9 must-watch design documentaries you can stream right now

Unfortunately, quarantine isn’t going anywhere. How about some design docs to keep the creative juices going?

9 must-watch design documentaries you can stream right now
[Stills: The Gospel According to Andre, Graphic Means, I ❤ NY]

The breadmaking phase of quarantine feels like ages ago. But as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the U.S., it’s become clear that there’s a long way to go before our day-to-day gets any closer to life as we knew it. And since you’ve probably already made it through your standard watchlists, it’s time for some fresh, off the beaten path design documentaries to reignite your creativity.


I ❤ NY

Legendary designer Milton Glaser died at the end of June. Watch this bite of a documentary—it’s just over five minutes long—for a look at one of his most memorable creations.

“Things become iconic for reasons you don’t know,” Milton says in the doc. “Its not intellectual. It’s all emotional.” (Free on Vimeo)

Milton Glaser: To Inform & Delight

If that wasn’t quite enough to get your fill, learn more about Glaser’s career and design philosophies with this deeper dive into his life and the I ❤ NY logo. Glaser tied the design’s success to the inner workings of the human brain: “Because of that simple little trick of activating the problem solving impulse of the brain, it stuck in people’s minds. They saw it once, they remembered it.” It gives us a bit more insight into the mind of Glaser, too. (Vimeo, two-day rental, $4.99)


Where are all the Black designers?

The design industry has a major representation problem. Earlier this summer, designers met to discuss and create a plan of action to correct that. Their conversations are definitely worth a watch if you missed the event. Sure, it’s not technically a doc, but let’s just say it happened too recently to put it into production. (Free, on Youtube)

Design for All

The design industry is facing a reckoning: how to make it more inclusive and representative of the users it’s designing for? This doc attempts to answer those questions and more with key activists in the space, like Antionette Carroll, founder of CRX design lab. The movie, which was made by Target, came out in May, so it’s a timely look at issues that have become even more pressing. (Free with Hulu subscription)

The Gospel According to Andre

Andre Leon Tally released his memoir earlier this year, and if you’re the type who can’t keep up with a book club, this is a great way to get your fashion fix. But it’s so much more than that, too. The doc tracks Leon Talley’s journey from his 1960s southern roots to Paris fashion week to his time as editor at large of American Vogue. As they say in the doc, “He was so many things he wasn’t supposed to be.” (Free with Hulu subscription)


The pandemic has fundamentally changed how we live and how we interact with cities. As one commentator in this doc says, “Cities are always the physical manifestation of the forces at play: economic forces, social forces, environmental forces.” While this documentary came out before coronavirus hit, its message is especially relevant now, as architects and urban designers discuss the landscapes in which we live. Directed by Gary Hustwit, this film provides an additional layer of context for our current condition. (One week rental, $3.99) Watch all of Hustwit’s docs here.


Graphic Means

We’re going through a time of unprecedented change. But the ’60s and ’70s were also a time of massive upheaval—in the design community as well. Designers like Ellen Lupton, Steven Heller, and Tobias Frere-Jones explain why the introduction of computers caused seismic shifts in how we design. It shifted studio work from the ink, x-acto knives, and draft boards of the Mad Men era to the all-in-one studios you can find inside any MacBook today . (Two-day rental, $4.99)


Clad in as many witticisms as jewels, this doc follows the stylistic and design musings of near-centenarian interior designer Iris Apfel. Apfel has spent decades on the New York Fashion scene, and though her style is famously outsized and over the top, this doc captures it all in just over an hour. (Free with Hulu subscription)

Saul Bass: Why Man Creates

This oldie but goodie explores the design process and asks big questions about why we create, from one of the greats. Bass was a prolific (and Oscar winning) designer who created title sequences and poster art for classic movies like The Man with the Golden Arm, Spartacus, Psycho, and many more. While the doc tackles big questions, it’s a snack at just 25 minutes long. (Free on Vimeo)

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.