Interview with Stefan Sagmeister, by Emily Winifred Ford, May 2008

Stefan Sagmeister has pushed the boundaries of typography with his deeply personal and often hand-made graphic designs. From his office in New York, Sagmeister recently published a book made up of 15 booklets, collectively entitled Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far. Each booklet contains a maxim, delicately composed using media ranging from sugar to microscopic pollen, and stories about how the images were produced. To keep himself fresh, he periodically closes his practice to clients for a full year to dedicate himself to experimentation.


FORD: Your work is uniquely personal—you once scratched a lecture poster into your chest with a razor. Where does that desire come from?

SAGMEISTER: As a designer it's our job to communicate. I find that so much of communication falls into an old version of modernism: informed by machines, very exact, and ultimately cold. Although that kind of communication worked very well in the 20s and 30s when it was new—we've had it now 80 years, at least 40 of which it was the status quo—modernism now leaves a vast percentage of the audience pretty cold. So to bring in a personal point of view or even subjectivity seems to me like a pretty obvious strategy. I am not arguing that every piece of communication should be designed from a personal point of view, but even the type of communication that seems the least conducive to personal communication would work much better were it not done in the standard modernism mode.

For example, I collect emergency exit cards from airplanes—I have hundreds of them. With one single exception, Virgin, they are designed in the same style: some sort of modernist icons with arrows that show you how to find the exit. I am on planes a lot, yet I have never seen a passenger looking at these cards, despite the stewardesses always reminding passengers to do so. Virgin, as far as I know, is the only airline anywhere that designed these cards with a much more personal, more cartoonish, and subjective point of view. Whenever I fly Virgin, I see people looking at the emergency cards. The same is true of the instructional videos. People actually watch the emergency movie because it's done quite beautifully. They are done with some love and care not only with regard to the content but also to the form. I think that sort of strategy could be even truer when your content is more personable, such as for a charity or a cultural event.

FORD: Have the emergency cards ever come to influence your work?

SAGMEISTER: I hope not! That sort of generic piece of design has been used to death in the last century. I'll die happily if I don't have to see another take on the emergency card; that sort of visual vocabulary has pretty much been beaten to death by now.

FORD: Has a client ever asked you to design in the typical modern style? How did you change the situation?

SAGMEISTER: I think it has probably happened but I've forgotten. Because we never had a recognizable style I think we quite successfully avoided being pigeonholed by clients. I know that other designers complain that clients say, "Oh, I want another one of these," but we have very little of that. I think it helped that, for a long while, we were all over the place stylistically and formally. The profession that complains about this the most, perhaps, is illustrators. Once an illustrator has an established style clients want it over and over again even if the illustrator is completely sick of it. There are a couple of illustrators, my friend Christoph Niemann for example, who almost from the very beginning established three and then five or seven styles, and successfully avoided the whole problem. I think something similar happened with our studio.

FORD: Your approach to experimenting is different from most design houses, which take an hour at the end of the day for experimentation. To have a whole year is very different.

SAGMEISTER: I think ultimately its very similar. If you're a designer desiring experimentation, you will have to institutionalize it. If you don't, you won't experiment because jobs with deadlines will always take precedence. Whether it is an hour every day, or a week every month, or a year every seven years, I think ultimately that's just a matter of timing.

FORD: What are your plans for your upcoming experiment year?

SAGMEISTER: I have a long list, which I wrote down in the last year or two, which needs to be ordered by importance and assigned weekly hours. I found that if I don't make a plan, others will make it for me. In my previous client-free year, my initial intent of just seeing what comes didn't work at all because my time was filled up with students from Korea asking questions or a Japanese design magazine wanting files to be sent, etc.

Although I am ordinarily not a secretive person, I have taken on the very Viennese habit of not talking about things that I have yet to do. Otherwise I live through it and loose the desire to actually do it. So, before I don't do the content of the upcoming year, I'd rather not talk about it.

FORD: What was your favorite project during your previous experimental year?

SAGMEISTER: The most enjoyable was designing a CD cover every Thursday from 9am to 12pm. I would put any CD that was lying around into the player, start working immediately, and then be done with the whole thing, complete with soft-page booklet and CD label by 12 o'clock.

FORD: How did the time constraint in the CD cover inform the design?

SAGMEISTER: I think constraints are good in general. Limited freedom is a very difficult place to work in. Brian Eno, who now is a client, once said the electric guitar became the predominant instrument of the 20th century exactly because it is such a "stupid" instrument, because it can do fairly little. The synthesizer, in contrast, never quite took that dominant place because the things it can do are too vast. And I think that, within that same realm, as a designer, you can take on various constraints. One of the constraints I took on in that year was time constraints. Designing a CD cover within three hours utterly changed the nature of the outcome. I had to work with existing materials. You don't have the luxury, the possibility, or the difficulty to say, "Okay this would work really great if had this computer program or that material right now." You have to make it work with the stuff you have. Of course this significantly changes the outcome not only in form but also conceptually since there was little time to conceptualize the whole thing. So the CD covers took in, and were informed by, my own little anxieties and inabilities. Because the process is so immediate—ideas need to take shape right then—I find that the results are automatically more personal pieces as a result. I think in the experimental year specifically, because it was an artificial time constraint—the outcome didn't need to be printable—it was very exciting to work this way.

FORD: Did the CD covers get better as time went on?

SAGMEISTER: No, they just became different. I think they went up and down. Some of them were wonderful some of them weren't.

FORD: When do you use time constraints in your everyday work?

SAGMEISTER: When it comes to idea generation I find it particularly helpful to have little pockets of designated time when you say, "I'm going to think about this now for 15 minutes." And in those 15 minutes you're truly thinking about it rather than going to the loo or checking email or doing something else.

When I returned to my regular studio mode following the experimental year, I tried using constraints again for regular client work. For example, in designing the billboard "Trying To Look Good Limits My Life" for Paris I used this same technique. We said, "Okay, let's take five days. We'll have one day for every billboard. We'll start at sunrise and we will have to be done at sundown because we don't have any flash equipment." This significantly changed the outcome both in concept and in form.

FORD: Design can be called a process of compromising to constraints. Is there anything you have compromised in your design?

SAGMEISTER: Oh, yup, all the time. It happens to us too. It's part of the deal. Whenever you involve others there has to be some give and take. If you want it to be your way 24 hours a day, then you are going to have to make it yourself and publish it yourself. As soon as you need collaborators—in our case [we have collaborators] for ideas as well as for execution and distribution, media choices—even then there will be compromises. These compromises can be seen as limitations or compromising can be seen as one of the more important abilities for any designer. I have always had the biggest admiration for people who can do good pieces for a very large audience; for example Olafur Eliasson I respect highly. I understand the difficulties that are involved in doing something good that also has to engage a large audience at, say, the Tate Modern, where over a million people will see it. Matt Groening from the Simpsons is also one of my favorite examples, or Saarinen and the Arch of St. Louis—things that become part of mass culture but are by themselves very high quality pieces.

FORD: Have you tackled these larger audiences?

SAGMEISTER: Not properly. I've always been too chicken shit to take on that scale.

FORD: Was your new book, the collection of maxims Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far, seeded from your experimental year as well?

SAGMEISTER: In a very loose way. All of the work in the book was produced after the year, when we were in regular studio mode again. But the thinking behind it as well as the list of maxims that I had quickly jotted down came from the year.

About a month into the experimental year, I thought I wanted to do film. I was not naive—becoming fluent in video starting from scratch was going to be a 10 year process. As I started to plan out how I was going to make this do-able, it occurred to me that design is a language just as valued as film; that maybe I should figure out if I had anything to say in the design-y language before I put ten years of my life learning video only to discover I have nothing to say. Up until that point, most of the things—although not exclusively—that I have said in the language of design were for promotional avenues. I thought there might be room for something that is more personal.

When the year was over and we did regular client work again, I was excited to take on clients that gave us a lot of freedom. I thought, "Maybe now's the time to really try out [developing a maxim for the client]." I don't have anything against selling and creating promotional things; I don't think selling and promoting is inherently bad, not at all, but there was room for something more personal. Although none of it was produced in that year, [many maxims were created in the following years for clients in the form of billboards, magazine covers and the like] I think the entire series basically came out of thinking during the experimental year.

FORD: Is there something in addition to the literal meaning of the maxims that you were trying to communicate?

SAGMEISTER: In many of them we pursued a strategy for the form that did not necessary come out of the saying itself. I thought that otherwise I might create a very one-dimensional saying that people would have difficulty finding themselves in. Instead, I created forms for many of them that have meaning to me but are opaque to an outside viewer. For example "Everything I Do Always Comes Back to Me" is made of onion rings which is a reference to my mentor Tibor Kalman's onion ring collection. The regular viewer somewhere in Korea or France wouldn't know that of course. But, because the saying itself is so straight forward, without irony, the more opaque form opens up the possibility for interpretation for the viewer. I felt that that was going to happen and I found evidence that this in fact did happen with a number of pieces

FORD: Do you think you are trying to have a conversation or a broadcast with your audience?

SAGMEISTER: In general the project is probably both. If you publish a book it's difficult to have a good dialogue, even with the feedback that people take time to write to me. But we do have a web version of the whole thing.

FORD: How do the book and the web site relate to each other?

SAGMEISTER: Well, the physical book is all designed by us while the webpage is designed by the general public, so the authors of the two are different but the subject is the same

FORD: Why did you want to do the web component?

SAGMEISTER: I don't know, sounds pretty obvious, no? Of course the technology enables us to do this efficiently and affordably. After I would give a talk there were audience members who asked after the possibility of a web site. In fact, at least three people offered to design the web site for us. I didn't take them up on the offer—we've had less than fantastic experiences with others designing web sites for us. But we definitely said we'd design a system for the site where the public can upload its own maxims, complete with image. And the two fit wonderfully together.

FORD: Are you becoming more interested in interactive or metamorphosing pieces as opposed to static pieces?

SAGMEISTER: I think I'll stay somewhere in between. Because of my age, even if there is a web component, I still like having a physical part. So my guess would be that we're moving into some sort of hybrid. It doesn't mean that a screen needs to be involved necessarily [as in the decaying banana typography for the Deitch gallery.] But, of course, like everybody else we would like to take advantage of new technologies.

FORD: What did you learn from producing the book?

SAGMEISTER: One of the biggest surprises to me was that halfway through we started to get clients that absolutely wanted a maxim. They would never have come to us for a logo or a web site. It underlined something that I suspected, but didn't quite dare to believe. Basically the reason commercial clients insist on doing all this selling and promotion work is because this has become the only option in the industry. If you give them an alternative, show that there are other possibilities, there are a good number of clients that will want to go down that road, even if they wouldn't even imagine going that route initially.

FORD: Have you convinced other commercial clients to do something other than promoting and selling?

SAGMEISTER: It's basically the Things I've learned In My Life So Far. I don't think we went outside that because, essentially, the studio has only been running for six or seven years since the last experimental year. Basically when we had a chance to do anything outside of the promotional arena we did one of the sentences.

FORD: What other things have you done that are outside the scopeof selling and promoting?

SAGMEISTER: Roughly a quarter of our work is for social causes and NGOs. This is, in a way, selling or promoting a cause, or informing people—the line between information and promotion is sometimes fairly blurry. Of course we pick the NGOs or the causes that are close to our hearts.

FORD: What's new in your social work?

SAGMEISTER: We're just towards the end of a small project for a rain forest in Panama. It's a very small organization that wants to save a particular, manageable part of the rainforest there. We took it on because their project, program, and business model all seem do-able; the chances seemed good that, after a year or two of engagement, they would actually raise the money, buy the rainforest, and make an eco path. Two of our most time-consuming NGOs that we work for [True Majority and OneVoice] have extremely big goals. Now, considering who may become president in November, True Majority might actually attain its goal [of decreasing the Pentagon budget and increasing the budget for education]. But if the other candidate is elected then the chances are nill for another four years. The second charity, One Voice, which we have been working with for the last five years, is an Israeli/Palestine organization against a gigantic goal that I don't think we are going to reach in any time soon. So, we had a desire to mix it up, to have some large NGOs and then a smaller one.

FORD: What role would you like designers to have in shaping our future socially?

SAGMEISTER: I think that's a question every designer will need to answer. I definitely don't think I could, or should, be a role model—I can't say this is what the profession should or should not be doing. For my own studio, I find it more satisfying and efficient when we mix it up, do community work mixed in with other work. I think in general design is too powerful a language to be used only for selling and promoting.

FORD: How did you come to know that you liked working in a small team?

SAGMEISTER: After design school I worked for companies that were small, medium, large, and even extra large. I found even at the very large companies, the good pieces came out of tiny teams of three or four people. Tthe largeness in most cases actually hindered the quality rather than supported it. The reason some design companies grew in size had nothing to do with the quality that they could deliver or even the quality that they can communicate to the audience or client. Rather it had much more to do with financial interests.

FORD: Do you think design should always be done in a small team?

SAGMEISTER: Within the world of communication, yes, absolutely. If you have three entities in that equation, an audience, the client, and a studio, all three are better off if the studio is small. There are some things within the applied arts that you can't really do well in a small team. Car design for example. But even there, now small teams seem to do extraordinary things, as we've seen with Tesla, the electric sports car. It's mind-boggling that a couple of guys in California can create a more efficient engine than general motors can design. While certain things need a large team, communications is not one of them.

FORD: Future work?

SAGMEISTER: As I mentioned I don't really don't like to talk about things I haven't completed yet, but let me just check what is on the burner that I am looking forward to seeing done. We're doing another sentence for Amsterdam involving lots of money that is lying around on the ground. It's a bit of an urban experiment to see if people will take the money even when it is beautifully arranged on the ground.

Another project that I am very much looking forward to is a design visualization guide for scientists. In many areas of science the scientists or their graduate students visualize very complex situations—the most complex things that one could possibly try to visualize—without any kind of education or training in that direction. So we've worked on a little guide, almost like a Design 101 handbook, but geared specifically for scientists.

FORD: Favorite tool with which to design?

SAGMEISTER: Oh my god! That is a difficult question … I have to think about it. The first things that comes to mind would be a pencil but that doesn't seem like a very interesting answer.

FORD: And your favorite time of day?

SAGMEISTER: The early morning.

Information furnished by Ambidextrous Magazine, Inc. is believed to be accurate and reliable. However, no responsiblity is assumed by Ambidextrous Magazine for its use; nor for any infringements of patents or other rights of third parties which may result from its use. No license is granted by implication or otherwise under any patent or patent rights of Ambidextrous Magazine, Inc.