When you're stuck in a creative rut and searching for inspiration, your first port of call is usually the web. But if you subscribe to Netflix, you may be missing a trick. The streaming video service is packed with inspiring documentaries on all kinds of creative subjects, ideal for helping resurrect your mojo and give you fresh ideas and inspiration.
The only problem is that there's such a huge amount of content on Netflix (much of it mundane) that the best stuff can get lost in the mix. So we've done the work for you and unearthed the best creative documentaries available to watch on the world's favourite streaming platform right now.
Remember that the best shows don't always stay on Netflix forever, though, so catch them while you can! Not available in your territory? Use one of the best VPNs (opens in new tab) to access foreign Netflix catalogues.
01. Abstract: The Art of Design
Created by former Wired editor-in-chief Scott Dadich, docu-series Abstract: The Art of Design (opens in new tab) offers eight standalone profiles of prominent designers and creatives. Each is around 40 minutes long, lavishly shot and beautifully edited. And even if you don't think you'll be interested in the individual profiled, you soon get sucked into their world.
It's not just an exercise in backslapping, either. There's a great deal of insight and information along the way, as each creative reveals their process and the challenges they face in their work. In short, if you watch one Netflix show this year, make it this one.
The first season, which first aired in 2017, profiles graphic designer Paula Scher, illustrator Christoph Niemann, Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield, stage designer Es Devlin, architect Bjarke Ingels, automotive designer Ralph Gilles, photographer Platon, and interior designer Ilse Crawford.
02. The Creative Brain
We'd all like to be more creative and productive in our work, but often struggle to do so in practice. The Creative Brain (opens in new tab) is an insightful 52-minute documentary aims to help us find a way forward.
Neuroscientist and best-selling author David Eagleman takes as its starting point the idea that "Creativity doesn't mean creating something out of nothing. It means refashioning something that already exists."
To find out how that works in reality, he meets accomplished professionals from across the creative spectrum - from pottery to nanotechnology – and tries to unravel their creative process in a way that makes logical sense. The results are truly fascinating, and will make you think about your graphic design work in a whole new way.
03. Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things
Right now, minimalism is a huge trend in graphic design, from app interfaces to logos. But what's minimalism really about, and how can you make it enhance your creative ideas, rather than just make them look like everything else?
Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (opens in new tab) is a 2016 documentary by Matt D'Avella examines the roots of minimalism as a reaction to modern consumerism and media overload, and how it's let to new movements such as decluttering and simplified ways of living.
It's important to note that this documentary, which runs to 1 hour 18 minutes, doesn't actually talk about the use of minimalism in graphic design. But it will help you reach a deeper understanding of where the minimalism trend comes from and why it has a cultural resonance in today's society.
04. Jeremy Scott: The People's Designer
Directed by Vlad Yudin and running at one hour 48 minutes, Jeremy Scott: The People's Designer (opens in new tab) is a documentary movie showcases the life and work of American fashion designer Jeremy Scott. Known for his designs for Adidas and Moschino, Scott has also worked with countless celebrities, and many of them contribute here including Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rita Ora, and Paris and Nicky Hilton.
Charting his journey from humble roots on a Missouri farm to creative director of Moschino, this 2015 documentary highlights the fact that despite his success, Scott's designs have had mixed reviews throughout his career, a fact that clearly irks him. It's a fascinating reminder that however good you are, every designer has to deal with criticism and people who don't understand your work.
05. Floyd Norman: An Animated Life
Now 83 years old, Floyd Norman is an American animator, writer, and comic book artist who's worked for pretty much every big player in the business, including Disney, Pixar and Hanna-Barbera.
In 1956, he became Disney's first-ever African-American animator. Then after founder Walt Disney's death, he left to start his own company, which produced black history films for high schools.
This intriguing documentary, Floyd Norman: An Animated Life (opens in new tab), was made in 2016 and charts how Norman continues to impact the industry and battle ageism. Running at 1 hour 34 minutes, it's an incredible story of a man who comes across as humble yet charming, incredibly creative yet unassuming and underappreciated: an inspiration, in short, for us all.
06. Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski
Never heard of Stanislav Szukalski? Nope, neither had we, and that's kind of the point of Netflix Original documentary Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski (opens in new tab). Its starting point is 1968, when pop culture collector Glenn Bray, who had an interest in surrealist art, discovered an unusual book featuring the art of Szukalski. He delighted in showing its drawings and photos of sculptures to his circle of friends in the underground art comic world, including Robert and Suzanne Williams and George DiCaprio, who found the forgotten Polish master's vision far ahead of its time.
Then a few years later, Bray discovered this "lost genius" was not only still alive, but living in the same area code.
Offering an eye-opening look at how history can stand in the way of true creative genius in one generation, then reveal it dramatically in the next, this documentary is quite riveting. Running at 1 hour 45 minutes, the film makes you really think, especially about what creative legacy you might leave yourself.
07. I am Sun Mu
Many graphic designers like to describe their work as "edgy" and "risky". Well, just to put that in perspective, here's the captivating story of someone who really does risk everything for their work.
Sun Mu worked as a propaganda artist in North Korea before fleeing to South Korea in the 1990s. Today, he creates satirical art about Kim Jong Il's regime that parodies the propaganda style he was once tasked with creating.
In 2014, he embarked on what many saw as a risky move: a solo exhibition of his work in China, North Korea's greatest ally. Documentary film I am Sun Mu (opens in new tab), which runs to 1 hour 27 minutes, follows events as Mu prepares his show undercover, before an unexpected turn of events puts him and his friends and family in danger.
08. The Toys that Made Us
Many of us found our first real appreciation for design – albeit a subconscious one – through interaction with our childhood toys. It's a love which often sticks with us throughout our lives.
And so quirky docu-series The Toys that Made Us (opens in new tab), which looks at the creation of some of the world's most iconic toy franchises, is a great way to think about design in a way that's both nostalgic and familiar, and provides new insights into what goes into crafting a classic.
Its 40-50 minute long episodes investigate everything from Star Trek and Transformers to LEGO and Hello Kitty. In doing so, this series goes beyond the superficial and really digs into how toys are conceived, designed and made.
09. The 100 Years Show
Feeling like you haven't had the career success you deserve? Well, there's still time, and here's a great example of how it's possible to get recognition for your work late in life.
Born in Cuba in 1915, artist Carmen Herrera sold her first piece aged 84, and held her first solo exhibition at 89. Her abstract and minimalist art has since brought her international recognition, and this documentary was made to celebrate her 100th birthday in 2015.
Directed by Alison Klayman, 29-minute documentary The 100 Years Show (opens in new tab) celebrates a "fame that literally took a lifetime to happen”. An excellent watch that will inspire creatives of all stripes and all ages.
10. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography
It's not always the most famous creatives who make the best documentary subjects; sometimes it's quite the reverse. And that's definitely the case with 2016 documentary The B-Side (opens in new tab).
Directed by Errol Morris, it explores the life and career of his friend Elsa Dorfman, a Polaroid photographer. This 80-year-old woman comes across as warm, charming, insightful and inspirational, as she reminisces about her photography career, publishing, feminism, friendship with Allen Ginsberg, and more.
The fact that you probably don't know anything about Dorfman makes the story of her life all the more compelling, and Morris brings it all together in a way that keeps up the pace and remains captivating throughout its one hour 16 minute length.
- 5 podcasts every freelancer should listen to (opens in new tab)
- The 10 best 3D movies of 2019 (opens in new tab)
- 5 logo redesigns that got it right (opens in new tab)