Film and visual design have always gone hand-in-hand, with trends and innovations in one field usually popping up in the other.
The two are inextricably linked, and they continuously inform and influence each other.
But beyond adopting the visual language of design trends for storyline or aesthetic purposes, film can also be a chronicler of design. Through the lens of documentary films, we’re able to delve deep into the meaning behind visual culture and design such as the origins of each new movement, the stories of the people involved, and the myriad of ways the work goes on to reverberate through the ages.
For this and many other reasons, documentary film can be a tremendous source of inspiration for designers. Whatever aspect of the field is being explored, documentaries have a tremendous ability to pry us from our armchairs and get us in the mood to create.
We’ve curated a selection of 11 documentaries that every designer needs to put on their watch list. Whether it’s because they delve into the nitty gritty of product design, explore the philosophy behind an artform, or tell the inspiring story behind a specific movement, these are must-watch documentary films that are sure to get your creative juices flowing.
Documentary films are uniquely suited to shine a light on artists who have gone unheralded for too long, bringing their names to the forefront of the cultural conversation. Black Art: In the Absence of Light is a 2021 documentary directed and produced by filmmaker Sam Pollard.
The film takes on the landmark 1976-1977 art exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art” to explore the work and contributions of several Black American artists such as David Driskell, Radcliffe Bailey, Sanford Biggers, Amy Sherald, Jordan Casteel, and many others.
“Black Art: In the Absence of Light” is currently streaming on HBO Max.
When you focus your art on a specific type of over-the-top ugliness, it makes sense that one would find the traditionally “beautiful” a little hokey, strained, and embarrassing. Such is the case for puppeteer-turned-painter Wayne White, who first gained prominence as an artist and puppeteer for the Emmy-winning show Pee-wee’s Playhouse and is the focus of “Beauty is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story.”
After the end of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, there was a bit of a career slump for Wayne. The voice acting and puppeteering work dried up. But after drifting for nearly a decade, he suddenly found himself with a new career as his paintings began to generate a major buzz and sales in the Los Angeles art scene.
Wayne is a remarkably entertaining figure whose subversive and irreverent art style clearly conveys his personality. “Beauty is Embarrassing” is a fascinating documentary about embracing one’s idiosyncrasies and finding a second act in life.
“Beauty is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story” can currently be rented or purchased to stream on Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video.
Lucy Walker’s “Waste Land” is a British-Brazilian documentary film that follows artist Vik Muniz as she travels to the world’s largest landfill in Brazil. There, Vik collaborates with a group of waste pickers to transform garbage into contemporary art to sell and raise money for their community.
“Waste Land” is an incredibly inspiring documentary about ingenuity, the contrast between a giant landfill and a prestigious auction house, and making beauty out of refuse. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010.
“Waste Land” can currently be rented or purchased to stream on Vudu or Amazon Prime Video.
Business documentaries and entrepreneur documentaries
When it comes to art and design, it’s easy to get lost in the process of creating and forgetting the larger machinery behind it. The work that feeds into completing a cleverly designed piece, meeting an ambitious deadline, or rebranding of a company can get overlooked.
Webflow Stories is a collection of such bite-sized success stories that explore how several of our clients were able to leverage the power of design to reach goals that may have appeared insurmountable at one point.
Webflow Stories can currently be streamed for free via Webflow TV.
Generation Startup is a thrilling documentary that depicts the experience of six recent college graduates who decide to build startups in Detroit, Michigan. It’s an unflinchingly honest documentary that burrows deep into what it takes to build a successful business from the ground up. And while Generation Startup can be a tough watch at times, it’s also tremendously inspiring and rewarding.
“Generation Startup” can currently be streamed for free on Peacock, Tubi, and Freevee. It is also available to rent or purchase via Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, and Google Play.
What does it mean for something to be “no-code?” How does no-code enable individuals to accomplish great things, and bridge the gap between idea and impact? This question is at the heart of Generation No-Code, a series of documentaries exploring the impact of no-code web development and how it empowers agencies, entrepreneurs, and creatives to take charge of their visions.
Generation No-Code can currently be streamed for free via Webflow TV.
“Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight” explores the life and career of influential graphic designer Milton Glaser. With a career that spans everything from newspapers to comic book company logos to iconic album covers, Milton has quietly become one of the most influential figures in contemporary design.
The documentary traces the story of his life while also exploring the elements that drive his creativity.
“Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight” is currently available to rent or purchase through Kino Now.
“Kusama: Infinity” is a 2018 feature-length documentary directed by Heather Lenz. It seeks to tell the story of artist Yayoi Kusama, exploring her beginnings in Japan all the way to her experience today as an internationally renowned artist.
Known for her polka dot stylings, Yayoi’s story spans from her conservative upbringing in Japan, to her rise in fame in the 1960s to her past 30 years of being institutionalized in Japan.
This documentary goes deep into her story, her impact, and the adversity she faces along the way.
“Kusama: Infinity” is currently available via streaming on Hulu.
If you’re the kind of person who finds stories behind typography fascinating, you’re going to eat up “Helvetica.” It’s a remarkable and thrilling piece of filmmaking about a subject that you might not expect to be all that intriguing.
Directed by filmmaker Gary Hustwit, “Helvetica” explores what makes the famous typeface so alluring, where it fits within the grand scheme of typography, and how it was created.
“Helvetica” is currently available on Prime Video.
“Abstract: The Art of Design” is a Netflix documentary series that not only explores the mind and work of innovative designers from various disciplines, but also how design manages to touch various aspects of our lives.
Featuring everyone from New York illustrator Christoph Niemann to graphic designer Paula Scher to Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield, “Abstract: The Art of Design” is a veritable who’s-who of the design world. The cherry on top is the series’ strong, beautifully-defined aesthetic identity, making it a pleasure to just sit back and watch.
“Abstract: The Art of Design” is currently streaming on Netflix.
As its name might imply, “Objectified” is all about objects. More specifically, it’s about the ways in which manufactured objects (and thus, the people who designed them) are able to influence our lives. The documentary examines the basic design of several objects ranging in complexity from a toothpaste to a large, complex piece of machinery.
Through conversations with designers and executives, Objectified manages to put a fresh spin on the debate about creativity and consumerism, as well as the artfulness of industrial design.
“Objectified” can be rented or purchased on Amazon Prime Video or iTunes.
Although these documentaries don’t quite fit comfortably within the categories above, they each have something unique to offer to designers. Think of these as the bonus tracks at the end of a very carefully curated playlist.
Like much of the artist’s work, Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop” defies easy categorization. Even calling it a documentary feels like a bit of a reach, as the film plays with reality and fiction in a way that feels purposefully designed to annoy the most inquisitive viewers.
And yet, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is not the easy, self-indulgent piece it could’ve easily turned out to be. Through its clever use of red herrings and narrative dead-ends, the film – which purports to follow the exploits of Los Angeles-based street artist Thierry Guetta – quickly turns into a rumination on the concept of truth and where we draw the line between fact and fiction.
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” may not offer easy answers, but it is a thoroughly rewarding watch for anyone with an interest in one of the most enigmatic figures in contemporary art.
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” is available to watch on YouTube.
“Indie Game: The Movie” is a 2012 feature film following the struggles of a group of independent game developers as they attempt to design and produce their own games. It covers the full emotional spectrum — from the exhilaration of creativity to the crushing prospect of failure.
Filmmaking duo Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky raised money through Kickstarter in order to embark on the journey of creating this film. For every developer they highlight, they show game development through the lenses of “past, present, and future.”
The film has been a critical success, praised for shedding light on a grueling industry and the many trials and tribulations that come with the oft-romanticized notion of independence. In 2012, “Indie Game: The Movie '' won the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
“Indie Game: The Movie” can be rented or purchased via Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, or Google Play.
“The Toys That Made Us,” Netflix’s thoroughly entertaining and incredibly informative series about toys and action figures from decades past, is about more than nostalgia.
The show asks questions about identity, marketing, and how design is interwoven into pop culture. It does this by exploring the stories behind the creation of iconic toy lines such as GI Joe, Barbie, Lego, and Transformers. It also happens to be an absolute blast to watch.
“The Toys That Made Us” is available to stream on Netflix.
Design documentaries are great sources of inspiration
Creativity isn’t an unlimited resource. Movies, videos, and other art forms are great ways to fuel your imagination so you can keep creating.
If you’re still hungry for me, check out Webflow TV to learn from experienced designers and dive into intriguing stories.