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12 Documentaries That Will Spark Your Creativity

Dec 28 2016

by Devin Peek & Neil Stevenson & Matt Avallone

We all know that going out into the world and witnessing other peoples' lives is a powerful source of inspiration. But what about when you don't have time to get out in the field? Sometimes a documentary is the next best thing. We asked IDEO designers to nominate the documentaries that they find most inspiring.

1. Waste Land

“A social documentary framed around art. Brazilian artist Vik Muniz spent a couple of years at the world’s biggest landfill, and created art with the people whose job it was to pick through the garbage. This is an inspiring example of how you can take waste and transform it into something beautiful and meaningful.”

Waste Land Trailer

2. Iris

“Iris is a fearless and fiercely creative 95 year-old fashion icon and businesswoman. The film highlights her life, her creative pursuits, and her lust for a life drenched in accessories. She has inspired my take on interior design and fashion—there are no rules and if you love it, it works.”

Iris Trailer

3. Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

“Famed for The Ninth Wave, an installation commenting on China’s environmental policies, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang works with everything from taxidermy to fireworks. Sky Ladder documents Cai Guo-Qiang’s biggest dream yet: to build a ladder to connect the earth to the universe.”

Sky Ladder Trailer

4. Alive Inside

“Memory is inherently creative. Every time we reflect and look back, we use creativity to reimagine our past life experiences. But what happens when we lose our ability to remember? This film shows us the power of music, creativity, and imagination to bring back the memories of those who have been living without them.”

Alive Inside Trailer

5. Herb and Dorothy

“A charming look at a mailman and a librarian—Herb and Dorothy Vogel—in New York City who love (absolutely love) art. The Vogels live frugally, and over the years have filled their small, one-bedroom apartment with one of the most important collections of minimalist and conceptual art. Not only did they buy the art, they also built relationships—in many cases close friendships—with the artists. The documentary chronicles their lives as collectors—we see how they see, we see how they remember each work of art, and we hear from the many artists inspired by the Vogels' deep appreciation. You can't help but smile watching these two gallery hop or huddle in their tiny kitchen packed with art.”

Herb and Dorothy Trailer

6. Jiro Dreams of Sushi

“A lovely documentary about the spirit of the shokunin (craftsman) and the inscrutable Jiro. It’s inspiring to see the amount of time and effort that can go into the creation of great sushi. This movie is good for anyone who loves food, travel, and culture, and is also a great reminder of the power of craft.”

Jiro Dreams of Sushi Trailer

Documentary Blog Post Matt A 3

7. Eames, the Architect and the Painter

“The documentary illuminates how Ray and Charles Eames fused craft and thinking in their design process. It also chronicles the transformation of their work from furniture and products to ideas and communication, as they tackled larger and larger problems. There are many parallels with how IDEO's work has evolved over the years as we have honed our craft.”

Eames, the Architect and the Painter

8. American Movie

“Wisconsinite Mark Borchardt has dreams of making the ultimate psychological horror film on a micro budget. American Movie is an all-access look at his gritty and creative attempt to make his lofty dream a reality. It's a uniquely human documentary that's inspiring and entertaining for anyone who's ever been consumed by creative confidence.”

American Movie Trailer

9. Sans Soleil

“Sans Soleil is a genre-bending documentary about the limits of memory and how it affects history and current events. Chris Marker invites us into the scaffolding of his grand design, provoking us out of circumspect craft. “Frankly, have you ever heard of anything more stupid than to say to people…not to look at the camera?” Age has only increased its relevance.”

Sans Soleil Trailer

10. Bill Cunningham New York

“Way before Instagram, Bill Cunningham was the original street style photographer. This documentary paints a portrait of Bill and his quietly-obsessive creative pursuit that spanned half a century. Watch this this film to be inspired by this great human being's purity of passion and commitment to his craft.”

Bill Cunningham New York Trailer

11. Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time

"This 2001 documentary follows Andy Goldsworthy as he makes art with nature, painstakingly assembling leaves, sticks, rocks, or blocks of ice to create beautiful, ephemeral sculptures. Not only is this the most calming movie you can imagine, it is also inspiring. It reminds me that there are opportunities all around us to create meaning and beauty, if we only have the vision and the persistence to make them real."

Rivers and Tides Trailer

12. A Ballerina's Tale

"Dance, to me, is a grossly under-appreciated art form. It takes a great deal of trying, failing, and perseverance. It's strikingly similar to the world of design in many ways. I love this documentary because it tells the story of Misty Copeland, a black ballerina. There's a lot of history there, as black dancers were often overlooked (and still are) for not having the "typical" ballet body. It makes her rise to the top of this extremely selective world that much more powerful and inspiring."

A Ballerina's Tale Trailer

Thanks to Sally Clark, Piper Loyd, Maura Cass, Chris Hill, Brett Brownell, and Mark Del Lima. Illustrations by Matt Avallone.

  • Devin Peek

    Design + Visual Storytelling, IDEO San Francisco

    Devin is a designer and visual storyteller who recharges by sleeping under the stars. She's fascinated by people and their stories. She is at her happiest with a camera in one hand and chopsticks in the other.

  • Neil Stevenson

    Executive Portfolio Director, IDEO Chicago

    Neil Stevenson is on a mission to understand creativity and find new ways to enable and encourage it in others. He's particularly interested in how the slowly-evolving human brain interacts with the rapidly-changing tech environment we live in, and the strange and wonderful new behaviors that emerge as a result.

  • Matt Avallone

    Environments Designer, IDEO San Francisco

    Matt has a degree in architecture, but loves to explore outside his field whenever possible. He believes that architecture works best when it embraces technology, art and its user base. Using this as a lens, Matt hopes to change the interaction of users to their home, town, and world.

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