Abstract: The Art of Design Season TwoExpanding the scope and ambition of the iconic Netflix series
When the first season of Abstract: the Art of Design debuted on Netflix in February of 2017, there had never been another show like it. The series, which was created by GDP co-founder and co-CEO Scott Dadich, took viewers into the minds and the creative processes of renowned artists in a variety of fields to explore the question: What is design? Abstract drew raves, sparked cultural conversations, garnered an Emmy nomination, and even inspired the ultimate compliment: a parody from Comedy Central. Netflix soon green-lit a second season.
The chance to make six more episodes was gratifying, but also daunting. Netflix’s subscriber base had more than doubled to 150 million-plus since the first season debuted. The new season would need to please existing fans while also reaching a growing global cohort.
The next installment of the series was also being produced in what felt like a darker time. “The show first premiered at Sundance on Inauguration Day, and that weighed on us,” says Scott. “It made us think about how we’d want to stretch the definition of what design could be in the second season, how it could pave a way forward, and provide a more conscious route to optimism.” With humanity facing so many seemingly insoluble challenges—environmental degradation, the rise of nativism, uncivil discourse amplified by social media—Abstract needed to engage an audience hungry for tangible solutions.
For the second season, GDP and their collaborators at RadicalMedia and Tremolo Productions set out to find six visionaries who aren’t simply shaping our culture—they are shaping humanity’s future by addressing some of society’s most pressing problems in their work. They sought a mix of designers who were diverse in every conceivable way–gender, background, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, geography, and especially in their fields and disciplines. There was a concerted effort to broaden and expand the scope of the show and convey the increasingly large role that design plays in all of our lives. More than 200 candidates were explored with dozens interviewed and vetted using a specially designed decision matrix.
The casting process was made more difficult by the fact that the makers of Abstract don’t simply seek a subject’s participation in a straightforward profile—they look for a collaborator, someone who will play an active role in the process of crafting their episode, with a willingness to help visualize and dramatize their creative process, and to travel around the world to locales that hold special meaning to their lives and careers. With due diligence, six perfect subjects emerged:
The Design of Art
Danish-Icelandic artist who creates sensory-rich immersive installations, including a lamp-lit sun at the Tate Modern and chunks of Arctic ice on city streets. His work prompts us to re-examine what’s right in front of us—and to help twist our perspectives on the ways we think about design and the environment.
Can we design our way out of an ecological crisis? At the MIT Media Lab, Professor Neri Oxman cultivates new materials that emulate nature. Her work masterfully combines art, design, engineering, and science, giving equal importance to each.
A visual storyteller and frequent Spike Lee collaborator, Ruth E. Carter won an Oscar for her Afrofuturistic costume design for Black Panther. In her work on more than 40 films, she doesn’t simply capture a character’s essence or evoke a time period: she helps build out the world of the film.
Design for Play
Holman crafts tools and objects designed to inspire creativity and unstructured play. She identifies as queer, and she sees design as a form of activism, and play as an influential process that can help shape a child’s outlook on life.
Digital Product Design
The former design leader for YouTube, Foursquare, and Nike+ Fuelband and Running, and Head of Design for Instagram at the time of filming, explains the fraught process of experimenting with new product designs.
While researching vintage watches as inspiration for a new font, the founder of the influential Hoefler Type Foundry delves into his work for Apple, Rolling Stone, Obama's "Change" campaign, and more.
The three executive producers from Abstract season one returned for the second season: Scott; his frequent producing partner Dave “DOC” O’Connor; and documentarian Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom). Each episode would have its own director, who would be tasked with visualizing the unique creative process of the episode's subject. Neville would direct an episode, as would returning season one directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (who’d since directed the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo) and Brian Oakes (Sundance Grand Jury & Audience Prize winner for Jim: The James Foley Story). The EPs added Claudia Woloshin (a director on the Emmy-nominated series The Mind of a Chef) and Jason Zeldes (a director on the series Ugly Delicious who’d done a brilliant job as editor on season one of Abstract). Scott himself would also helm an episode, about Instagram designer Ian Spalter.
For each episode of Abstract, the subject is an active participant in the storytelling process, working with the filmmakers to tell their story, explain their work, and even visualize their creative process. Clockwise from top left: Ai Weiwei being interviewed by director Jason Zeldes for the Olafur Eliasson episode, executive producer Dave O'Connor working on an episode's structure, Cas Holman with director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Ian Spalter recording audio interviews with EP/director Scott Dadich, executive producer and director Morgan Neville on location with Neri Oxman.
For that episode, Scott tapped his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Adam Stone, who shot the acclaimed Mud and Loving for filmmaker Jeff Nichols, and who was director of photography on the Netflix series Wild Wild Country. The Spalter episode was shot with a Red Monstro in 8K using vintage widescreen Panavision lenses, some of which were more than 50 years old. “We knew we were going to be shooting in a lot of tech company office buildings, and we wanted these scenes to have a more cinematic look,” says Scott. The episode travels from the Silicon Valley headquarters of Instagram, to Spalter’s childhood home in New Rochelle, New York (where we hear from his parents and he dusts off his old 1980s Commodore 64 that sparked his love for digital design), to Tokyo, where Spalter is now building Instagram’s new Japan headquarters. Spalter explains the role of design in everything from the Instagram app, which has more than a billion monthly active users, to the toaster he uses every morning. He also contemplates how being bi-racial in an industry not known for its diversity has given him a different perspective, and how that point of difference has helped him empathize with the people who use the products and devices he designs.
The use of vintage Panavision lenses added widescreen grandeur to scenes of mundane workplaces as well as spectacular Tokyo night life.
Once shooting had wrapped, the grueling post-production process could begin. RadicalMedia were our core production partners on editing, sound, and color. Morgan Neville’s Tremolo productions also collaborated during the post process and edited two episodes. The team at GDP oversaw creation of the eye-catching motion graphics, which had received an Emmy nomination in the first season. Each episode had its own distinctive style, and painstakingly storyboarded animation sequences illuminated the unique personality and style of the profiled artist while simultaneously embodying the power of great design.
Abstract’s opening segments offered a riotous visual introduction to the life and work of the episode subject. We oversaw the creation of the eye-popping motion graphics.
GDP’s role did not end when the second season of the series was delivered to Netflix. Scott led many aspects of the rollout as well, from the creation of the trailer to determining the episode order to designing the key art. GDP co-hosted a premiere screening in New York with episode subject Hoefler that was emceed by NBC News anchor Willie Geist, and co-hosted a screening in San Francisco with Instagram, featuring a panel discussion with Director of Product Design Brett Westervelt and New York Times Magazine Labs Editorial Director Caitlin Roper. We brought together talent including Tinker Hatfield, Olafur Eliasson, Cas Holman, Jonathan Hoefler, and Platon to celebrate the season premiere in partnership with Moncler at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. In addition, we provided all of the episode two subjects with a social launch toolkit, and they helped spread the word through media interviews, social media, and blog posts.
We hosted screenings on either coast. The well-attended events included Q&A sessions with many of the episode subjects and filmmakers.
GDP commissioned illustrator Joe McKendry to create the hero key art used in the promotion of the series. It was crafted to represent the varied disciplines of our season two cast. The visual approach incorporates the “mechanical files”—schematics, sketches, printer’s marks—our cast members might use. The art, designed to be modular and scalable, was delivered in multiple orientations so that it could be used in posters, billboards, and all Netflix product experiences.
We developed key art that Netflix used to promote the series both within their service and outside in the world.
An in-house team at GDP also created an animated execution in 3D specifically built for a billboard in Times Square. The bespoke video piece showcased the visual identity of each artist and episode of the series. Over the course of its month-long engagement in Times Square, the animation was viewed an estimated 3.3 million times.
During the runup to the show’s release, we used the Abstract instagram account as an extension of the spirit and content of the series. Our team followed up with the subjects of season two episodes, sharing new interview material and giving a deeper look into their lives and work. We revealed behind-the-scenes footage from the set and engaged a growing community of design aficionados with creative challenges, responses to which were curated and featured in the feed. In less than 90 days, Abstract’s Instagram followers more than doubled to over 100,000.
We helmed the Abstract Instagram page during the rollout of season two, more than doubling its follower count and garnering 150,000+ likes in less than four months.
The series received raves. Architectural Digest called it “a bingeworthy watch full of inspiration for designers in any field.” The Daily Dot said it is “so immersive that viewers may wish to reach into the TV”. New York Times TV critic Margaret Lyons named it her top pick in her Watching weekly newsletter. “Every episode of Abstract is good,” she wrote. “Each 45-minute installment feels distinct from the others stylistically in addition to the major differences between the subjects. If you want something nutritious but not miserable, or if you want to feel a happy jolt of creativity, watch this.” This culminated in Abstract winning “Best Episodic Series” of 2019 from the prestigious International Documentary Association. Season two of the series was also nominated for a Critics Choice Real TV Award and a Los Angeles Area Emmy® Award.
The most gratifying response, however, might be a note that Cas Holman shared with us—a list she made of the 42 countries from which she received positive responses since the show debuted. “It seems my story and the ideas therein—about creativity, neurodiversity, play, childhood, gender, education—resonate very deeply with people,” Holman says. “I've known those ideas are all present in my work...but to show them in a way that so many people around the world are inspired by is really extraordinary.”