I vividly remember the first time I met a 50-foot, translucent jellyfish. The free-floating creature fell toward me as I gazed, locked in a state of paralysis. Its tentacles were hypnotizing.
I kind of wish this really happened, but at the same time, I’m definitely glad it didn’t. The towering jellyfish was part of my imagination—sort of. It was in the 1994 IMAX film Into The Deep. This moment kicked off my life-long obsession with documentary films, and IMAX holds a nostalgic place in my heart. As a designer, I find immense curiosity peering into other experiences and worlds. Whether it’s spending an hour and a half shopping with a ninety-year-old fashion icon or exploring the complex, magical world of mushrooms, documentaries have the incredible power to make you see the world differently.
With the reality of COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders across the globe, now more than ever, we need to stay inspired by people, places, and things—even if they are on screens. In 2016, we shared 12 documentaries that sparked our creativity, and now feels like an appropriate time to update that list.
Similar to our original post, this is a curated list of recommendations from IDEO designers. It’s a collection of classics and newbies. Some will make you laugh, others will make you cry—and we hope all will reignite that creative spark.
“I grew up in Asia and origami was something I loved to do but I had no idea that this humble paper art form had both such artistic and scientific depths. This documentary blew me away with its beauty and passion, the scope and depth of its inquiry and its empathic glimpse into what for many people is a lifelong obsession. As my colleague Devin said: ‘Holy shit, I can't believe that is all paper.’” —Paul Bennett
“This documentary highlights the work of Bellingcat, a group of citizen-journalists that use social media to fact-check events and actually uncover the real parties involved. Their claim to fame: They identified the party that shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, which killed 298 people back in July 2014.
“It’s a film that highlights our new reality, where the truth isn't always simple and straightforward. This particular documentary also serves as inspiration for those of us that do design research. It hints at the research that can be done using social signals, buzz analytics, diary studies, data science, etc., where we get insight directly from people. It highlights how researchers often solve puzzles by exploring the extremes and see things through the eyes of the people who experience them.” —Marcelle van Beusekom
"This film follows a group of young girls as they build confidence in the classroom and within the walls of a skatepark in Kabul, Afghanistan. Part of their education on their skateboards is building resilience—to get back up and try again after you fall. During the uncertainty that surrounds them, the school and the skatepark become a place of refuge. You can see them transform throughout the film, finding their voices and their courage.
"In the work that we do with IDEO.org, we aim to create gender-transformative solutions—those which push the boundaries that are in place within the environment and systems to increase equity and opportunity for everyone. This film reminded me that transformation has to happen personally, for each individual, in order for change to be possible on a larger scale. During a recent project focusing on women's economic empowerment in rural Bangladesh, I kept asking myself, what's the skateboard for these women? How might we unlock the courage to imagine a prosperous future?" —Anna Zylicz
“We always say 'design loves constraints,' but Jodorowsky's Dune is a reminder that imagination (and ego) could care less about the restrictions of budgets, timelines, or even reality. It's a film about a movie that never got made, but the creators' dreams were so big they managed to change cinema forever without shooting a single frame. Some ambitious dreams fly too close to the creative sun. The cast of characters in this movie wanted to drill to the center of the sun and blow the whole thing up. How can you not love that?” —Brian Janosch
“The world recently lost Bill Withers, one of the greatest songwriters and musicians of the 20th century (“Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” “Lovely Day,” “Grandma’s Hands”). This biopic is incredibly touching for many reasons, but I find inspiration in how Withers approached his own creative process. He was 34 when his first record came out (late bloomers are also a personal inspiration) and his career ended by the mid-1980s. He wrote these timeless, tender songs about life and connection and then when he wasn’t able to work the way he wanted, he walked away from the industry completely. He talks about being honest with himself and true to his own principles rather than being focused on impressing other people. Sometimes I feel that snag in my own creative process—I start thinking about an imagined audience, which distracts and dissuades me. This was a reminder to create just for myself.” —Meredith Adams
“Advanced Style, the documentary based on photographer Ari Seth Cohen's blog of the same name, highlights the signature fashion styles of New York women ranging from 62 to 95 years old. As someone who fully embraces the notion that clothes are an outward expression of the creative inner self, my own fashion sense has been deeply influenced by these ladies. The hats, the sunglasses, the furs, the florals, the feathers are just...all next level. But more than their impeccable fashion sense, they are living examples that women can be stylish and fabulous at any age.” —Tracee Worley
“I love the movie Shirkers. It's an exploration of memory, following filmmaker Sandi Tan as she tracks down a film she made with her friends in Singapore in the early 90s, learning that their mentor wasn't really the person she thought he was. Everything about the film, from the vintage footage to the slow revealing of the story, is enigmatic and dreamy, reminding me that we don't have to escape reality to find ourselves in a fairytale. As the director starts to understand her past, the present becomes even less clear—and there's just something really beautiful about how this film shows that process.” —Ali Cottong
“The movie and its subject matter—the healing and potentially planet-saving abilities of the fungus beneath our feet—walks the line between science and spirituality. It's a refreshing, joyful, and thought-provoking take on what we might learn by better listening to the unseen world around us.
“I'm also reading Michael Pollan's How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, so it was fun to see one of the key players in that book (Paul Stamets) come to life on the screen.” —Sally Sosa
“An unapologetic, energetic, and wonderfully unpolished look at the life and career of musician Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, also known as M.I.A. I was lucky to see the premiere of this film at Sundance. I walked into the theater expecting to see a profile of a ‘controversial’ pop star, but instead witnessed a portrait of an immigrant, an activist, a mother, and a groundbreaking artist with human vulnerabilities and flaws that makes M.I.A. even more compelling to me.” —Devin Peek
“What drew me into Beauty Is Embarrassing is, well, puppets. Specifically, the bizarre, crude, and comedic puppets of Pee Wee's Playhouse. That show was more formative than I ever realized as a kid, but I recognize now that that my creative happy place is right there in the hazy, hilarious middle ground between being "too adult for kids" and "too childish for adults." This documentary revealed that Wayne White, the artist at the center of it, has built his entire career on that middle ground. His creative spirit, to me, is exactly what he says in the film: "so beautiful it hurts my feelings.” —Brian Janosch