflix documentary series, executive produced by Morgan Neville and former Wired editor-in-chief Scott Dadich, doesn’t take its title lightly and offers a sleek, vibrant presentation of some of the most influential figures in the design world.
In its six-episode Season 2, “Abstract” focuses on a half dozen individuals in various corners of the design world, across bioengineering, digital products, and typography. Different directors (including Neville, Dadich, and recently minted Oscar-winner E. Chai Vasarhelyi) visit the offices, homes, and neighborhoods of these creators in an attempt to document the process by which their work jumps from a desk and into the public consciousness.
“Abstract” often makes the case that these designers are fundamentally shaping and shifting the way we see the world. They’re not necessarily inventing a new language, but they’re honing the way that words get printed on a page. They’re not shattering gender constructs on their own, but they’re providing a framework for playing and creativity. “Abstract” can often be enlightening and inspiring, but these 45-minute documentary profiles often feel specifically geared to elicit only those responses. When taken in full, much of this series feels like the finely-produced bit of marketing to which these individuals’ contributions often contribute.
It’s hard to build a series on arguing for the necessity for particular ideas, and “Abstract” shows why it’s even harder to do so while arguing for particular people. There’s the specific task of giving an overview of their areas of expertise, all while showing why the particular episode’s subject is worthy of singling out. Here, that sometimes distracts from presenting a full view of what lies behind some of these individuals’ work. That’s when the life outside the show can get in the way.
Take an episode on MIT professor Neri Oxman, which devotes a significant chunk to the wonders (and implied infallibility) of the institute’s Media Lab. Viewed in September 2019, that assessment is at odds with recent reporting on the Lab’s financial ties to accused international human trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, whose donations to the group are shrouded in malpractice. Still, former Media Lab director Joi Ito stays in the episode, speaking warmly of his colleagues’ indescribable achievements. Will viewers three years from now feel the reverberation of this scandal? Perhaps not. They might even see the 2011-2019 tenure chyron underneath Ito’s name and assume that his departure revolved around something far more benign.
Whether or not the team behind “Abstract” could have foreseen this profile of Oxman becoming available on Netflix within months of the Epstein-related correspondence surfacing, it shows the shortcomings of a project primarily designed to frame these designers as someone worthy of our gratitude and admiration, not just our attention.
No discussion of modern transformative design is complete without at least one long look at social media, and this season’s efforts come in the form of profiling Instagram product designer Ian Spalter. Aside from the thesis that Spalter is a primary reason for the app’s rise in users (supported with a tenuous clump of data), the episode becomes a bizarre IG victory lap, propping up the platform’s success in relation to peers past and present, like MySpace and Snapchat. With a cursory acknowledgment of parent company Facebook’s recent issues of public trust, Spalter’s episode is another indicative example of a series that wants to extol the virtues of designers without reckoning with any unintended consequences their work might have. For all the discussion about how much change this work is bringing in the world, the only nod to failure is a handful of blog posts that didn’t like the redesigned Instagram logo right away.
The series’ insistence on rooting this exploration of design squarely through the lens of single individuals makes a slide into a hagiographic approach all the easier. Oxman’s episode, which outside of a few nods towards some creations at and from the MIT Media Lab, is largely an exercise in aspirational psychotechnical speak. That comes to a head with a discussion of Walden Pond, which sends the episode on a philosophical tangent, underlining how “Abstract” often asks its audience to connect with these people on the lofty poetry of what they’re saying rather than what they’ve created.
So the installments of “Abstract: The Art of Design” Season 2 that feel the most well-rounded and illustrative offer something beyond an individual’s achievements. These “Abstract” episodes do pause for a moment of self-reflection, something that along with the outside testimonials help make this something more than an exercise in solipsism. When that vulnerability comes in the form of expressing self-doubt — like in an episode devoted to the enduring achievements of legendary costume designer Ruth Carter — it gives these subjects a more honest chance to reject their own mythology. Hearing Carter talk about the challenges and restless nights working on “Black Panther” offers more insight than a consequence-free skimming of how someone’s creations fit into marketing a product or a candidate. If someone’s professional reputation is the primary thing at stake in these episodes, it’s a sign the show is hovering too close to the surface.
None of this is necessarily an indictment on the overall visual craft in “Abstract.” There’s an emphasis on presenting these ideas in a visually engaging way, to the point where it’s admirable how much the series is built on requiring viewers to pay attention. It’s inherent in the show’s premise that these ideas and concepts require a certain amount of illustration, demanding eyeballs even if they weren’t so appealing and aesthetically grabbing to begin with.
These episodes also do feel tailored to their subjects, not just because this is another slate of different directors pursuing their own ends. The opening credits sequences are different for each designer, and certain episodes trade in different doc flourishes to help complement the person at its center. Sometimes this means an illustrated diversion that underlines a specific spark of imagination. In a few different episodes, we see the subject superimposed multiple times in the same frame, seemingly cloned to move around and occupy different literal corners of their office all at the same time.
But the documentary-as-commercial approach is the same problem that hangs over other multi-episode exercises like “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates” (also distributed by Netflix) and “Shangri-La,” this year’s Showtime docuseries on music producer Rick Rubin (also directed by Neville). Both of those offer plenty to consider, but are built on the idea that they’re the most powerful if you accept the people at the center as visionaries. If that assumption doesn’t come at the outset, the show has a need to make the case. It’s not a process that leaves room for much of a balanced consideration of these people as more than conduits for the most notable parts of their CVs.
One running theme through “Abstract” is the idea of endless possibilities. These designers, the show argues, reached their current place in the public consciousness because they dared to devise a new set of criteria for their own success. In almost every case, there’s no denying that these contributions have had tangible effects in the real world. But those ideas would seem far more powerful in this context if more of these episodes didn’t seem like another of their own creations.
“Abstract: The Art of Design” Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.
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