Jul 19 2017

Documentaries Abstract: the art of design & The Defiant Ones offer insights on how people create


I’ve been watching the Netflix series Abstract: the Art of Design and the HBO series, The Defiant Ones. Abstract features interviews with different kinds of designers: an illustrator, an architect, a graphic designer, etc. The Defiant Ones is about the careers and collaboration of hip hop artist Dr. Dre and music producer Jimmy Iovine. There are 8 episodes of Abstract on Netflix. The Defiant Ones is a four-part series on HBO.

An observation that artists from both series make is that art captures moments in the human condition that are familiar and common. We see a painting or photograph, hear songs, read and watch stories that remind us of something in our experiences. Artists take the elements of design for their particular mediums and use them to capture moments and tell stories in fresh ways.

Every art form has it’s own set of elements. The language of music is rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, form, and dynamics. Pop music tells familiar stories in new and authentic ways. A live musical performance, and certainly music video, incorporates visual elements as well as sound to convey message. Writers use narrative devices and style techniques to arrange words on a page. Filmmakers add visual language and sound to narrative. Realistic art and photography work with visual elements like shape, color, shadow, arrangement, texture, weight, etc. to tell a story.

With abstract design and instrumental music the story is less obvious. Sometimes an image evokes a memory through shape, color, size, tone. Basic shapes and color reference icons that relate to common experience. And yet what we see may represent but does not duplicate a tangible thing. Illustrator Christoph Niemann, who is featured in the first episode of Abstract says, “My goal is speak visuals the way a pianist speaks piano.”

Both series explore what is involved in the creative process.  These were my take-aways:

Message: Photographer Platon believes that “What’s important is the story, the message.” As a graphic designer Paula Scher emphasizes simplicity,  finding “the essential that opens you to the core idea or emotion.”

Inspiration.  Niemann echoes an idea that Stephen King talks about in On Writing. Professional artists cannot expect to only work when feeling inspired. Niemann believes “feeling good in the process turns out lower quality work.” Paula Scher counters that she needs to be in “a state of play” to create anything. When inspiration does show up Dr. Dre will stay in the studio for days “because that train doesn’t come along all the time.”

Process. Schier says that tools should never take precedence over the work.  Photon prepares for a photoshoot by asking “What can I learn from this person? What questions about the human condition can this person communicate?” He uses the same set and camera for every portrait. Niemann uses Lego blocks to help abstract shapes. Each artist figures out what works for them and usually sticks with that.

Editing. “I need to be a much more ruthless editor and a much more careless artist,” says Niemann.  Another quote about editing I love is in the 2000 film,  Finding Forrester. Sean Connery say, “You write the first draft with your heart, and you rewrite with your head.” Artists can be so critical of themselves. Sometimes someone else needs to help the artist sort out what is and isn’t worth putting out into the world.

Careers and Experience. Jimmy Iovine’s story about becoming a producer illustrates the process of gaining experience. He kept showing up, paying attention, asking questions, and working out of his comfort zone. Being well-known or well-paid as an artist is usually part talent, part hard work, and part luck. Almost every artist has a serendipity story that accounts for gaining the opportunity to be famous. The creative process and the satisfaction of making something is the motivating force. With more than 40 years of experience, Schier still asks “What can I make next?”

Control. Artists don’t always have creative control. Artists who are creating for others must understand the message that other people want to convey in order to capture it in a piece. Paula Scher did that famous 1976 Boston album cover, but thought it was “dumb.” However, it was what the band wanted and they were happy with it. Whether she liked it or not, it’s become an iconic piece. On the other hand, Jimmy Iovine says of managing artists, “They have the talent, give them the keys and let them drive.”

Collaboration: Tinker Hatfield the designer who collaborated with Michael Jordan for the Air Jordans line discusses factors like function, market, and the personality and style of the celebrity in designing a shoe. You have to know when collaboration is going to produce something great and when to walk away. Dr. Dre illustrates this point his choice to work with Eminem and in knowing when it was time to walk away from Death Row.

All these creators describe a combination of inspiration and process that leads to a finished work. There is an intangible experience that happens in the process of making. Even when there seems to be a definite plan, the act of making is often an act of discovering the work as it is in creating it.