With Netflix's design series Abstract: The Art of Design debuting last month, we thought it timely to round up innovative and interesting documentaries, films and TV series on some of the most influential designs and designers from the 1970s to the present.
Learn about the impact of street art with Banksy or Drew Struzen’s iconic film posters for the Indiana Jones and Star Wars trilogies, the fame of Helvetica and the importance of type, how the German Bauhaus movement struggled under the Nazi Party and delve into the everyday lives of design luminaries Lella & Massimo Vignelli.
Best design television series
Abstract: The Art of Design
Abstract: The Art of Design launched February 10 on Netflix for the first time. The 10-part series released collectively features a designer per episode covering disciplines such as illustration, footwear, stage design, architecture, graphic design, photography and more.
Step inside the minds of creative luminaries including illustrator Christoph Niemann, Bjarke Ingels, Es Devlin, IIse Crawford and learn how design impacts every facet of their life.
Danish architect Serpentine Pavilion talks about how BIG has changed perception of what architecture should be like. Paula Scher explores how her typography shaped the face of New York and iconic 1970s album covers, and Tinker Hatfield retells his career at Nike, including his design of the Air Max.
Ways of Seeing
Take a step back in time with this four-part BAFTA-award winning BBC series hosted by John Berger from 1972.
The series was highly regarded at the time as one of the most influential art programmes ever made. In the first episode (seen above) John examines the impact of photography and art from our past. He goes on to criticise traditional Western culture aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images.
Berger’s scripts were adapted into a book of the same name. The series and book act, in part, as a counter response to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series that represents a more traditionalist view of the Western artistic and cultural canon.
You can now watch BBC's Ways of Seeing on YouTube.
Best design films
It might be hard to imagine an entire feature-length film about one typeface, but that’s exactly how influential Helvetica is. Although the film was released in 2007, it still stands as an accolade to the influence of type in our current world. Helvetica looks at how the one typeface (which turned 50 when the film was released) designed in Switzerland quickly appeared in corporate logos, signage for transportation systems, fine art prints. Inclusion of the font in the Apple Macintosh in 1984 only further cemented its ubiquity.
Max Miedinger with Edüard Hoffman developed Helvetica in 1957 for the Haas Type Foundry during a time when the European design world saw a revival of older sans serif typeface. It was introduced and its popularity fuelled by advertising agencies selling the design style to clients.
But more than just retelling how one typeface became so popular, the film bounces off into a larger conversation about the way type affects over lives, exploring this theme through urban spaces such as in the US, UK and Europe, and the type that inhabits them, insight from renowned designers such as Erik Spiekermann, about their work and the creative process.
If you’re interested in the world of design, advertising, psychology or communication, then you'll be sure to appreciate Helvetica.
Helvetica is available to purchase from Amazon for £18.95.
Drew: The Man Behind The Poster
Many of you will be familiar with Drew Struzen’s iconic posters for Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Back to the Future and Harry Potter among many other cult series and film classics throughout the 70s and 80s. The American illustrator has long been a favourite of directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for his impeccable ability to transport a film brand into a memorable poster that conveys a sense of adventure.
Drew: The Man Behind The Poster is a documentary released in 2013 of Drew’s career spanning his early work in album cover art through to his success as one of the most recognisable and influential movie poster artists of all time, and even into his ‘post retirement’ life and works of art.
The documentary includes interviews with Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, Guillermo del Toro and many other artists, critics and filmmakers.
Drew: The Man Behind The Poster, directed by Erik Sharkey, debuted at the San Diego Comic-Con International. You can purchase the DVD from Amazon for £15.99.
Design is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli
The legendary Italian husband and wife design duo are known by almost everyone – if not by name, definitely by their designs.
The pair co-founded one of New York's most sought after design studios - Vignelli Associates - which went on to modern design in the US. They created New York’s iconic subway map, the interiors of St Peter’s Church in Manhatten, Bloomingdale’s department store and chairs for several furniture manufacturers to name a few projects. Massimo often took on the role of typography and print, and Lella took on commissions for furniture, exhibitions and interiors alongside running their studio.
Massimo died in 2013, and Lella died of Alzhiemer’s in 2016. It was later discovered she was rarely acknowledged in public for her creative work, which press often attributed to her husband. Massimo refers to this sexism in the introduction to the book Designed by: Lella Vignelli.
Design is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli brings the viewer into the work and everyday moments of the Vignellis’ world, capturing intelligence and creativity as well as warmth, authenticity and humour. It can be purchased from Amazon for £18.12.
A team of US designers and filmmakers gathered together to explore the rapid upheaval of the graphic design industry from the 1950s to the 1990s in this documentary. Introduction of the desktop computer revolutionised paste-up boards in studios to PDFs on laptops.
The assistant professor of graphic design at Portland State University collected masses of design production manuals, and was intrigued by the methods used before a computer. She began studying graphics in 1996, and realised if she didn’t know much about the history of design, then her students probably wouldn’t either.
Interviews in the documentary include co-founder of Aldus software company Paul Brainerd and other designers and design educators from Portland.
A Kickstarter for the film began in 2014, and the film was in post-production stages in August last year. It will premiere at the ByDesign Film Festival in Seattle on April 15. It’s expected to be released as a DVD by September, and available Vimeo On Demand. By next year, the film should be available on other streaming platforms such as iTunes and Amazon.
The Face of the Twentieth Century: Bauhaus
Staatliches Bauhaus, aka Bauhaus, was a German art school famous for its approach to design during 1919 to 1933. It was founded by architect Walter Gropius in Weimar (later Dessau and Berlin) initially to build on the idea of all arts being brought together.
It later became one of the biggest influencers of modernist architecture, industrial and interior design, and typography.
The school closed in 1933 by its own leadership under pressure from the Nazi regime having been painted as a centre of communist intellectualism. Although the school itself closed, its leaders took their idealistic precepts to other parts of the world.
Its mark can still be seen in Berlin – the Hansaviertel, Gropiusstadt and Neue Nationalgalerie all bear its architectural fingerprint. This 1994 art documentary traces the development of the Bauhaus movement, how it struggled with the Nazi Party, and what it leaves behind today.
The Face of the Twentieth Century: Bauhaus DVD can be is available from Amazon for £22.79.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
This Banksy-directed documentary (debatably), now released on Netflix in the UK and US, received wide praise for its exploration of street art as well as an Academy nomination for the Best Documentary Feature.
The 2010 British doco tells the story of a French immigrant in Los Angeles and his obsession with street art and his eventual fame as a street artist himself. Banksy is featured but remains anonymous in the film.
Since its release, there’s been extensive debate over whether the documentary is genuine or a mockumentary. The filmed premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
You can rent Exit Through the Gift Shop from Netflix and decide for yourself.
Not to be mistaken for the film about Irish novelist Iris Murdoch, Iris is a documentary by legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles about Iris Apfel – an American interior designer and fashion icon. She ran a textile film with her husband until they retired in 1992. She took part in several restoration projects including work at the White House for nine presidents.
The film follows Iris, aged 93 at the time of filming, on her shopping expeditions, exploring the clutter-filed hose she shares with her husband and her parting of wisdom to young fashionistas.
Iris is available to watch on Netflix.
As a crowd funding campaign by designer and filmmaker Greg Durrell and his filmmaking buddies, this documentary looks into Canada’s most famous designers and their designs.
Greg says he found a lack of background information online about Canadian logos and symbols, and felt their stories needed to be told for all Canadians. The documentary was produced in an organic way, with Greg cold-calling designers in relation to the CN logo, the flag, the Montreal Olympics and the CBC logo.
Over the five years of filming the team's managed to interview some big names, including Stefan Sagmeister and Marian Bantjes. The film will be set in the 1960s and 70s, including archival footage of debates surrounding the Canadian flag and a 1967 exhibition where a range of modern architecture was introduced.
Design Canada is still asking for crowd funding stages to support its post-production. It need to reach a goal of CAD$80,000 by March 30. It’s expected to premiere in September internationally, followed by a limited theatrical rollout in Canada, and finally a broadcast and online release this winter.