Stefan Sagmeister’s Newest Creation, The Happy Film

Is design only visual? Is it only about what you see? What if you could (re)design your life, treating it as a design project, so to speak? This is the question asked by renowned graphic designer Stephan Sagmeister, whose work we profiled in a previous article. This quest led him on a seven-year search that he documented in a unique documentary entitled The Happy Film.

Austrian designer Stefan Sagmeister was doing well: living in New York, the city of his dreams, with wonderful friends and an extremely successful design career that included designing album covers for the Rolling Stones, Jay-Z and the Talking Heads. But in the back of his mind he suspects there must be more than this.

He decided to turn himself into a design project. Can he redesign his personality to become a better person? Is it possible to train his mind to get happier? He pursued three controlled trials of meditation, therapy, and drugs, grading himself along the way. But real life creeps in and confounds the process: art, sex, death and love prove impossible to disentangle. His unique experiences mark a journey that travels closer to his true self than ever intended. And as he said in the film, “trying to chase after something more meaningful turned out to be a big pain”.

How it all began

Sagmeister has developed a professional reputation for taking time off. Every seven years, he formally closes his studio for a 12-month sabbatical, dedicating that client-free time to the pursuit of projects that fall outside of the operations of a service business. In 2009, Sagmeister took his sabbatical on the island of Bali, amidst the local artisans and international bliss seekers in the mountain town of Ubud. Immersing himself in furniture design, Sagmeister produced works inspired by his surroundings, his attitude, and the local Balinese traditions.

During his sabbatical, the visit of a close friend called his work into question. “So you’ve made a lot of beautiful chairs, Stefan,” said the friend. “You’ll return home from this amazing experience with some beautiful chairs.”

“So what?” thought Sagmeister. It was a difficult question.

With his friend’s critiques in mind and the pressure of opportunity associated with a sabbatical, Sagmeister decided to focus on a question that would have a major impact on his life. What could he do to make himself happier? He turned to articles, books, and conferences to immerse himself in the happiness debate, and there encountered the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Here he found a kindred spirit, a researcher that tested theories on himself to discover what actually worked. He also pondered the look of the film. As any self-respecting graphic designer would do, Sagmeister created the film’s introductory titles, coaxing local wildlife to contribute to the project.



Hooked up to an EEG

He even tried a bunny suit!

When the sabbatical year ended and Sagmeister returned to New York City to reopen his studio, he convened with friends and filmmakers Hillman Curtis and Ben Nabors. A mutual curiosity in the questions surrounding happiness brought the gentlemen together, and thus, The Happy Film began.

Of course, things weren’t that simple. The planned 18-month project ballooned into a 7-year odyssey, attracting every possible catastrophe imaginable. “It wasn’t easy to live through, but we think it makes for an interesting movie. And here we are today…”

We asked Stefan a few questions about this project and its outcome.

Did you do any graphic design during this project?

Oh yes! The film was conceived on the sabbatical in 2009, but was shot and edited during the past seven years, while the studio was running at full speed. Luckily, my partner Jessica Walsh took a lot of weight of my shoulders.

Do you look at type and design, specifically your own work, differently after this personal exploration?

I feel the film might be the most through exploration of tight combinations of type, image and content together that we’ve been involved in. But it certainly builds on work we’ve tried out before.

So, do you now think (re)designing your life, or anyone’s life, is possible? Are you a happier person now compared to before this journey?

Originally, I wanted to find an answer to the question if it is possible to train my own mind in the same way it is possible to train my body. Can I – through various techniques that will include acts of meditation, cognitive therapy and drugs – increase my overall level of happiness? It turned out that these main strategies are of only limited effectiveness, and that it really is more about creating an environment that touches on my relationships, work and something that’s bigger than myself where happiness can develop out from in between. Working on the film allowed me to think about the bigger picture more thoroughly and frequently.

Tell us three important things you have learned from this project.

  1. Write down three things that worked every day before going to sleep.
  2. When opening the inbox in the morning, single out one mail for a special thank you/praise.
  3. Exercise.

* * * * *

After seven years of work and a successful tour featuring sold-out screenings all through North America, the UK and select cities, The Happy Film by Stefan Sagmeister and Ben Nabors is finally available. Check out the trailer, and purchase it on iTunes.

Posted on: July 5, 2017

Ilene Strizver

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community.

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