As you read this, Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs documentary will be playing somewhere. The Apple co-founder was not a graphic designer himself, but it can be argued that he gave a lot to the field. After all, if you can make the world emotional over silicon, you deserve to be called an artist.
In film, every cut is a lie. Well-made documentaries, on the other hand, are like snoopy neighbors taking us deep into real-life stories. They are meant to provoke us into debate. But these eight documentaries on graphic design are lighter and show you the wonders of creativity instead.
A design background isn’t necessary to enjoy these watchable picks. Just sit back and press Play.
The omnipresent typeface and how it dominated visual culture for 50 years.
Available on: Amazon | iTunes [No longer available]
“The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface, and that is why we loved Helvetica very much.”
A documentary about a typeface? How do you sell that! By turning the sans-serif font into a protagonist and making the world care for it.
The documentary goes behind the scenes and examines the origins and proliferation of the typeface. It piggybacked on the global beginnings of International Typographic Style that came about in the 1950s. The Swiss design style influenced much of graphic design in the 20th Century with designers focusing on clean lines and simplicity.
That legacy continues to this day when we talk about readability and minimalism in graphic design. Here’s an excellent Smashing Magazine article that talks about the lessons from the Swiss design style.
Graphic designers will love the interviews with acclaimed names from the graphic design field. More than that, you will appreciate how everyday things can be both wonderful and invisible.
We can learn from the objects that surround us.
Available on: Documentary Heaven (Free) | Netflix [No longer available] | iTunes [No longer available]
“If the shelf life of a high-tech object is less than eleven months, it should be all 100% disposable.”
Apple’s success has proved that engineering can follow design. The end result is a super useful functional product that also makes us swoon. This documentary is by Gary Hustwit who also made “Helvetica”. The film is a behind the scenes look at everyday objects and the people who design them.
It is a good way to understand the creative process that governs something as simple as a toothbrush. Their design principles affect our daily lives and we rarely notice them.
The documentary is not a how-to guide, but it offers lessons on how creative decision-making can have a far reaching impact.
The Artist Series (2008)
Understand how well-known designers think about design… among other things.
Available on: Hillman Curtis (Free) | YouTube (Free)
“…design isn’t about making something look better, it’s about moving someone to action.”
Call them short films or documentaries as Hillman Curtis takes you into the lives of top designers. The entire video series is free to watch and should be a must-watch for any beginner graphic artist. Some are conversations with a group of people in a design firm, and others are direct one-to-one interviews.
Hillman Curtis was himself a new media designer and Chief Creative Officer of a digital design and film production firm in New York City. His passing away has cut short the inspiring collection of videos on the site.
There’s a lot to learn from names like Malcolm Gladwell, James Victore, Paula Scher, Stefan Sagmeister, Milton Glaser, and the famous design firm Pentagram.
Beautiful Losers (2008)
Because non-conformity has its benefits.
“No one was creating the images I wanted to see, you want to see something you make it. First and foremost for yourself and your friends. If other people were doing it, I wouldn’t do it.”
As a struggling graphic designer, you might identify with the personalities profiled here. This simple — but often self-indulgent — documentary takes us back to the underground youth subcultures of skateboarding, graffiti, punk rock and hip-hop.
Beautiful Losers is made up of interviews with eleven artists and footage of them at work. The artists came from a potpourri mix without any formal training in art, but with their unique expressions they went on to influence the world around them.
The documentary’s tagline is Make Something From Nothing. These artists didn’t set out to become successful. They just followed their art and made something of it.
Making It (2014)
Lessons on surviving as a struggling illustrator.
“You need to jump in.”
This documentary’s focus is on the daily struggles of illustrators. Making It covers the anxious topic of how to balance a love of illustration and the need to make enough money from it to pay rent.
The three creators — Eric Fortune, Andrew Bawidamann, and Brian Ewing — talk about their education, their business models, and the future of illustration. The ultimate question they try to answer is, what does “Making It” mean to each artist?
Watch it because you might want to take an honest look at the struggles ahead of you.
Art & Copy (2009)
Find out how difficult it is to be creative with constraints.
“The inspiration for the slogan ‘Just Do It’ came from a man who was about to be executed in Utah.”
Some of the most creative brains work in the advertising industry. The Mad Men (and women) of U.S. advertising include names like George Lois, Mary Wells, Dan Wieden, Lee Clow, Hal Riney, and others.
This documentary is not directly related to graphic design but I would still recommend this as a must-watch for the sheer emotional quotient of a great ad.
Graphic art is a communication medium and any graphic artist can learn a lot from the backstories behind iconic ads like “Just Do It”, “I Love NY”, “Where’s the Beef?”, “Got Milk”, “Think Different”, and the personalities who created them. The key message here is that anyone can rise above mediocrity in the arts.
Teaching To See (2012)
Why should you watch it? See the above line.
“You can’t come up with ideas if you don’t see first.”
This is a short film about learning to look and visualize in order to design. Think of this as a crash course about the importance of seeing before you start designing.
Acclaimed graphic designer and educator Inge Druckrey gives us her wisdom as she says, “to give yourself time to stare at it and see what’s there, what does it want, what’s possible”. The short film also interacts with her students who share their own anecdotes and lessons learned about graphic art.
Students of graphic design will take away an important lesson, that a unique perspective leads to an uncommon way of creating.
Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight (2009)
A warm and delightful look into the life of America’s foremost graphic artist.
Available on: Hulu | Amazon | iTunes [No longer available]
” […] may leave you with the impression that the spirit of modern New York was conjured out of thin air by its subject, the celebrated graphic designer who is about to turn 80.”
— Stephen Holden (NY Times Review)
The film peeks into Milton Glaser’s life from childhood onwards and captures his immense gifts and personable nature. For his influence on design, he has often been called one among the great modern renaissance men.
You may not be a New Yorker (the “I Love NY” campaign), but if you’re a fan of comic books, you should know that he designed the famous DC logo used in the comics from 1977 to 2005.
Taking a cue from the master and the film’s title, we can learn that the purpose of art is to inform and delight.
Your Choice for Must-Watch Documentaries
I am by no means a graphic designer, but as someone with a riveting interest in the art form, these eight documentaries have been an education for me. We often disregard documentaries in favor of more glamorized media forms, but is there any doubt that short films like these allow us intimate contact with the world?
If you found these documentaries interesting, check out these resources for even more:
- Top Documentary Films
- Wikipedia: Documentary films about the visual arts
- Documentary Addict
- Documentary Heaven
Then there’s YouTube too with its thought-provoking collection of independent short films. Create your own playlist of documentaries to watch with the help of these sites. In a list of just eight, I am sure there are many gems that were missed. But that’s what you are here for!
Tell us about your favorite documentary picks on graphic design or unlocking creativity. Did they help you get introduced to the subject informally? Share with us in the comments!