Documentaries about design, typography, and illustration don’t usually rise to the forefront of public conscience, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some superb viewing out there for those who are interested in – or practicing – in those fields.
In fact, we’ve found ten such titles that serve to inspire, educate, and entertain… and sometimes all three simultaneously.
Essential Documentaries for Graphic Designers
Let’s start off with our top five picks in the field of graphic design. From individual portraits of highly celebrated luminaries in the industry, to documentaries that provoke deep thought on the conventions behind graphic design, all of the titles here will be of great worth to those who love great design.
An indie-produced graphic design documentary which stands at an impressive 88% on Rotten Tomatoes, a film examining typography – and one font in particular – has no right to be this engaging, but Helvetica is just that.
Examining the ubiquitous font itself, as well as wider themes underpinning the principles of typography, it’s an essential watch for anyone working with text or simply curious about the craft. As director Gary Hustwit, himself, puts it: “Fonts don’t just appear out of Microsoft Word – there are human beings and huge stories behind them.”
Also see Objectified and Urbanized, the two followup documentaries which make up Hustwit’s design ‘trilogy’.
Bauhaus: The Face of the 20th Century
Operating between 1919 and 1993, in only a short spate of time the Bauhaus art school (spread between three different cities) deeply influenced the world of design in a profoundly fundamental way, and those changes still echo on through the teaching of top modern graphic design schools today.
Design is One: Lella and Massimo Vignelli
“If you can design one thing, you can design everything.”
Charming and eccentric, Design is One charts the giddying successes of Lella and Massimo Vignelli, possibly most famous for designing the New York City subway map. The married couple worked together and brought their unique Modernist style to a number of high-profile projects over the decades, before Massimo’s passing last year. This documentary stands as a poignant tribute to two great design characters.
The Artist Series
Curated by seasoned designer Hillman Curtis, the Artist Series is a highly engaging set of 5-10 minute videos covering the lives and works of some of the brightest stars in the design world (as well as what makes them tick.) All parts of the Artist Series are available to watch on Curtis’ website.
Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight
Milton Glaser is a name that most graphic designers will recognize and revere, and was also covered recently in our post on the most famous designers in the world.
To Inform on Delight – available on Netflix – is a terrific portrait of the man who created the world famous I Heart New York logo, and a documentary that every graphic designer should treat themselves to.
Essential Documentaries for Illustrators
Moving on to those who work in more traditional media, the following five documentaries make for must-watch viewing for not just illustrators, but for anyone who appreciates great art (and the minds from which it springs forth). We’ll start off with a title that has generated a huge amount of discussion since its release:
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Banksy has long been a divisive artist, and Exit Through the Gift Shop is his magnum opus.
The documentary in itself is a very meta work of art, and could quite possibly be one of the most elaborately crafted hoaxes ever conceived… but that’s a debate that continues to rage on, five years later.
While not strictly related to illustration, it’s one which every artist of any discipline (and even non-artists) should put high up on their to-watch list. And if you saw it when it first came out in 2010, it’s definitely time to dust it off and give it another watch.
Made by three highly talented illustrators, Making It covers the all-too-real topic of how to balance a love of illustration and the ongoing necessity to pay the rent at the end of the month… ideally, from the proceeds of one’s art.
While never pulling its punches as to the reality of life as an illustrator, Making It will also reaffirm, like never before, why you went to illustration school in the first place.
From Toronto comes this indie documentary which examines the lives and work of those who are trying to find their feet as the next generation of talented young illustrators.
A128 is a great watch, because it successfully conveys the dreams of these bright individuals, as well as the challenges that stand in the way. In addition, it’s inspirational to see how the art of illustration shapes and fulfils the lives of both the creator and the audience who gets to enjoy the work.
A long-standing American tradition turned underground and niche trade, Sign Painters is essential viewing for those who find themselves awkwardly sandwiched between art and business.
Directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon – both artists in their own right – the documentary is as much an examination of the craft of sign painting as it is a celebration of the community which strives to keep the art form alive.
Drew: The Man Behind the Poster
Drew Struzan is the name to know when it comes to movie poster history, and this documentary is his amazing story.
Having illustrated the iconic posters used to promote Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and the original Star Wars trilogy as well as numerous books and album covers, The Man Behind the Poster features interviews from both Struzan’s family and those he worked with (including George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro, with whom he had a particularly fond working relationship).
A truly impressive career and a documentary worth watching in its own right, but particularly if you’re a filmmaker who’s ever been interested in creating your own movie posters.
So there we have it, 10 excellent documentaries covering the fields of graphic design and illustration, all of which come highly recommended to anyone working in related fields or even those who simply have an interest in what goes on in the minds of some of the world’s most gifted artists.
Seen any other documentaries which should be listed here, or learned anything great from the titles above? We want to hear from you – leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below!