Stefan Sagmeister is one of the most imaginative and original creative thinkers around today. Mention his name to any graphic designer and chances are you will get enthusiastic words of admiration and respect… and with good reason! This award-winning designer has created some of the boldest, most innovative, engaging work around, especially his type and handwriting-inspired solutions. Sagmeister makes type come alive – almost literally sometimes. He takes type and fashions solutions that are visually dynamic expressions, above and beyond the actual meaning of the words. He will on occasion use a human canvas – whether himself or others – with striking results.
Stefan Sagmeister was born in Austria and lives and works in New York. His studio, Sagmeister & Walsh, is a NYC based design firm that creates identities, commercials, websites, apps, films, books and objects for clients, audiences and themselves. He is known for his work in the music industry, and has worked for the Rolling Stones, The Talking Heads, Lou Reed, Jay Z, Aerosmith, and Pat Metheny, but his client list is more diverse than that, and includes The Guggenheim Museum, HBO, and Levis. Sagmeister has done four TED talks, has written several books, and is a dedicated educator whose work has been exhibited world-wide.
In spite of his success, Sagmeister is a very down-to-earth, approachable guy, and was happy to answer some questions about his work and design philosophy.
How did you get interested in the kinds of lettering and handwriting solutions you are known for?
I started in design when Letraset (transfer lettering) was still around. Since we could not afford to buy new sheets, we worked with discarded sheets from design studios. As there were always letters missing from these sheets, I ﬁgured out it was easier to draw the whole headline by hand than to copy a couple of missing letters.
How do you decide when to use a typeface and when to use handwriting?
Of course we go with handwriting when the content is personal, emotional, and deeply human, but we might also go against that and express personal content in deliberately cold typography. And vice versa.
Do you have a design philosophy?
Try to touch the heart of the viewer.
What is your typical process. that is, how do you develop an idea? How important is collaboration in your process?
The process I’ve been using most often has been described by Maltese philosopher Edward DeBono, who suggests starting to think about an idea for a particular project by taking a random object as point of departure. Say, I have to design a pen, and instead of looking at all other pens and thinking about how pens are used and who my target audience is etc., I start thinking about pens using…(this is me now looking around the hotel room for a random object)…bed spreads. Ok, hotel bedspreads are…sticky…contain many bacteria…, ahh, would be possible to design a pen that is thermo sensitive, so it changes colors where I touch it, yes, that could actually be nice: an all black pen that becomes yellow on the touching points of ﬁngers/hands. Not so bad, considering it took me all of 30 seconds. Of course, the reason this works is because DeBono’s method forces the brain to start out at new and different point, preventing it from falling into a familiar grove it has formed before.
What project has been the most fun?
The most fun, possibly the series, “Things I’ve learned in my life so far.” My grandfather was educated in sign painting and I grew up with many of his pieces of wisdom around the house – traditional calligraphy carefully applied in gold leaf on painstakingly carved wooden panels.
I followed his tradition with these typographic works. All of them are part of a list I found in my diary under the title “Things I have learned in my life so far.”
What would be your dream (design) job, real or imagined?
My standard answer used to be Coca Cola, as it is such a visible brand having such an incredible impact on the visual culture of the planet and it used to look so terrible. But now that they got their act together (without our help) and doing quite good work, I have to come up with a new answer: Pepsi.
You studied at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and Pratt Institute. How important do you think academic design education is for aspiring designers?
I myself loved design school a lot, extended it for as long as I possibly could (I also have a masters in communications) and probably would still be in art school if I could have found a way to make it happen. Having said that, many of my favorite designers (Tibor Kalman, James Victore) have never been to art school at all.
Right now I think there is too much emphasis on concept and too little emphasis on form in design education. The current generation of design school faculty all learned about design in the 80s and 90s when ideas and concepts were king, and formal considerations were dismissed – including by me – as decoration. I now think that was wrong. Beauty is very much part of what it means to be human. Good-looking things communicate more effectively.
Any other advice for budding designers?
If you are fresh out of school, look for a design company that does the kind of work you want to do. Try really hard to get a job with them. Work your ass off. Then start your own place. It’s a great job.
Any good stories?
A story I have told before: When I ﬁrst met Mick Jagger (while we designed Bridges to Babylon) I asked him about his favorite Stones covers and he mentioned without hesitation: Exile on Main Street, Sticky Fingers, and Some Girls. I said “We should have an easy time working together since I would have told you exactly the same covers only in a different order: Sticky Fingers, Some Girls and Exile on Main Street”. Charlie Watts turned to Jagger and asked in lowered voice: “What’s on Sticky Fingers?” to which Mick replies: “Oh, you know Charlie, the one with the zipper, the one that Andy did.”