Part of Sagmeister&Walsh, global reference Design studio, Stefan Sagmeister finds the time to do everything; from TED talks to turning his sabbaticals into creative productivity exercises. Deeply we all want to be a little bit like Stefan Sagmeister.
Stay small. Is that motto only related to the physical side of it, as in preserve a small work team? ‘Cause you probably are one of the biggest studios in the world regarding reach and repercussion.
Yes, staying small within our team offered us many, many benefits, among them the possibility to be involved in many different processes, independence from large corporate clients, the possibility to pick and choose clients and many more. But we love to design for large audiences. Having a far reach (and impact) is definitely one of the main joys of being a designer.
The name of your mentor, Tibor Kalman, is read in many interviews you’ve given. How does it feel to be a mentor yourself now?
I wont be able to live up to Tibor’s example. But the smaller role I do play for some people, I find it very satisfying. When the facial expression of a young designer clearly says: ‘Alright, I get it’, that’s a good moment.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Tibor: The only difficult thing when running a design company is to figure out how to stay small.
And what is the best piece of advice you’ve given?
That’s impossible for me to say, since in many cases I won’t know the outcome. But, many people took my advice to take a sabbatical and that seems to have worked out very well for them.
I wonder when did Stefan Sagmeister have the “a-ha” moment, when did you realise you could say something and say it in a new different way.
I remember one such moment during the first sabbatical, when I contemplated to become a film director. It became clear this would be a 10 year process; it seemed to make more sense to stay with the language I already knew, design, and see if I had anything to say that would go beyond the purely promotional. This was the beginning seed for the “Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far” series and, in some ways, even for The Happy Show. And as we also just completed The Happy Film, things really did come full circle. I do think of the film as a piece of design.
What did you feel the day you saw your first designed poster on the streets? You were very young, if I’m correct.
It felt wonderful! Doing something that’s on the street with a content important to me is still a great feeling today (and I usually get used to things and take them for granted rather quickly).
How do you deal with the fear of failure (assuming we all suffer from it)?
Yes, I have it too. Sometimes I think up a worst case scenario, what’s the absolute worst that can happen. This is often surprisingly not so terrible, and very rarely involves life and death.
There’s always this dichotomy between having your own style and being adaptable. What thoughts have you got on this issue? How is it possible to find a balance?
For a young designer or student, I find it not worthwhile to think about the development of one’s own style. The personal style will appear all by itself and it will be much harder to get rid off it again.
The same thing happens with trends. There’s visual trends in everything, from advertising to fashion and in the design world. Again, which is the formula to find a balance between adjusting to a trend that clients might ask you to do and your own signature?
It depends: if we’re designing a magazine cover or website, it could and even should be trendy, fashionable, of its time. If it’s a brand or Architecture or anything else that will be around in decades to come, it should not.
Some say Art should remain impractical because Art should exist for the sake of it. Other say that Art should have a functionality, from explaining to teaching. And then there’s Design… that stands in the middle ground of the battlefield?
Yes, as Donald Judd famously said: “Design has to work, Art does not”. I would agree. And the wonderful romantic Theophile Gautier even postulated: “Something can only be truly beautiful when it has no function whatsoever. Everything that’s truly useful is ugly. The most useful room is the house is the toilet”.
“Choose the client, not how much it pays”. I guess you have to feel in the same vibe as the client to do something you’re comfortable with? So the “fake it till you make it” common phrase would not really be valid here?
Yes, we try to take on projects where we would use the product or service ourselves. This makes everything easier: we don’t have to lie and we are automatically interested.
Talking about your studio, how did you and Jessica meet up?
Jessica had come in to show her portfolio and was hired right away. She was so good (had great ideas and knew how to execute them beautifully, lots of common sense and hard work) that she became a partner after three years.
Do you now feel something like “yeah, I’ve arrived somewhere” (the “hell yeah!” moment) or do you still feel there’s a lot more to learn and see?
I’m very glad that design has become such a vast field which allows us to visit and work at the edges and still be able to call ourselves designers. Over the past years we designed a feature documentary film, personal blogs, branding systems, magazine covers, furniture and websites, all without leaving the field. I would be bored otherwise.
“Happiness is based 40% on doing new activities, 10% on the state of your life and 50% in genetics”. The half of it being genetics is a bit of a daunting landscape; it seems that you can’t do much to be happier if your genetics are against it. Or can you?
Sure. Ultimately it’s the same as in sports: I might not have the best genetical build-up to be fastest in – say – the 1000 meter run, and will therefore never become a World Champion, but if I train properly, I will get much faster.
Are you closer now to the key to happiness?
Well, the last time I made daily notes on my happiness, I reached an average of 7.5/10. When I had started 6 year prior, it was at 6.8/10. I might not call this the key to happiness, but it does constitute a proper improvement.
What are the future plans for yourself and the studio?
I don’t like to talk about future projects, as I’ve experienced that I lose the desire to do them when I talk too much about them.
I’ve tested that it comes this point in conversations with people that basically… we all want to be like Stefan Sagmeister. It is true.
Hahahaha. I doubt that highly.
We ask this question to everyone interviewed at La Monda. We give you the beginning of a sentence and you have to finish it. Here it goes…
“Artistic expression as a way of defending”… the fact that beauty is part of what it means to be human.
- Sharif Hamza