Stefan Sagmeister: “Trying To Look Good Limits My Life”

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Stefan Sagmeister is a designer who has been following his instinct and intuition to the fullest, having gained recognition for his unique, and often provocative, visual explorations. It’s possibly his very personal and almost self-centric way to design that leads to his original approach. On May 31, 19 years after starting his NYC studio he once again surprised the crowds with renaming to Sagmeister & Walsh in a ‘trademark’ Sagmeister fashion – naked in the studio.

A bit of history. When the Austrian-born Sagmeister moved to New York, he made it his mission to work for the legendary designer Tibor Kalman (1949-1999), at M&Co before starting his own studio in 1994. Sagmeister inc. Kalman, one of the two names that changed graphic design in the 80’s—as AIGA proclaims—was well respected for his social responsibility polemic and then as the editor-in-chief of Colors magazine.

Sagmeister earned Grammys for his iconic music packaging art (see his David Byrne CD covers). With his poster designs for the AIGA, as well as a slew of heralded personal projects, it’s safe to say that his status as a design superstar has been cemented. He also obtained a Lucky Strike Designer Award in 2009. There are two published monographs on his work, “Things i have learned in my life so far” (2008) and “Sagmeister, Made You Look” (2001) that are often found on designer’s bookshelves.

He’s also known for taking yearlong sabbaticals every seven years out of studio, which is obviously good for creativity and well being (if one can afford it).

Sagmeister's notorious AIGA poster in which the message was cut into his skin.
For the 1999 poster for his AIGA detroit lecture Stefan asked his intern Martin to cut out the lettering on his skin. If you want to be original you must be able to take the pain. Photography: Tom Schierlitz

Grammay winning design for David Byrne
The Grammy award-winning design of this album features happy, angry, sad and content David Byrne dolls.

He advocates keeping it simple, which he believes has huge benefits and routinely takes a sabbatical break every seven years to recharge and reflect creatively.

This is yet another timeless and in English previously unpublished interview conducted by Spyros Zevelakis, when he met with Sagmeister at TypoBerlin ‘Image’ in 2008.

Stefan_Sagmeister © gerhardkassner.de
Stefan_Sagmeister © gerhardkassner.de.

Q: Do we have to gather in the economical centres of the world in order to do better graphic design?

Design by its own definition, not only communication design but also product design—from a broader point of view, they’re about the interaction of humans. Now, you have more interactions of humans in cities. Bigger concentration, much higher density than you’d have in the countryside. Consequently, as a designer, I’m invited a lot to different places around the world, and they’re almost without exception cities. So, there is now just much higher usage of design and products, but also in the making of them, and in the thinking about them.

At the same time though, technology allows us to do fantastic work anywhere. And this is true for young designers. I’ve seen colleges outside of cities. They do amazing work that uses the remoteness, as part of their limitations [as designers], and turn it to their advantage. I’ve also seen design companies, being in provincial areas, who do brilliant work.

Q: So, in the years to come, will designers be more able to live anywhere and do work anywhere?

In a sense, I would say, because you can technically do it. But, obviously, the density of information and the experiences will be probably more for the cities than the countryside. So, I could see this working beautifully for a limited period of time, and I’m actually going to move for a year to the countryside to do exactly that—try a different style of working. I will be in Indonesia, quite far away from any urban centre. I’d have to fly to Jakarta or Singapore. That’ll be for a year, but I don’t think that I’d want to do this for the rest of my life.

Everybody always thnks they are right.
Illustrated by Monika Aichele in Germany and built by Sportogo in California, each monkey held a banner containing one word of the sentence, the whole sentiment only completed for a viewer visiting all cities, or through the media.

Q: Which was there the point in your career that you managed to start working on your own terms? Was it difficult in the beginning?

From a single point of view, even as a student, I looked for jobs that allowed work that I thought was good. And for sure, when we started the studio, right from the start, we tried to do work that we could be satisfied with. That’s what I felt it was best doing. I don’t think that you can open a studio and do mediocre work to make money and somehow switch over to good stuff. I haven’t seen it happen. Because everything that they [your clients] do, reflects on everything that you do. If you do a lot of mediocre work, it’s going to attract a lot of mediocre clients.

Q: Where there sacrifices you had to do to allow yourself this freedom?

There were not many sacrifices involved. What I did, was that I designed a situation for myself, where the studio would need very little money. Our overheads were very, very small, so we didn’t get into this “difficulty” of having to have a lot of income coming in and then having to take on jobs that we wouldn’t be happy with.

The new EDP identity.
The new EDP identity is built using four fundamental shapes: a circle, half circle, square and a triangle. These four shapes were combined and layered to build 85 unique EDP logomarks resulting in a modular identity.

Q: Are you bothered about the distinctions between the arts and design?

As a consumer or viewer of art and design I don’t care. As a consumer my question is if it’s good or not, not if it’s art or design. As a do-er [creator/maker of it], somehow I have to care. I’ve been asked here and there about it… and on a daily basis there is a distinction as far as the media, distribution methods and functionality of the pieces is concerned. I think that design pieces at large need to be functional, while art pieces at large don’t have to be functional, just be—they don’t have to actually do anything.

Q: In this way you differentiate your work from a fine artist’s work?

Yes, exactly.

Description of the image.
The billboard for the Experimenta in Lisbon is made out of newsprint paper. We took advantage of the fact that newsprint yellows significantly in the sun.

Q: Designers are active in the discussion of more ethical and responsible practice. Many seek to work for clients committed to a social responsibility (charities etc). In general however, the designer is working for the industry, and often, it may be questionable how seriously big corporations take contemporary issues (like sustainability) outside their PR and marketing agenda. What’s your view on this contradiction? On the one hand designers are sensitive to issues, on the other hand, they do best in strong economies (capitalism).

I’m not sure I have very interesting things to say about it. I do believe that it’s going to be some middle-ground over the two. I think that capitalism long ago has found the middle ground. I talked yesterday to a woman who works at Mercedes. She said that they are investing $14 Billion over the next 3 years in environmentally friendly technology. Now, so much money from this company, I actually didn’t believe her at first and then she emailed her boss to get the actual numbers. Mercedes’s annual profit is $4 Billion dollars. So to put [nearly] 3 years worth of profits, solely into environmentally friendly technologies…

I would like to see the design company who puts its entire profit into the same thing. It seems to me, if those numbers proved to be true, that some big industry people are much more responsible than the design community. I do see big businesses having some quite inspiring leadership. Therefore, I don’t see that one has to go above the other. In general, I’m a big believer in the human spirit and I think that, centuries after centuries, we are actually getting better and better. By looking at our past and our progress, it seems that we have a good future.I’m not sure that the PR and marketing of big corporations is the mere drive for a more responsible approach.

On the other hand, I have seen the design community react to catastrophes in the most superficial and silly fashion. I remember back at 9/11, the overall response of the design community in New York was to design stupid logos, and load them to the AIGA website. But I do know a lawyer who organised the law community. They did actual beneficial things for their communities. I don’t think that the design community can claim at all to have a leadership in any of these subjects. And even because it’s quite fashionable to slag large corporations, I sometimes see a much more efficient and much more professional and effective way from individual designers.

Identity and packaging design for Aishti, Aizone, and Minis department stores.
Identity and packaging design for Aishti, Aizone, and Minis department stores.

Q: Back to graphics, you’re a letterer and you enjoy the craftsmanship. Is it equally important for you, the form of the letterforms and the medium (that dictates the outcome)?

Both yes. Actually, even when we produce something that is made out of something, the form is not totally driven by that one medium. I’ll give an example. When we did the world limits swimming around in the swimming pool, we sketched that out before, because I didn’t want this air conditioning, tubing material, that we made it out from, solely to dictate the form of that work.

Q: Is craftsmanship a way to be unique in the digital era?

Well, I think it was maybe 10 years ago. Specifically, when modernism first came back, and everything was suddenly cold and machine-like, it made a lot of sense to introduce handwriting, but also to introduce a higher level of craft. Right now, craft in almost all artistic directions is a very hot topic. Start with product design, but in art, crafts coming back big time, you see the German painters, who can actually paint, having an unbelievable career. We went through such a long term, maybe two or three decades, where craft didn’t play a role at all, and I mean consciously it didn’t. People who could paint, consciously did not paint.

In general, craft is just a function of knowing your tools really well. Knowing your tools very well, on the one hand can be an advantage. On the other hard, I’ve also seen people hooked back into their tools that they know so well, and they stay in their small little section [world] and can’t really get out to see the bigger picture. Personally, I’m most comfortable to go in and out.

A wall of bananas
“At the opening of our exhibition at Deitch Projects in New York we featured a wall of 10,000 bananas. Green bananas created a pattern against a background of yellow bananas spelling out the sentiment: Self-confidence produces fine results. After a number of days the green bananas turned yellow too and the type disappeared. When the yellow background bananas turned brown, the type (and the self-confidence) appeared again, only to go away when all bananas turned brown.” – Stefan Sagmeister

Q: Art colleges in Europe don’t seem to teach much crafts any more, do they?

In design education, they are much more about what the world does right now. Interestingly, in most graduate schools, being technically good at something is almost a bad word if you’re talking about contemporary craft. Somebody who is very good in photoshop, is almost universally despised at a grad school. It’s silly. I’m not saying that I’m a friend of people who can do just that and can’t think, but I think a combination of skills matters.

Q: Where do you think design education is going?

I could only give you a superficial answer to it, simply because colleges are a very vast system. There are colleges and universities that do a fantastic job. I just came back from the Royal College of Art in London. I saw the work of six design students. And five of them were fantastic, work of a very high level. I also see people in Holland doing work that I can assure you, is far more advanced that anything I was thinking of when I was 23. Much more sophisticated. Their education is so much better, they know much more, they have much more experience than I had at that age. I’m not quite sure why this is. Is it because I have the chance to see these people now? Or because I just never met them when I was 23? But then I see the opposite, people who are being taught by bad professors, and they’re not that successful. So there is a very wide spectrum out there, and if I would be a student now, I would have to do some serious research. Which is relatively easy to do—just look at the work of graduate students, you can tell immediately.

Talkative Chair.
The text of this chair simply refers to a diary entry written while sitting on our balcony in Bali, where the chair itself would ultimately be placed.

Q: So, do you think that it depends massively on the school and their practice or philosophy, or the country of study?

Oh no, of course there are a couple of star schools across the world, and there are some countries that really figured out how to school design education—Germany being one of them. If I would have to pick one, anywhere in [the world] where I can see the most, I’d think of Germany. Considering that these four, five schools, don’t refer to themselves as being the best… I think education here (Germany) is fantastic! If I would live in a country, like the US, where art education is unbelievably expensive, I’d probably go through the trouble to learn the German language and get my education there. I know that there are protests here because they are now paying €500 a semester here. And you pay $18,000 a semester in the in the US. And education is really good. I talked to teachers that are very good designers, and the government pays them salaries that they can give up a part of their profession, and it’s actually doable.

In the US if you teach you can do it as a hobby. I do teach 3 hours a week, but I can’t be available to my students during the week. I just talked to [a designer who] I think is the best poster designer alive. He’s teaching in Stuttgart, and he has all he needs, [which] allows him to leave a part of his practice and take teaching seriously. And he does that. And you see the outcome, because he’s available to his students. On the contrary, in the US and many other countries you have to do either teaching or design. Although there are great designers also doing full time teaching, you have mediocre [medium level] designers who become full time faculty staff.

This may be a generalization, but you certainly have people who flee to academia because they’re not that good in real life. Then, of course, they will have the time to lead the students. At the same time, people who are very good outside, they can only come in very punctually. That’s why I think, actually, the current system here seems to work brilliantly, where very good designers can dedicate a serious amount of their lives to teaching.

Trying to Look Good Limits My Life.
Trying to Look Good Limits My Life – real world typography produced by Sagmesiter for one of his personally-driven projects.

Be sure to check out the Sagmeister studio live via the website.

(jc) (il)

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Spyros is creative director at ideologio, a London based design studio. His background is typography and type design and currently works as a UX and branding consultant for mobile and web apps. Spyros holds an MA in Communication Design from Central St Martins and has been lecturing in conferences and design schools internationally. You can follow him on Twitter.

  1. 1

    It’s a little scary to be the first to comment on such an icon in the design community. Thanks for an intelligent interview – the honest, thoughtful answers provided a fuller view of this intelligent and personable designer towards whom, until now, my chief responses can be summed up as, “Ouch”, and “Please put your clothes back on.”

    If there is a follow up interview, I’d really like to hear more about “Trying to Look Good Limits My Life”. I have a feeling Mr. Sagmeister is the first to coherently define and verbalize a tension felt by many who live and work in the design world.

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  2. 2

    I think this guy is up to something. I do believe that if you are coming out of a graphic design you gotta show some craft/sofware skills, because it’s job security and that is how you will be judged at the portfolio show. Once you make a name for yourself you can create Chip Kidd stuff because you’ve reached that star status in the design community.

    Students who lack software skills their work becomes one dimensional and the same as other students who lack software skills. Those who do have software skills may fall into the trap of always showing off software skills, but I also found their work to be more dynamic and diverse if they are properly directed. They can reproduce their thoughts on canvas much better than those will limited software skills. My point is, you do not lose anything if you invest learning the tools to produce good craft.

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  3. 3

    I claim Richey Edwards was original in his self-harm letter decoration.

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  4. 4

    What’s with the grammar “Where there sacrifices…” ?

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  5. 5

    This generalization and perpetuation that, in the U.S., those that are teaching graphic design are somehow not good, drives me bananas. I know many full time professors (not adjuncts and not lecturers) who are still terrific designers and might have had a short or long excellent and usually award winning (or not) career before entering teaching full time.

    Note that most tenure track teaching positions at research universities are balanced about 60% teaching, 40% creative (less for teaching only colleges) and 10% service (advising, committees, etc.) Although for a junior faculty, in reality, the mix is more like 70% teaching, 15% creative/research, and 15% service no matter what type of school (despite the unrealistic fantasies of chairs and deans). Private art schools are set up differently and tend to have more part time faculty overall and with full time on long term contracts and reviews.

    The problem is not designers going to teaching full time (for any reason) but that most graphic design programs in the U.S. are located in fine art departments and the majority of faculty in other areas are fine artists and look down on design with those disgusting clients! In the past (and even today) when a department creates or hires a design faculty, they tend to hire a fine artist who also does “design”. I use that word design very loosely here. This means that the majority of design programs are not run by failed designers but failed ARTISTS!

    I had a fine artist friend, a very good fine artist friend, who taught at a typical state U call me once to ask about books on typography. I’ll call that person P. P had zero design experience but was *starting the graphic design program at their school*! P had no choice as, P could not get enough students into the fine art area P taught in. They all wanted to study graphic design. I gave P a list of books but I also told P, the area needs to hire qualified design faculty! They never did. P only hired fine artists. That program, like many, is run by teachers who are really painters, sculptures, and contemporary artists who, after getting an MFA in fine art, did design to make a living, reluctantly. Failing at that, they turned to teaching where, they could paint and sculpt, teach graphic design, and get tenure not based on the design field they are supposed to be experts in but, the fine art they exhibit.

    The solution is that when young people look at programs, be sure to check out the faculty bio and see, preferably, that they have an MFA in a design field (like graphic design) and/or that they worked as a designer for at least a few years before entering teaching and that they continue to do design work for clients. Not, paintings or fine art.

    In other words, an actual area or department made up of actual designers with actual design training and experience.

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    “his own studio in 1994. Sagmeister inc”

    I think that should probably be a comma.

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