Stefan Sagmeister is an Austrian designer and Grammy award winning artist based in New York. For years he’s worked with Jessica Walsh, co-founder of their company Sagmeister & Walsh Inc., and has previously designed album artwork for the likes of The Rolling Stones, OK Go, Aerosmith, David Byrne and Lou Reed to name but a ‘chosen’ few. Felten Ink sought him out to discuss his work, his views on ‘The Designer as an Author’, and the importance of taking ‘creative’ time off one’s work.
Last time we spoke was around the time of your ‘Happy film’ – tell me what has changed in that time in terms of your own outlook and development as an artist?
I had heard the Happy Film’s scientific adviser Jonathan Haidt’s conclusion that happiness comes from in between countless times during the filming and editing process: He thinks happiness can ensue if I manage to get the relationship to other people right, this includes far away acquaintances and close family, if I can get the relationship to my work right and the relationship to something that’s bigger than myself right. Only then happiness can rise from here and there from in between. When I started the sabbatical in Mexico City and looked for a main subject to work on, it immediately became clear to me that it will need to be ‘Beauty’, as it will force me to be in close relationship with many people, it will force me to work with many new and old experts, artists, designers and producers, and it will surely be bigger than me. The time following that has been among the happiest of my life.
You are about to go ‘on tour’ or travel to give more talks I understand?
I am not on tour, I am working on ideas that deal with long term development. I‘ll be talking about beauty there.
Tell me about your recent ‘Beauty’ project, something which is almost always seen as positive; where did that project come from and did you find any negative aspects to ‘beauty’ as a concept?
Interesting! In my own profession I see a general lack of regard for beauty. Most design centric professions, be it architecture, product or digital design don’t take beauty very seriously, with many practitioners seeing it as superfluous, while concentrating on function. I very strongly believe that the sole pursuit of functionality often leads to work that does not function at all, the public housing projects of the 50’s and 60’s being a prime example: The goal was to house as many people as effectively as possibly resulting in projects that were not fit for human habitation, – they needed to be torn down again 20 years later.
How much of ‘Beauty’ was about combining elements of copy and design?
I started with a giant mind map that took up the better part of a large wall in my studio in Mexico City and took it from there. I have always been interested in being the ‘author’ of the designs we do, and am teaching in the graduate program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC under exactly that title: The Designer as Author. The designer as author does not not necessarily mean the designer as writer, but stands for a designer who comes up with her own projects, i.e. who authors her own content. My particular class is called: ‘How to touch someones heart with Design’, and the students have to identify a group, design something that touches that group, deliver it to that group and then document if and how this group was touched.
What types of things are having the biggest impact on you and your
work these days?
Long term data. If you look at developments concerning the world from a long term perspective – which is the only sense making way to look at it – almost everything concerning us gets better. The longer the lens, the better it gets. If you think the world is out of control, democracy is down and things look dire, do look at the data. It will change your mind. And of course, global warming as an enormous problem that needs to be solved. I have recently heard 2 different strategies that make me hopeful even there. As my Dutch friend aptly said: Data is the new oil.
You’ve said you often take sabbaticals to fight boredom – Is time off really ‘time off’ or does your own psychology make it so?
I have NO desire to switch off from work during the sabbaticals, actually they are there to work and I normally work more hours in them than in a regular year. We just don’t do any client work, but instead pursue little experiments that might yield results for clients in the future. During our second sabbatical I was looking for something meaningful to design, and ‘The Happy Film’ seemed to fit the bill: It forced me into doing a whole lot of research and experiments within this field. I also figured that whatever we do might have a chance to be of possible service to other people. It also allowed me to work in a challenging media, as I had never done a film before. A book would have been much easier.
Time is obviously problematic…
I do think the time frame itself is less important than the commitment to spend a certain part of my time doing what I am truly interested in. Every designer whose work I admire conducts a version of this: Every late afternoon, one day a week, a couple of days every month, I’ve seen almost every version out there conducted in companies tiny and large. I am not in a position to determine what other people should do, but I can say this: I have now talked to dozens and dozens of people who took a sabbatical, rich and poor, singles and families. EVERY single one thought it was among the best things they had ever done in their lives.
Is there any dream project you have on your mind or, anyone you’d love to work with?
I’d love to do anything with James Turrell, shine his shoes, iron the clothes, anything.
On the subject of music – I understand you sometimes buy records on the strength of
their cover? You must have come across some awful stuff using that line of
My hit/miss rate is surprisingly high using the ‘beautiful cover’ strategy, it seems that many people who go through the trouble of commissioning (or designing) an excellent cover, also put a lot of care into the music. When I miss its mostly because my taste in visuals is more sophisticated than my taste in music, so I tend to own a good number of albums that I don’t quite get. But maybe I just spent $ 30.00 on a good visual, which is totally fine too.
On that, what are your all time favourite records?
1. King Crimson Red, because I used to hum ‘Starless’ in order to calm myself down before difficult exams in junior high school.
2. The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers as it has the best cover ever.
3. Darkside (of the Moon by Pink Floyd) as it is so unbelievably well composed, performed and recorded that we designed a special room for it in the Beauty exhibition, just to play a single song off it.
Other Stefan Sagmeister favorites:
1. Brian Eno, A Year (with Broken Appendices)
2. David Foster Wallace, Another supposingly fun thing I’ll never do again
3. Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
4. Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now
Films will include:
Stefan Sagmeister on Joker:
I was very much surprised that it is still possible to get something new out of such well worn material. I thought the acting superb and the design with its strong 80-ies New York aesthetic – the time when I first arrived here – fabulous.