Behind the Creative Mind: Why the Web-Series, ‘Abstract’ Is a Must-Watch for Designers

Rashmi Singh Design as Innovation Random

Cracker & Rush designer, Rashmi Singh on what ‘Abstract,’ the Netflix original documentary series, taught her about design.

I first realised the interconnectedness of all forms of design when a friend invited me to a furniture exhibition. I was doing my PG Diploma in Design then and although I was looking to learn as much as I could about my subject, I couldn’t quite understand how a furniture exhibition would help. But my friend was adamant, insisting that the exhibition would influence my design style, whether or not I realised it. She was right.

This was one of the reasons I found Abstract so fascinating. The eight-part Netflix documentary series covers a good mix of people who are currently leading in different design industries. As a graphic designer, I actively seek out the work of other graphic designers and illustrators. But the series gave me a chance to understand how other fields of design work, right from shoe design to car design, photography to architecture. Watching the series only helped reinforce that every form of design feeds into another.

The series drew me in from the very first episode on illustrator Christoph Niemann because I felt that the topic was of relevance to me, as a graphic designer.

While Niemann’s episode – like all others – covers what he does and why, what I found most intriguing was how he was adapting himself to the digital world. He has gone from paintings and drawings to creating interactive experiences that merge both, print and digital.

For instance, he designed a cover for the New Yorker that shows a lady exiting the subway. Flip the magazine over, and you see the same but from the perspective of the people sitting inside. In a way, the magazine becomes like a gateway of a subway train. He also digitized the magazine so when readers placed their device on it, a rotatable 3D model of the New York cityscape would pop up. His seamless integration of print and digital helped me realise that I needed to be better prepared for the digital world myself.

As an illustrator for the New Yorker, Niemann works on tight deadlines, something most designers are all too familiar with. He shares that initially, the fear of deadlines played havoc with his work, deeply affecting its quality. The most effective way of dealing with this fear, he found, was to practice every day. After all, if musicians and athletes practice every day, why shouldn’t artists? He believes that creating something new every day translates into a bank of work that people can then use – or at the very least, draw inspiration from – when a big project comes along.

Niemann is also candid about another fear most creative people constantly battle with: the fear that once you create something amazing, you will never be able to break the benchmark you have set for yourself. As a young designer, it was heartening to realise that even someone as well-established as him shared the same fears I did; it’s a fear shared with the very best in the world.

The famous illustrator’s take on hard work and deadlines also stayed with me. To paraphrase him: “Every time there was a deadline, I would push myself hard. Often, I would wonder if I was being too hard on myself. But for a creative person, that’s not allowed. You have to be hard on yourself, you have to push yourself… that’s the only way to get better.”

The rest of the episodes were just as engaging and flowed seamlessly from one design field to the next. Every episode had an interesting insight to offer.

For instance, footwear designer Tinker Hatfield proved that design can be used to make the functional, inspiring, by using icons to depict the life of Michael Jordan on a special edition of Nike’s shoes. On the other hand, interior designer Ilse Crawford’s attempt to design airport lounges to facilitate conversation among waiting passengers could pave the way for new thinking in the interactive graphic design space. Every learning, I am sure, will feed into my design style in the future.

From Platon’s use of photography to throw light on the heart-rendering fate of countless women and children in Congo to architect Bjarke Ingels’ use of spaces to promote a sense of community, the series also highlighted that design must have a strong human connect, one that people will not only relate to but also celebrate.

All the designers featured in Abstract are considered veritable leaders in their field, yet the energy and enthusiasm with which they approach their work remind one of an eager newcomer on their first day at the job. The amount of work they put in is amazing. It is clear that they are driven by the need to constantly better themselves, which is impressive considering that they are already at the top of their game.

This is why I would recommend that young designers watch the series. It’s a reminder that you cannot approach design as a 9 to 5 job; you cannot restrict yourself to thinking about design only during work hours and then turn off. The designers showcased are constantly pushing their limits, every day. I think if we want to be where they are – not in terms of fame or money, but in terms of skill – we need to push ourselves way more than we are currently doing.

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