8 Design Lessons Inspired by Netflix’s Abstract: The Art of Design

Posted by Pete, on July 13, 2017

What if you could learn tips from some of the design world greats, all from the comfort of your own living room?

Netflix recently made this possible with the debut of Abstract: The Art of Design, a series that follows “eight of the most creative thinkers and imaginative minds working in the world of art and design today,” sharing each individual’s unique expertise one episode at a time.


While each episode is packed with visually-stunning detail and design knowledge, we’ve selected one big piece of insight from each designer that stuck with us as we watched, and share its importance in the world of art and design below.

1. “Be a strict editor, but a carefree artist.”

(from the episode featuring illustrator / graphic designer Christoph Niemann)

The best product brainstorm session prizes a policy of “no wrong ideas.” This is because the final concept can often be a combination of multiple ideas, built into a result that no one in the room saw coming.

With this in mind, it’s important to think big, and think wide. Come up with as many wild ideas as possible, and pursue multiple paths in parallel because you never know where one might lead, or where a few ideas could intersect.

Avoid holding yourself to any one idea until it is time to make a final decision, or until you are presented with overwhelming evidence to support one concept over another. Then, and only then, pull out your editing pen and remove all that doesn’t support the wants and needs of the final concept. 

2. “Develop a fundamental understanding of who you are designing for—listen to what they want and over-deliver on it.”

(from the episode featuring industrial designer Tinker Hatfield)

Designing with the end user in mind from the beginning to the end of the product design process isn’t just “design 101.” Design informed by the wants and needs of the individual(s) who will ultimately be using the product is the best way to ensure your design has real purpose and meaning.

And the best of the best designers? Each succeeds by going slightly above and beyond a surface-level understanding of the end user, forcing themselves into the end user’s shoes, developing empathy, and exploring each concept from the user’s unique perspective.

This helps develop not just critical new features, but ways to surprise and delight the consumer through clever design value-adds, achievable through considering not only what the product needs to be, but also what the product will likely need to overcome.

Anticipating what the user experience could be from a few different angles will lead to an engaging and delightful end product that people don’t just want, but have to purchase.

3. “Have the question of ‘why’ persist — why do we want it to look exactly like that.”

(from the episode featuring stage designer Es Devlin)

Es Devlin has a simple yet profound method for stage design. She states, “I don’t actually make anything or know what to make until I know the space that it’s going to inhabit.”

This pairs each design concept she pursues with one critical question: “why?” – why design this way, or in other terms: what purpose will this feature have, what will support or contradict the solution that I am trying to solve for with this part of the product?

Force yourself to be able to answer each and every why posed with a definitive answer before continuing down a particular design path. By constantly questioning and ensuring each feature decision reflects the best interest of the final product, the end result develops in the most impactful and efficient manner, editing out features that the end user will find distracting, hinder the operation, and provide a negative outcome.

4. Combine necessity and utility with poetry and possibility.”

(from the episode featuring architect Bjarke Ingels)

It’s another take on the classic design principle of form meets function. Here, the goal is to design a product that not only has all of its necessary features, but is also aesthetically pleasing and built with human factors and ergonomics kept top of mind.

Sometimes it’s form, sometimes it’s function, sometimes it is both form and function that give a product its competitive edge in the marketplace. Products that do both well, naturally set themselves apart as the type of solution many more people wish to adopt.

5. “Have the fortitude to recognize designs that will age gracefully.”

(from the episode featuring Industrial Designer Ralph Gilles)

Modern, edgy design looks interesting today, but can also beg the following question: Is it a fad product, or a product perfectly in line with future trends?

This is because success for new products isn’t always known until significantly after product launch. Some products that initially hit the market fall flat, only to resurface later when the market is ready for a new edge.

Then, there are the products that, new or old, remain undefined by time. The classic, seemingly timeless designs that know no bounds and remain free of markers for any particular time period, with features built to last for decades. These products are often simplistic in form, regardless of the complexity of function, although neither is a golden rule.

In the case of both modern and classic design styles, designing for the future keeps one big idea in mind across the board: products created with the intention to last, often do. Ask yourself: Are you designing a product for now, or are you designing a forward-thinking product built to remain relevant for much longer?

6. “Design not just to answer questions, but to raise them.”

(from the episode featuring Graphic Designer Paula Scher)

Have you ever seen a new product on the market and thought, why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?, with this product, what can I accomplish that I haven’t before? Or with this I could save a significant amount of time!

When design takes human behavior, wants and needs into account, natural benefits follow product launch, including the formation of new habits and improved ways of being.

Consider the influence, and ask yourself: what will this product mean for society?, why does it need to exist?, and what will be forever changed because of what it does?

7. “Do your homework before each project so the right feeling and connection comes through.”

(from the episode featuring Photographer Platon)

Products are designed for a specific purpose or outcome. These decisions aren’t made lightly, but determined through extensive user research and insight gathering. What a waste it would be for all of that work to get lost in translation.

With this in mind, be sure that your product’s message is clear with intentional features and form that consumers can grab onto and understand quickly.

After all, individuals that fully understand a product’s worth will be better sold on its usefulness to them, increasing your product’s potential impact.

8. “Design from a place that understands we discover the world through sense, and how materials speak to us.”

(from the episode featuring Interior Designer Ilse Crawford)

Each device, system or solution designers develop has potential to not only impact how we go about our days, but how we discover and live in a world driven by our five senses: sight, touch, smell, sound and taste.

We learn and process through these senses, and research shows that using multiple senses at one time allows for an increase in cognitive connections. This has led some to argue that products or experiences that engage as many of our five senses at once as possible tend to be more memorable and, at times, more enjoyable, than products that engage fewer.

If boosting the intensity of any additional senses during use would bring the user a completely different product experience that would increase product memorability and user enjoyment, it’s a path many designers would likely consider.

As you look at potential product paths, keep the senses in mind, and notice as you design which will naturally be heavily engaged in use and which others, once added or elevated, could make for an even better experience for the end user.

Great Design Focuses on Creating the Ultimate User Experience

Have you sensed this theme throughout the series?

Through each and every design challenge, the preference is clear: keep laser-focused on the user to design for improved connection, and your product could be well on its way to making big impact like that of the world’s design all-stars.

Have you checked out Netflix’s Abstract: The Art of Design? What did you think of the series? What are your favorite takeaways? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.