I met up with Stefan Sagmeister for Monument magazine, during his extensive itinerary of international public appearances – a ‘self-indulgent gig’ that gets him out of the studio for some free-form creative thinking.
What are you working on at the moment’
Four years ago we had a ‘client free year’ where we did only experiments, and I had more time than usual to think about what I want to do. Maybe the most significant change that came out of that was to move the design studio away from being exclusively music industry into other things I am interested in. So now it is divided into four fields ‘ design for music, design for the arts, design for socially responsible groups who I think could benefit from design and whose intent and direction I love, and corporate design. In the ‘social’ field maybe the most exciting thing at the moment is work we do for a group called One Wise. They are based in Palestine and Israel and they conduct gigantic surveys where they ask individuals “what concessions would you be willing to make in exchange for peace’” They do this by the hundreds of thousands and they take the results to their respective governments as a platform to build a peace agreement. They just got an incredible boost by Abbas being elected because Abbas’s son sits on their board, so they are very much at the forefront of what’s going on. They truly needed a visual signifier or identity because there are so many different spokespeople ‘ from Islamic clergymen to Mohammed Ali to Brad Pitt, and as all these people speak up for them there needed to be some sort of consistent logo device that signifies they are all speaking for that group. So for once we had a client that really needed a logo (so many don’t).
In the arts we are doing a Douglas Gordon publication for the Guggenheim Museum, and we’re doing a publication for Colombian University Architecture School. In music, actually it is too soon to speak about this project. And corporate, we are doing a presentation for an ad agency for a conglomerate from of own brand. And we’re doing some work for a New York-based furniture designer.
When did your creativity first reveal itself and how did you nurture it’
I got interested in design when I was 16. I was in terrible rock bands, you know, being stoned, what one does when one is 16, and I started to get interested in album covers, and I thought that would be a nice thing to do with my life. So I went to art school – like many art students at the time, I think, because of album covers ‘ and then while I was in art school I discovered there were so many other things that interested me as a designer, so for a long time after art school I did completely different things. It was only when I opened the studio in New York 11 years ago that I thought about why I became a designer in the first place.
What education and training have you had’
I’ve had a lot because I really loved art school. If it had been up to me, I would still be in art school. I went to the University for Applied Arts in Vienna. It was a difficult school to be accepted into and I failed the first time, so I went to a private art school in Vienna basically so I could learn to draw because the University of Applied Arts only took people who could draw. So I did lots of nature studies and then the second time I got in. I finished that course and then I got scholarship to do a masters degree at Pratt in New York for Pratt. That was a total of seven years in art school, and since there is no doctorate in graphic design I had to stop. After that I freelanced and worked for other people. I also had to leave New York because the scholarship had a two year home residency requirement. The idea being to enlighten the people at home with what you had learned.
And did you’
Actually, I did not. I went back to Vienna for one year and really couldn’t stand it, I also had to do civil service. I went to Hong Kong and opened a studio under the wings of an advertising agency (Leo Burnett). I worked two years there. Then I got an offer from my hero, my favourite designer, Tibor Kalman to go back to New York and work at M&Co. I did that for 6 months and then he closed the studio.
Do you see yourself as an artist or a designer’
A designer, firmly, 100 per cent. I just read an excellent quote about the difference by Donald Judd in an exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. He did both, and even though there is a tight link between Donald Judd’s chairs and Donald Judd’s fine art, he saw them very differently and never exhibited them together. The quote: “Design has to work, art does not.” I’ve never heard it summed up so neatly.
Are you ambitious’ Do you feel pressure to grow with the fame and make money’
Yes I am ambitious, but I’m not that interested in money. I have very consciously kept the studio tiny. We are three people which is not an ideal set-up to make a lot of money, but is ideal in almost all other ways to be a designer; mainly to make sure I am a designer and not a manager.
You’ve maintained that set-up for a long time. What are the essential criteria then for accepting work and weeding out the stuff that is going to force you to grow’
Basically it is saying yes to the nice people who are offering good projects. Nice people I could define as the people I would want to hang out with, and hopefully they are smarter than me so I can learn something. A good project is something that falls into the four fields we work in and is something I think is worthwhile doing; where I think design can make a difference – you know, so many projects really don’t need somebody like me ‘ and has a good timeframe and budget.
Obviously you believe that graphic design does have the power to effect change. When have you seen this happen’
I am absolutely 100 per cent positive that bad design can leave the world a bad place. Most famously, the ballot in Florida five years ago, where basically bad typography brought us the current administration, and consequently the Iraq war. I think that if bad design can make the world a worse place, then good design can do the opposite. For example, we do work for a group called TrueMajority, it’s founded by 500 big time CEOs in the States – very famous names like Ben Cohen from Ben and Jerry’s Ice-cream, Ted Turner and Paul Newman – who think that the current administration is doing a terrible job, not just for the USA but for the world in general. They’ve made a list of ten actions they would like the US Government to implement ‘ from signing the Kyoto Treaty to ending world hunger ‘ and they show how that can be done with the current budget. I love that group because they have basically liberal ideas, but they come from an unusual corner, you know, it’s not a bunch of hippies who have a good idea but no way to ever implement it. They have been successful on a number of points, they got over a million people to register to vote for the election – obviously it was not enough, but it was with the right intention. It’s very difficult to judge how much our design has helped their cause, but I’m positive it hasn’t hurt.
I can give two more examples of how graphic design has made a difference ‘ one big and one small. Milton Glaser’s ‘I heart NY’ logo, which has been copied a million times, first of all. In March 2002, after September 11, I was at a big horse race with about 50,000 people and I would say 50 per cent of people were wearing the I heart NY sticker. It was just a wonderful feeling, it was the best a logo could possibly be, because it had all the inclusiveness of a wonderful design, but none of the exclusiveness a flag would have. A smaller example would be a friend of mine in New York, a Korean designer named Chee Lee, who had about 50,000 stickers printed of just an empty cartoon speech bubble. He puts them on posters in New York, so wherever there is a person he puts a speech bubble and people on the street write in that speech bubble. He goes around and photographs the results. You see them often now and some of the writing is excellent, it can be incredibly insightful. It’s one of those projects where everyone wins ‘ the advertisers get more people looking at their posters, the New York public gets to express themselves, Chee Lee gets to do his project, and for the rest of us the environment is ever so slightly improved. Design can, in its itsy bitsy way, make a difference.
So is this your calling’
I think so, yes. I have had some doubts along the way and when those doubts came, it was reassuring to go back to my diaries from when I was 16 and remember that was really what I wanted to do with my life; it’s not something that I fell into. I fell into being in a bad rock band, but this is what I really wanted to do as a result, and I think that that is somehow crucial.
Do you have a good relationship with your peers in New York’ Is it a collegiate profession’
Yes it is a great environment. In Austria, in fact in many parts of Europe, like England and Switzerland, the older generation is not much into sharing. If I am in one of those countries and I mention one designer to another, you immediately hear bitching. In the States, that older, more powerful generation was completely the opposite. When we started to do work that I was happy with in the studio, I got calls from Milton Glaser, Paula Scher, Michael Bierut, the big people who were pretty much in charge of the profession. They would say they saw our work and really liked it and asked us out for lunch. They were my heroes in art school and they were the ones making the contact. I think that sort of attitude trickles down; I would hope I behave in the same way.
So how important is teaching and passing on knowledge to you’ You’re travelling around now and giving lectures, is that a big part of your professional practice’
It is a big part yes, but the lectures are not a very charitable thing, the main reason I do them is self-indulgence, it’s a wonderful way to get out of the studio. I tend to have better ideas when I’m abroad, because being in a hotel room with jet lag early in the morning creates a space where you don’t have to think ‘how am I going to get that done” The thing I do that is less self-indulgent is regularly see young designers, to talk about their portfolio. Louise Bourgeois does this thing that I might want to copy, I think it’s just fabulous. Every Sunday at 3pm between 10 and 30 artists make an appointment to have their work reviewed in her salon. She is very tough, but I also think that she is just incredibly generous to spend hours every Sunday just being there for other people.
How do you relax and play’
The normal stuff, and I see quite a lot of art. New York is a wonderful place to see lots of art. I have noticed that as I get older, I get as much kick out of seeing a good exhibition as I used to get from seeing a band 10 years ago. I just saw an amazing Thomas Dumand exhibition at MoMA, he is a German artist who does incredible paper cut-outs. I also loved the Utzon show at the Museum of Sydney.
Humour has become a signifier in your work and you seem to push the boundaries. How important is it, and where does your sense of humour come from’
I don’t think Austrians are known particularly for their sense of humour ‘ I think we’re too close to Germany for that! I think that in graphic design your goal is to engage the viewer with any strategies you can find ‘ humour is one. There is a philosopher who I like a lot, Edward de Bono, from Malta, a very practical philosopher. He has written a lot about thinking in general and he places humour very high on a thinking level because there is always this element of surprise ‘ the reason you are laughing is because you’re surprised by something. I think humour does work, you would have to be silly not to know about it and not to try to somehow employ it. In design there is a lot of that mild, tongue-in-cheek humour, which I in very rare cases find humourous at all. I think it’s something I could get much better at; it could be pushed much further.
What is your philosophy, in life and design’
In design, that is my little pet question. I would hope it is possible to touch someone’s heart with design. I think that there is so much done by professional designers that is proper and professional and nicely photographed and illustrated but is basically fluff ‘ by its content and how it is done. I hope to get over that and drive more in the direction of many other segments of the arts. We can all name books that have changed our lives, the same would be true for movies, the same is very true for music, these things are routinely able to be very close to people’s hearts. I think that design is just another visual language, just as much as movies are a visual language, but this touching of people’s hearts becomes more difficult in design because you have the attention of the audience for a very short time. If I look at literature for example ‘ I am so much more touched by novels than I am by short stories. If I design a poster, I will have three seconds, but nevertheless I think it’s possible, you know in the same way that it might be easier to say I love you in French than in Korean. And it might be easier to say I love you in a movie than in architecture, even though if you look at the Taj Mahal that’s been possible too.
This interview was first published in Monument magazine, issue 67, 2005.