We met world famous and most sought-after designer Stefan Sagmeister at the Brand Eins conference in Hamburg. The Austrian, who has been living in New York City for more than 20 years, worked for brands such as BMW, Levi‘s and the New York Times as well as institutions like the Guggenheim Museum. In his early years, it was his dream to work as a designer for the music industry – a goal which he later on confidently achieved by designing record covers for pop stars like The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed and David Byrne. Meanwhile, he has become a pop star himself – of design at least. In Hamburg, Sagmeister gave a lecture on creativity, new thinking and about not letting a job as vocation degenerate into dull routine.
Q. Stefan, at the conference you spoke about your one-year sabbatical. It seemed like everyone in the room was irritated but also fascinated by that idea, meaning not only people from the creative sphere but also from conventional business backgrounds. Why do you think there is such a potential for, let’s call it, ‘creative leisure time’? And isn’t it almost like an affront in the light of an imperative of efficiency and fast-spinning cycles of innovation to take a year off?
A. My sabbaticals have very little to do with leisure. This time is set aside to be able to try interesting things for which there is normally no space during regular studio hours. Companies like Google who give their employees 20% of their time to pursue projects interesting to them are essentially following the same strategy with different timings. Among many other inventions, gmail is a product of this program.
Q. What were some of the most remarkable experiences during your sabbatical?
A. It surprised me that I experienced NO desire to switch off from work during the sabbaticals, I wound up working more hours in them than in a regular year. I don’t do any client work, but instead pursue little experiments that might yield results for clients in the future.
Q. You are a world famous designer and at the conference you told us that your sabbatical did not have any negative impact on your business. What would you tell other people who are thinking about taking time off but are afraid to fall behind as a business or as employees?
A. Find a way to overcome that fear. Make a really tight plan on what it is you want to pursue. Stick with it. My experience is that it is scary to organize and exhilarating to execute.
Q. What advice would you give people who are not able to take a sabbatical? Is there such a thing as a time off during the workday? Can you create little gaps within your routine?
A. Yes. You can do an hour a day, a morning a week, whatever regular pockets of time you can spare. But the time that is set aside has to be holy, i.e., can not be moved because of another project. This is VERY important. I have seen small, medium and large companies doing a version of this, always with excellent results. I myself had several reasons to start the first sabbatical: One was to fight routine and boredom, another the insight that I could come up with different kind of projects when given a different time-frame to spend on them. I also expected it would be joyful. What I did not expect was that these sabbaticals would change the trajectory of the studio and I did not dare to imagine that they would be financially successful. But they were.
The Sagmeister & Walsh Studio Space in New York City. © Sagmeister
Q. Creativity used to be a privilege for artists and bohemians. Now, everyone is creative and has to be creative, even in rather administrative jobs. How does this paradigm shift affect our working culture? And how does it affect real creatives like you?
A. If what you are saying is true, I would only welcome it. More people engaging in thinking, that would be wonderful.
Q. You often emphasize to be a designer, however, one could picture you as a filmmaker, musician, author etc. and you don’t seem limited to your discipline at all. But why do you consider design to be your main field of activity? And how would you describe your specific view as a designer on music, film etc.?
A. That’s one of the many beautiful aspects of my field, that it is now so vast that we can occupy various corners without having to leave it. I call myself a designer because I went to design school, run a design office and by and large work with the field and media of design. It makes the most sense.
Q. Can you name any of your influences?
A. I spent my formative years in Vienna, where many embrace misery and think of anything related to happiness as either ‘stupid’ or ‘American’. The overall feeling is that if you are intelligent and understand life you will know how awful it is. This thinking left a mark.
Q. Apart from Vienna, which people were important to you and your work?
A. Tibor Kalman was the single most influential person in my designy life and my one and only design hero. 25 years ago, as a student in NYC, I called him every week for half a year and I got to know the M&Co receptionist really well. When he finally agreed to see me it turned out I had a sketch in my portfolio rather similar in concept and execution then an idea M&Co was just working on. He rushed to show me the prototype out of fear I’d say later he stole it out of my portfolio. I was so flattered. When I finally started working there 5 years later I discovered it was, more than anything else, his incredible salesmanship that set his studio apart from all the others. There were probably a number of people around who were as smart as Tibor (and there were certainly a lot who were better at designing), but nobody else could sell these concepts without any changes, get those ideas with almost no alterations out into the hands of the public. Nobody else was as passionate. As a boss he had no qualms about upsetting his clients or his employees. I remember his reaction to a logo I had worked on for weeks and was very proud of: “Stefan, this is TERRIBLE, just terrible, I am so disappointed”. His big heart was shining through nevertheless. He had the guts to risk everything, I witnessed a very large architecture project where he and M&Co had collaborated with a famous architect and had spent a years worth of work: He was willing to walk away on the question of who will present to the client.
Q. Did he continue to function as your mentor after you left M&Co?
A. Sure, kind of. Tibor had an uncanny knack for giving advice, for dispersing morsels of wisdom, packaged in rough language later known as Tiborisms: “The most difficult thing when running a design company is not to grow” he told me when I opened my own little studio. “Just don’t go and spend the money they pay you or you are going to be the whore of the ad agencies for the rest of your life” was his parting sentence when I moved to Hong Kong to open up a design studio for Leo Burnett. These insights were also the reason why M&Co. got so much press. Journalists could just call him and he would supply the entire structure for a story and some fantastic quotes to boot. He was always happy and ready to jump from one field to another: corporate design, products, city planning, music video, documentary movies, children books, magazine editing were all treated under the mantra “you should do everything twice, the first time you don’t know what you’re doing, the second time you do, the third time its boring”. He did good work containing good ideas for good people.
Q. Why did you pick happiness as a field to explore during your time off and in your movie?
A. 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 medium, as I had never done a film before. A book would have been much easier.
Q. After overcoming the Bauhaus paradigm, it sometimes seems that it more and more becomes the designer’s task to create bold happiness. Other designers such as Jonathan Adler (author of “My Prescription for Anti-Depressive Living“) have dealt with this subject. Can you relate to this thesis?
A. I dont think it is the designer’s task per se. But, when listening to architects, it is sometimes surprising how little the well-being of the people who will inhabit the spaces are part of the discussion.
Q. In your presentation, you mentioned drugs, therapy and meditation as the three ways to achieve happiness. They seem kind of outmoded. You don’t see many people quoting Sigmund Freud at business conferences, like you did. Rather, they talk about neuroscience and behavioral science. In the field of drugs, people tend to take performance-enhancing drugs instead of hallucinogenic drugs that transcend reality just like meditation is instrumentalized for performance-enhancing purposes. How did you experience the three aforementioned ways to happiness while practicing them during your sabbatical?
A. At the conference I had quoted Freud ironically. The therapy I underwent was not Freudian, but cognitive behavioral therapy. I did not take any hallucinogenic drugs, but SSRI’s, serotonin reuptake inhibitors: The brand name was Lexapro. It is my understanding that the percentage of people taking SSRI’s is higher (about 10%) than people who are taking performance enhancing drugs (about 3%).
Q. Thank you, Stefan. It has been a pleasure talking to you.
Photos © John Madere, Marco Scozarro, Sagmeister & Walsh, Mario de Armas
Till Huber is a writer and scholar from Hamburg. He teaches German Literature at Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg.