Interview by Moxie Sozo

Scott Dadich
The Making of the Netflix series, “Abstract: The Art of Design”

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If you haven’t yet watched "Abstract: The Art of Design," which features eight extraordinary designers, practicing different disciplines, then set aside a day for an inspiring binge-watching experience. The making of the series is as complex and beautiful as the people portrayed. Executive producer Scott Dadich discusses the two-year journey to make the series, and reveals some of his favorite moments in the process.

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While working on the series, Dadich was still deeply entrenched as the Editor and Creative Director of Wired magazine, which boomed under his leadership. He tripled the publication’s reach on social media and increased traffic to the website by 50 percent. Wired also earned ten Webby Awards, more than 50 Society of Publication Designers medals, a James Beard Foundation Award, and four National Magazine Awards for design. He recently left the magazine after more than a decade, to start Godfrey Dadich Partners with Patrick Godfrey.

Here, the bearded and bespectacled 40 year old talks candidly about the process of creating Abstract—from conception to delivery—and the delicate balance of filming people in their environment without disrupting the creative process.

When did the idea for Abstract come? Have you always wanted to do a documentary?

Yes. I’ve always been interested in filmmaking. This really came together as an outgrowth of a lot of events that I hosted at Skywalker Ranch a few years ago called, “Wired By Design.” The event was centered on design thinking across a range of disciplines. My friends Dave O’Connor and Justin Wilkes from Radical Media were there and said, “If you ever have a thought about how this could turn into a TV series or documentary, let us know.” We stayed in dialogue over a few years, thinking about how that might take shape.

About that time, Netflix had come out with Chef’s Table and was looking for other series ideas. Dave, Justin, and I partnered with Morgan Neville—one of my favorite documentary directors—and we went to Netflix with the notion of Abstract. They immediately were very receptive to it and the kind of subjects that we wanted to feature. Their ambitions matched so beautifully with what I wanted to do with the show.

Did Netflix present any creative or budgetary restrictions?

We had what we thought was a pretty ambitious scale for the creation of the series and they responded with full support. We wanted to create something that looked really cinematic, that would allow us to use our incredible network of cinematographers, and animators, and designers. We really wanted to design the show through and through, and went at the act of creating it like a design exercise—considering how we were going to compose subjects in frames, how we were going to tell the stories, where we were going to travel. It was just really wonderful to have that amount of resourcing and opportunity to tell these stories.

How did you decide who to feature for the series?

There were a couple of key factors that we identified very early on. Morgan came up with this series of leading indicators that we quickly dubbed the “Morgan Matrix.” It was sort of this combination of factors that was really important to us.

They had to be actively working in design, not just coming up in it or retired. This couldn’t be about a legacy; it had to be about real work happening in real time that we could see.

More specifically, it was work that would be meaningful to a wide audience. I think one of the great joys about design is that it touches so many people in so many different ways. We wanted to illuminate that fact with the show. In the case of Tinker Hatfield [Air Jordan designer, Nike], everyone has some experience with sneakers. Everyone has some experience with cars, so Ralph Gilles [Head of Design, Fiat/Chrysler] seemed a good fit. The logo on a candy wrapper or a credit card that Paula Scher [graphic designer, Pentagram] has designed. That applicability of design was a key factor.

Paula Scher, episode 6, Abstract

The others were a little bit more intangible. It was about charisma, an ability to talk about design in a really engaging and meaningful way. Dave, Morgan, and I really tried to evaluate and balance both gender diversity, geographic diversity, design diversity, and really get a meaningful look at design in 2017.

Were any of the people you asked hesitant to participate in this?

Yeah. I think there’s certainly an invasiveness that comes with doing an hour-long documentary about yourself. You see some of that take shape in [illustrator] Christoph Niemann’s episode. There’s a real reluctance there to dig in and understand how his personal life and the life that he lives beyond the walls of his studio influence his work. And then there’s someone like Ralph, where his work is predicated on the work of his team, although ultimately his vision dictates the execution of the design itself. There certainly ends up being a balance between the needs of the designers and what makes for interesting film. We try, throughout, to balance that.

Ilise Crawford, episode 8, Abstract.

It was also important that we treat the designers as creative partners because they are so thoughtful about articulating their vision, and so we wanted very much to include them in the storytelling process. That’s why you get to see some of the storytelling tools like we use with animation, and graphics, and where we put the camera, and how we treated the designers in the frames themselves.

It’s interesting too, in addition to this great group of creatives, you also got people like Michael Jordan, Jay Leno, Colin Powell and George Lois to participate. Was it difficult to get those people involved?

Not at all, which was really gratifying. It shows the level of impact and the importance of design. “Look, these people are fans of this work just as much as you or I.” And almost universally, it was quite easy to engage those folks in talking about the work. Jay Leno is a fan of Ralph’s work and collects his designs, and is really an enthusiastic supporter of what he’s trying to do.

Michael Jordan and Tinker are true creative partners. They really pushed each other through the process of creating the Air Jordan line, and Tinker’s support of Michael’s career and the protection of him as an athlete was fundamental to Michael’s success.

Platon, episode 7, Abstract.

The one that was really interesting to me, was General Colin Powell. He and Platon had actually never met in person before we filmed, even though you see in the episode the profound impact that Platon’s image has had on the General. The enthusiasm they have for each other is real and palpable. When I was in that room with them, it was sort of amazing to see them finally connect after almost nine years.

What was the biggest challenge with filming and producing this series?

I think bringing the honor, dignity, and respect to these creatives’ work. We felt a very profound responsibility to show it accurately. To portray the struggles and opportunities and challenges that these designers face in a really meaningful light. And to do justice to what, in some cases, are 30 or 40 years’ worth of work. It’s quite a challenge to turn that into 45 minutes of film. You have a tendency to want to be encyclopedic, and show the full arc of someone’s career in addition to the work that they’re doing right now, but not everything fits. Being judicious about the edits, about which material actually made it into the films, was probably one of the more significant challenges that we faced.

It was truly an exceptional group of human beings who put everything into Abstract’s creation, working seven days a week for the better part of two years. My gratitude for being part of that team is just endless. It’s something I’m always going to be proud of.

What were the most surprising moments, for you, in this series?

There were a couple of really beautiful surprises. I think we all have this romantic notion of designers and the blank page, with a pencil and a piece of paper, but about halfway through, we started to notice that all of these designers really do start their process with a blank piece of paper and a writing instrument. I mean, literally, it is that common and that consistently simple.

You’ll see that in every single episode. Drawing, doodling, sketching is fundamental to each of their creative processes, even though, they’re dealing with things as disparate as a rock show or an automobile. That was really surprising.

One of the most gratifying lessons that I took away was from the combination of Tinker and Christoph. Christoph uses that great Chuck Close quote, “Inspiration is for amateurs.” He really takes that to heart and has built his creative process around coming into the studio every single day. It’s work. It’s a job. In a lot of ways, it requires practice and workouts and there’s almost a sports metaphor, “You have to put in the workouts to be able to play the game.” In direct contrast to what I think many people have as their notion for design and designers: That it’s some person sitting in a blank room with a black turtleneck on and this bolt of inspiration comes. There’s hard work involved with being a designer.

Tinker Hatfield, episode 2, Abstract

That was a great lesson. In contrast, it was so gratifying to see Tinker taking such value and inspiration in being out in the world and water skiing and surfing and riding a bike. That’s where his inspiration comes from and where his work lives. Somewhere in between, I think a lot of people are going to find a different path to their own methodology, but for me it was really interesting to think about those two poles.

Do you have a favorite scene from any of them?

That’s a great question. It’s a little like picking your favorite child, but I think there are a couple moments in Christoph’s episode that just really resonated. That weekend that we spent shooting in Berlin was just creative play-time all over the place. There was this one scene that really resonated. We moved his desk outside, in the place where the Berlin Wall used to be. It’s in this little wooded area of this park right in the middle of the city. We built this circular track so we could get that shot from the camera orbiting his desk while he ponders. Then it cuts back to his studio.

Christoph Niemann, episode 1, Abstract.

I think it’s one of my favorite scenes in the whole series. It was definitely the case that as soon as Morgan called, “Cut,” we all sort of looked at each other and said, “That was a trailer moment. That was amazing.”

You were doing this series while you were still with Wired. Is this what ultimately inspired you to leave the publication and start your new design practice?

I think there’s definitely an element of that. By the fall, when we had finished shooting, and we had five or six of these in the can, there was a common framework among all of these people that I admire so much. They have all have faced these foundational moments. These tipping points in their own personal career where they have to make big decisions like that.

In almost all cases, they’ve gone out on their own. I definitely felt a big swell of inspiration from that. I felt some identification with that process because Abstract had been such a part of my own creative passion for so long. The want to do it and the want to realize it with the creative partners that I was able to work with, was life-changing for me, and it really did feel like the opening of a door into a whole other universe of creativity for me.

Of course, the notion of leaving Wired had to be terrifying as well, right?

There definitely was some fear about leaving because I feel like I grew up professionally at Wired. I had been there in one way or another since 2006. It was the first job I took out of my home state and the first real team that I built external to what I saw as my family at Texas Monthly. I’ve learned so much in my time at Conde Nast, but there was definitely a want to try something entirely new and to take that risk. Yeah, it’s certainly not without fear and questions and sleepless nights.

Wired was the place where I really had gotten used to the cadence, and while every day was new in the kinds of stories that we were able to tell, the sort of heightened expectations of providing for your own company, and for your partner, and for your own staff certainly outweighed my want to stay in the comfort zone.

Will there be a second season of Abstract?

We really want to do one. Netflix hasn’t talked about what that schedule might look like, but they seem really happy with it and the response from the community and the membership has been extraordinary. Fingers crossed that we get to do another one.


February 28, 2017

A Special Thanks To

Scott Dadich