Many of us bemoan the fact that we waste too much time watching TV. But what that usually means is that we waste too much time watching dross: mindless reality TV, dumb game shows and the like.
Great television, however, can be enriching, inspiring, even life-changing. And after a long hard day, it can be just the ticket to recharge your batteries, provide new perspectives and inspire you creatively.
The good news is that we're living in a golden age for TV viewing, with the big streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus pumping huge sums of money into high quality programming, and the traditional broadcasters upping their game to match (learn how to get a free Disney Plus trial here).
The only problem is, there are now so many shows on so many different services, it can be hard to find the real gems. So in this article, we list the cream of the crop, and explain why these are shows that every designer should watch.
As creatives, we’re constantly seeking visual inspiration, and what more inspiring sight could there be than the wonders of the wider universe? Having said that, straight documentaries can sometimes be a little samey, while fictions set in space are often over-the-top and play hard and loose with the scientific facts.
Mars, however, combines the best of both approaches, and comes up with something quite unique in the process.
Blending real-life interviews with a fictional story of a group of astronauts as they land on the red planet, it dramatises an imagined first attempt to colonise Mars in 2033 in a way that's utterly compelling.
“Mars by National Geographic offers a glimpse into our species’ greatest achievements, and what’s to come,” enthuses Kasper Christensen, founder and product lead at Nomad Rental. “There’s no better way to stay motivated and inspired while this show is running in the background, along with stunning eye candy for anyone into design.”
02. The Americans
The Americans is an Emmy-winning spy drama set in the 1980s during the Cold War. So far, so unremarkable... but the twist is that the ‘Americans’ of the title are actually Soviet KGB officers, posing as an native married couple in the suburbs of Washington DC.
With compelling characters and dramatic twists propelling the show through six thrilling seasons, it’s also a treat for the eyes, with its first-class costumes, set designs and attention to period detail.
"The Americans is a really entertaining series,” says Peter Sayn-Wittgenstein, executive creative director at global digital agency Mirum. “It features some great throwback set design that expertly captures the Cold War era… and if you're into wigs, you cannot do better than this."
03. The Wire
Running from 2002 to 2008, the Wire was one of the first shows to really turn the public on to the idea of streaming TV, and if you still haven’t seen it, there’s no time like the present.
Chronicling the war on drugs in Baltimore, Maryland, it’s one of the few shows to honestly portray both the realities of urban life and the machinations of politics and law enforcement. Plus it’s constantly gripping, emotionally engaging and regarded by many critics as one of the greatest TV shows of all time.
Mustafa Kurtuldu, a design advocate at Google in London, is among its army of fans, and describes it as “a well researched and brilliantly written series that tackled different aspects of the city, from the police department to the life of the kids in a broken town; I loved it!”
04. The Walking Dead
You’ve spent years hearing your colleagues rave about The Walking Dead. So why not just grasp the nettle and watch it already?
Based on the comic book series written by Robert Kirkman, this gritty drama portrays life in the months and years that follow a zombie apocalypse. But it’s not just for fans of low-budget horror.
This is actually a grown-up, movie-quality drama with well formed characters and emotionally resonant storylines, that just happens to be about zombies.
As Robby Designs, a freelance web designer based in Plymouth, puts it : “It's a great show for designers. After all, if you've been up all night designing, you feel like a zombie anyway…"
05. The Man in the High Castle
Based on a novel by Philip K Dick, The Man in the High Castle imagines an alternative 1960s in which the Nazis won the Second World War. They now occupy the Eastern half of the USA, in an uneasy alliance with the Japanese, who control the Western states.
"The show immediately sparked my interest," says Pittsburgh-based visual designer Christopher Watson, "probably for the same reason I'm obsessed with Back to the Future or even the Dennis Quaid film Frequency, both of which pose the synopsis of an alternate reality. I think it's baked into our human nature to inquire the possibility of a different outcome reflecting on past events and decisions; to what degree would probably stem from the level of our self-loathing."
And it's a concept he feels has been executed perfectly in the show, now on its third season. "The pace of the series is undoubtedly a factor that's kept me engaged," he reports. "The mix of longer and shorter sequences provides a great flow for me; maintaining the immersive feel of a full-length drama, but never feeling too drawn out."
Watson is especially struck by the opening sequence. "As of late, I've been drawing a lot of inspiration from motion graphics to integrate into web and interaction design, so intros are always a point of interest for me," he explains. "And the thoughtfulness and detail that Patrick Clair and his team at Elastic have put into the show's title sequence unveils a plethora of poetic nuances.
"One stand-out example would be the descending paratroopers in front of Mount Rushmore, reminiscent of tears running down Washington's face. I also think the projector treatments do a fantastic job of touching on plot points, capturing the essence of original propaganda footage, and depicting the 'projection' of what could have been our reality.
"Last but not least, the title track Edelweiss, written by Jewish-American songwriters Rodgers and Hammerstein, demonstrates a carefully crafted concept engaging multiple senses."
06. Doctor Who
- UK: Watch Seasons 1-11 on BBC iPlayer
- US: Watch seasons 1-10 on Amazon Prime
- Download season 11 episodes via Amazon Video
Since 1963, Doctor Who has been a sci-fi show like no other. Centred around a charismatic yet eccentric hero, The Doctor, who can travel anywhere in space and time, the concept offers a near-infinite range of dramatic possibilities. Not least because The Doctor can regenerate, allowing a succession of actors to take the lead; the latest is Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to inhabit the role. For these reasons, despite a quite staggering 843 episodes being aired at time of writing, it never fails to feel fresh.
That said, anyone who saw Doctor Who during the 1960s-1980s eras may remember its low-end production values, which compared poorly to the blockbuster US sci-fi movies of the time. But when the show returned in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston as the lead (resetting to 'Season 1'), it finally got a decent sized budget. And since then its alien worlds, monsters, robots and battle scenes have all looked pretty darned good.
It's still produced on a relatively small amount of money, but Jason Pickthall, a freelance concept artist who's worked for the likes of Rare, Activision Blizzard and Angry Birds, feels that's actually a positive.
"In an age where VFX is thrown at shows, I like the fact Doctor Who has a tight budget," he notes. "I love the thinking and rationale behind the design of the creature of the week, plus it makes it more relatable and grounded in the world of the day-to-day; so it's a win-win."
07. The Handmaid’s Tale
Based on the 1985 novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale envisions a dystopian future in which America is ruled by a Taliban-style cabal of Christian fundamentalists, and fertile women are forced into child-bearing slavery.
If that all sounds a bit far-fetched, then be prepared for a shock, because the way these events come about is frighteningly realistic and quite believable. And Atwood based the novel on real events that had already happened around the world.
A superbly written and acted drama, beautifully directed and shot, every moment will leave you on the edge of your seat, and make you think twice about how fragile society really is.
Pickthall loves the way the show crosses multiple genres so effortlessly. "Handmaid's Tale is on the surface a sci-fi cautionary tale," he points out, "but visually it reads as a period piece, and the use of colour is so well thought out; these are no accidents."
08. Electric Dreams
Electric Dreams, produced by Sony Pictures Television for Channel Four and Amazon, takes 10 of the classic short stories of sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick and cleverly updates them for a contemporary audience.
Featuring an all-star cast including Bryan Cranston, Steve Buscemi and Anna Paquin, each episode is feature-film epic in scale, but with a touch of Black Mirror-style wit making everything feel up-to-the-minute modern.
Some stories take place at the far reaches of the universe, some closer to home, and each can be enjoyed on its own. But despite this, they add up to more than the sum of their parts, believes Pickthall. "Even though Electric Dreams was an anthology series, with individual parts that were very disparate, it was great seeing a common tone throughout the run," he says.
09. Black Mirror
Black Mirror is a bit like a modern version of the Twilight Zone, only funnier. Essentially, it’s a dark satire on new digital technologies, which highlights the disastrous results they might lead to if we’re not careful.
“If you ask someone why they like the show, more likely than not, they'll tell you it’s because it feels highly plausible,” says Joshua Jenkins, a freelance designer based in New Mexico, and writer of the web series The Hand Unseen. “If you ask a designer, though, they'll probably tell you it's the design within the show, from composition to type to set design. The exciting part is that they're saying the same thing.
“Almost every episode features some piece of tech that has sent our modern world into chaos. That tech comes with typography, logo, packaging, and implementation that feels wholly grounded in our reality, which sells the show. If I wouldn't buy the product the characters in a show are buying, why would I buy the premise?”
Dale Harper, UX designer at London digital agency SharpEnd, couldn’t agree more. “The attention to detail in the design of Black Mirror is excellent,” he stresses. “While the dystopian themes encourage reflection and caution in your own work, they also provide a great deal of inspiration both in aesthetics and function.”
10. Abstract: The Art of Design
There aren’t many TV documentary series about design, but there is one very good one. Abstract: The Art of Design was created by former Wired editor-in-chief Scott Dadich. Each of the 45-minute episodes takes you behind the scenes of leading creatives in a variety of disciplines, and it’s all fascinating and insightful stuff.
Freelance art director and designer Kirsten Murray is a big fan. “If you’ve ever wanted to know how Pentagram design icon Paula Scher comes up with ideas, or what it was like for renowned photographer Platon to shoot Vladimir Putin for the cover of Time Magazine, then this is the series for you,” she enthuses.
“It’s so much more than a documentary of the creative process," she adds, "it delves into the personal lives of some of the world’s most influential designers. What was their childhood like? What drives them to create? How did they get where they are today?
"Nuggets of wisdom in the series will stay with you long after you’ve watched it. I’ll leave you with this one from Paula Scher: ‘The design of the logo is never the hard part of the job. It’s persuading a million people to use it’.”