A Conversation with Stefan Sagmeister

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By Dwell and Jennifer Morla / Published by Dwell
Artist and designer Jennifer Morla recently caught up with Stefan Sagmeister in San Francisco after an event hosted by Arkitectura. Here we share their wide-ranging conversation about the nature of design and creativity, and beyond.

Acclaimed filmmaker Stefan Sagmeister is one of the world’s most highly regarded graphic designers and visual communicators. Projects emerging from his New York–based studio, Sagmeister & Walsh, spans corporate, cultural, nonprofit and self initiated work. In addition to filmmaking, Sagmeister is a Grammy award-winning artist, and has received the National Design Award for Communications from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the Golden Medal of Honor of the Republic of Austria. He is also the author of Made You Look and Things I have learned in my life so far. Most recently Sagmeister has created The Happy Film, a movie in which he appears as the protagonist in search of happiness. A touring exhibition, called The Happy Show, has launched alongside the film and with over 350,000 visitors to date.

Jennifer Morla: There are a number of commonalities between architecture and graphic design. Architects' structure is based to facilitate the experience and I would argue that graphic designers also do the same. Can you talk a bit about that? 

A Conversation with Stefan Sagmeister - Photo 1 of 5 - Image courtesy Ben Wolf

Image courtesy Ben Wolf

Stefan Sagmeister: Sure. It's true that these different directions have a lot of commonalities but I think that when it comes down to actually executing things, I find I'm really not able to build a building. If I look at the books that architects build, that doctors make, they mostly suck. There may be one or two exceptions but they're very, very rare. I think that in general, some of the thinking is similar. Just because I've listened to Mozart a lot, I would never think I could go up on stage and play the first violin, but somehow in our fields that's sort of a little bit of the idea. I've heard people say stupid things like, "I've stayed in the best hotels in the world so I'm going to do a fantastic luxury hotel." 

Morla: Conceptually, the way architects deal with way-finding, that is sort of what we do as designers. We're sort of taking people on a journey. The work, that whole idea of surprising and educating at the same time, is that element of surprise that you're taking them on this journey. Maybe they don't know where they're going. It can be as simple as a layout on a page where you're directing them over here even though it doesn't look like there is a lot over there. In architecture you do that in the same way.

A Conversation with Stefan Sagmeister - Photo 2 of 5 - Image courtesy Karim Charlebois

Image courtesy Karim Charlebois

Sagmeister: Yes, I completely agree. I think that's true for all of us—it doesn't matter if you're an architect or journalist, or a graphic designer. If we go home from our studios and we feel we did something today that either helped or delighted somebody, I think that was a meaningful day.

Morla: Design can be a communicator of dissent and it can market ideology and it can affect change. Can you reference any of your projects and the solutions that you took in that line?

A Conversation with Stefan Sagmeister - Photo 3 of 5 - Image courtesy Ben Wolf

Image courtesy Ben Wolf

Sagmeister: Sure. Probably the biggest and maybe the most successful project that we did was a big campaign that tried to cut the US military budget by 15% and move it over to education. Through some luck that actually happened. I mean, it was not because of our campaign. It was because Obama came in and involved many other forces. A group of 500 business men, CEOs of successful companies, came to us with a belief in knowing about budgets and talking about budgets. That was the only reason why I took them on, because I thought they actually had a chance to do this. This is not some crazy left-wing group of hippies with a good idea but that have no way of implementation. They had a budget and they had a structure to build it. Originally they came to us just to have a mascot, but it became clear that the numbers that are involved with the US military and the Pentagon are so crazy that we basically made the numbers an identity. We had a van that was formed into a big piggy bank that showed the difference between our military and education budgets. Our most successful one was two school buses mounted on top of each other. The top one being mounted upside down. And it just said, 'double the education budget.' From a pure functionality point of view, the school bus cost us $70,000. It was driven around the United States for two years by volunteers, so it cost us almost nothing other than needing to be fixed here and there. But it was featured on hundreds of local TV shows because when it came through town, that local news would always put it up, and because of its shape, the newscaster had to explain what it was really about. That these guys want to really double up the education budget to take it off the Pentagon. The group dissolved because they reached their goal. They can just say, "Okay. That's done. What's next?" 

A Conversation with Stefan Sagmeister - Photo 4 of 5 - Image courtesy Stefan Sagmeister

Image courtesy Stefan Sagmeister

Morla: Wow. I think that underscores once again that sort of surprise and education. That's part of it. And also scale. Really big or really small. Really getting that in a person's face. Ultimately I think it also does go back to when you worked with Tibor Kalman decades ago. He used humor.

Sagmeister: Tibor is the biggest influence in my design. No question about it. I only worked for him for half a year, but I learned an incredible amount and it was exactly that kind of design that attracted me. Humor, by its very nature, needs to be a surprise. If a joke is not a surprise, it doesn't work. I'm working with a guy in Austria who runs a psychological institute. And he can actually show that when you are surprised, your eyes open up wider. So the most information possible can come in. Look for somebody whose eyes are open, and who you just engaged—it's very valuable.

A Conversation with Stefan Sagmeister - Photo 5 of 5 -

Morla: You did this Happiness film. And I know you went through a lot of unhappiness. Where are you in your happy spectrum right now?

Sagmeister: I've had two unbelievable months in Mexico for my sabbatical. It's very odd. The film has been done since spring. The conclusions of the film are the same conclusions that I would think now. But I will put them in there now much more forcefully. Like in the end of the film. It's sort of like "It's probably this. One two three." I would now say, "It's absolutely this. One two three."

I think that after it was all done, ideas that I explored—and often wrongly explored in the film—are actually extremely helpful to me now. After the whole thing is done, it comes to bite me in the ass in the most pleasant way. So far the film has only been shown at festivals. Our film festival audience, they seem to be very kind. It was received very very well. But we'll see how this thing does when it's out there in the world, when it has to stand on its own feet. We're not gonna hold it by its hand and teach it how to walk. 

It almost feels like we put seven years of our life into this thing, and now it either walks or it doesn't walk. And if it doesn't walk, well fuck you. That's life. It will die a quick death. I'm a big believer in quality finding its way. If it's not quality, then it will die.