Thinking in the Long Term
What or who prompted you to start thinking in the long term?
Some time ago I spent a weekend with Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker who wrote lucidly about the complete change of perspective when we look at the world from the long term point of view. I’m also friendly with inventor and scientist Danny Hillis, who created a clock that will still work in 10,000 years. A prototype of that clock is currently on display in the Science Museum in London while the full scale - several stories high -mechanical clock is being installed in a hollowed out mountain in Western Texas. To appreciate the difficulty of a 10,000 year clock as an engineering problem, consider the pyramids. They are only 4,500 years old and they failed in their function to protect the tomb of the pharaoh.
Why is this important?
Short term media like Twitter and hourly news create an impression of a world out of control, with democracy in peril, ubiquitous conflicts and an overall outlook of doom. But if we look at developments concerning the world from a long term perspective - the only sense making way - almost any aspect concerning humanity seems to get better. Fewer people go hungry, fewer people die in wars and natural disasters, more people live in democracies - and live much longer lives - than ever before. 200 years ago 9 out of 10 people could neither read nor write, now it is just 1 out of 10.
Many people are suffering right now. Why would you have such a positive outlook?
Even if you look at pandemics from a point of view of 100 years, you will see that the Spanish Flu killed 45 million people, Aids/HIV about 30 million people. This of course does not mitigate the unbelievable one and half million humans (and counting) that lost their lives during Covid 19, but it does put the often quoted view that we live in ‘unprecedented times’ into perspective.
What kind of work are you trying to design around that?
I am working on creating intriguing visualizations of these developments with the goal that viewers might want to place them into their living rooms, as reminders that the latest tweets are just tiny blips in an overall rather healthy environment. This can include products surrounding us like coffee cups or watches, or images to hang on a wall.
Does thinking that everything got better not make us complacent?
For myself I noticed that when I’m in good shape, I am of much more use to the world than when I feel everything is terrible. I feel we can improve things more effectively building on successes from the past.
My Instagram Feed
Why did you initially offer your services to give feedback on people's design projects?
I had gone to a salon of the late artist Louise Bourgeois, who allowed every Sunday evening up to 12 people to come to her living room. Everybody needed to bring work, which she then critiqued. She was ruthless! And of course incredibly generous too, it is quite a gift to be giving up an evening every week in order to do this. In the studio we had received a constant stream of requests from people who asked to come in and look at their portfolios, I simply copied her idea and conducted a salon, where up to 12 designers came into our studio on Monday evenings. This worked well for many years, until my travel schedule made it impossible.
Do you critique everything that gets sent in? What is your typical selection process?
I critiques about 1 out of every 10 pieces sent in. I select them either if they delight me, or if they have some merit and I suspect I could nudge the designer into pushing it just a bit harder to be truly good. Very rarely do I also review pieces that I don't thing are good, if they allow me to make a larger point.
What do you think is the impact of reducing design criticism to just a few sentences?
I would frame this differently: My instagram account can neither compete nor replace design criticism. I am not reducing something large to something small, I am creating something small where there was nothing before. Something small is better than nothing.
How do you feel when your own work is criticized? What do you feel if you get a particularly scathing review of a project?
I hope I write my reviews in the way I like to be critiqued myself: With the best outcome for the piece in mind. If my work is reviewed in a snarky or scathing manner, I am hurt, and sadly learn nothing: A double negative.
Do you ever feel awkward when the feedback you give is negative?
Yes. I try to not take on a piece if all I’d have to say is negative, unless the piece is bad in a common, often seen way and I can make an overall point.
Art and Design and their differences
As the lines between art and design are blurring further, is there still a difference?
An art studio is different from a design studio. Art works through galleries, design works through clients. Art magazines almost never feature designers, design blogs almost never feature artists. If I ask my artist friends about designers, they might be able to name Milton Glaser, that's about it. And I might not fare that much better among designers asking about artists: Picasso and Warhol, Koons and Hirst, yes, beyond that, not so much.
Some say art should remain impractical because art should exist for the sake of it.
A. Yes, as Donald Judd famously said: Design has to work, art does not. He separates the two neatly by function. At the very core, all design, in order for it to qualify as design, has to function. If it does not function, it is not design. If I design a chair, one of my goals will be that it is comfortable to sit on. I can design a chair and push the design so hard, until I cant sit on it anymore. But then the chair ceases to be a chair and becomes a sculpture. Art on the other hand, can just be. It does not need to do anything. And the wonderful romantic Theophile Gautier even postulated: "Something can only be truly beautiful when it has no function whatsoever. Everything that's truly useful is ugly. The most useful room is the house is the toilet".
Is it possible to define art?
A. I went to Guggenheim in Bilbao and to see the Richard Serra sculptures and towards the end of that incredible installation they showed an interview with Richard Serra, and in the middle of talking about the giant ellipses and the bending of steel in German shipyards the interviewer asks him, apropos of nothing: Tell me, Richard, what is art good for? What is the purpose of art? And I thought, oh my god, how does he answer that, what a crazy difficult question and Richard said very matter of fact: “The purpose of art is to have no purpose.” He also went on to say that a good artist creates a distinct, personal world, and that we, as an audience, are allowed to look into this world, compare it with our own and expand our view. But as far as function is concerned, it has none.
Are there people who truly work at the border between art and design?
In the Renaissance, art had to work hard for its reason for being. Function used to be part of the very heart of art, so all art was also close to being design: Sandro Boticelli had to fit his Venus exactly into a given panel in the living room of the Villa of Castello for the Medicis. The orange trees were a symbol for the Medici’s, so he basically placed the clients giant logo right into the picture. At the time Bernini was designing the plaza in front of St. Peters cathedral, he was running a giant studio employing dozens of sculptors, so of course he designed a colonnade buzzing with sculptures. In many ways his operation was closer to that of a modern advertising agency than a single artist toiling away with no purpose. More recently, the performance artist Scott Burton became fed up with the art world. He thought it had become a cult, busy with creating a private language that is legible only for a selected few. He wanted to bring social meaning and public relevance back into art and started designing “pragmatic structures”, sculptures you could also sit on. He felt his work was distinguishable from that made by designers, as his chairs did not have to follow the laws of common sense or practicality. Designed objects tend to be more democratic because they can be endlessly reproduced and sold much cheaper.
Why did you choose to stray away from commercial projects?
I am still convinced that working on commercial projects is important, after all, they influence the way the world looks (and what children see when they grow up) more than most other areas of art and design. I also think that it is important for people who deeply care about the quality of their work to be part of this field. I myself have created many, many of these projects, and am more excited by things I have not tried out yet. My old mentor Tibor Kalman used to say one should only do every project twice: The first time you dont know what you’re doing, the second time you do, the third time would be boring. I plan to dedicate myself to the creation of low functioning design. In some way this is a continuation of the low functionality work we did with the album covers, the very low functionality work we did with the series 'Things I’ve Learned in my Life so far' with the goal to lower functionality even more.
Why Beauty Matters
What aroused your interest in beauty?
When I was a young designer I believed that it's all about the idea and that form and style are secondary. I meet many young designers stating the same. After having been doing this for 30 years, I came to believe strongly this is wrong. Formal attributes including beauty are absolutely central when it comes to producing anything that should function well. About 10 years ago I went to a design conference at the Memphis Convention Center, and at the time I was still smoking and so I spent a lot of time outside by myself smoking. I remember looking around and I could see literally nothing where I felt beauty had played any sort of role in the decision why it was there. It was completely, utterly utilitarian. Not utilitarian in a form follows function sort of way. Rather, it was like, “How can we make this the cheapest, the fastest?” And the reason it had such an impact was because I had literally just come from a conference in Lisbon that was in the castle overlooking the city. It is a medieval castle so it was a military building—a defensive building—but every single doorknob on that castle was covered in patterns and was designed for beauty. This struck me as so strange: What happened to us? Why would we do this as a species?
You said that the worst of urban architecture focuses almost entirely on function. Why is this a problem?
I believe at fault is a general lack of regard for beauty. Most design centric professions, be it architecture, product or digital design don’t take beauty very seriously, with many practitioners seeing it as superfluous, while concentrating on function. I very strongly believe that the sole pursuit of functionality often leads to work that does not function at all, the public housing projects of the 50ies and 60ies being a prime example: The goal was to house as many people as effectively as possibly resulting in projects that were not fit for human habitation, - they needed to be torn down again 20 years later.
Can beauty alter our mood?
If you have ever visited both large train stations in Manhattan, you will have sensed the difference in mood right away. Grand Central, a grand 1903 built space feels somewhat uplifting and lovely at any time of the day. Penn Station, a dismal low-ceilinged 1970ies space, feels claustrophobic and depressing. We compared tweets coming out of either space, the ones from Grand Central tend to be positive, the ones from Penn Station negative. We are convinced that the terrible mood we find in numerous airports are also triggered by the terrible architecture.
Does beauty play a role in preservation and sustainability?
Beauty is a fantastic strategy when it comes to sustainability. Just look at the Pantheon in Rome, 2000 years old and it is still there, in use, because it is so incredibly gorgeous that no generation had the heart to tear it down. The same is true for a beautiful leather bag I have received as a gift 25 years ago. I'd rather have it repaired than purchase a new one.
If you could chose anyone to collaborate on The Beauty Project, who would it be?
Architects Herzog and DeMeuron, artist James Turrell, digital artist Nobumichi Asai, architect Philip Beesley.
Do you have a set of rules for success in audience participatory projects?
No. We do try to have a feedback mechanism included. At the Happy Show this turned out to be a card dispenser giving each visitor a card with an instruction on how to behave next. Every 50th card included the message: Text a joke to this number and included my cell number. I got a lot of jokes, I usually texted 'hahahahahah' back and then usually received the question whose number this might be? Subsequently this allowed for a feedback on the show.
Have we been more liberated by the changes in technology?
As human beings in general, I'd say yes. I do believe we live in the most interesting period of history.
If graphic design works as a visual language, can trends enrich the design?
Yes, of course. So much of what we design is ephemeral and has to be of its time. If I see a magazine from the 60-ies now, I find it enriched by the style of its day. The same is obviously true for current work.
How and why did you start to make furniture?
While I was in Indonesia our studio was renovated in NYC and this studio needed furniture. The furniture I loved I could not afford (I had looked at a beautiful Campagna brothers lounge chair, it went for $ 125k), and the stuff I could afford I did not love. So we designed it ourselves in Bali, decided on a reasonable budget per piece and had them made. Other people liked them so we had some more made.
How would you describe yourself as a designer?
I am interested in creating an emotional connection to an audience. I have always been jealous of our music clients, who can often achieve this much deeper, quicker and more immediately.
Much of your work at Sagmeister & Walsh advocates bringing emotion and a sort of human-centeredness back into design, rather than adopting a purely functional approach. Why is this so important to you?
I found that the biggest trouble with work that gears towards a purely functional approach is that it does not function very well. One example: The emergency exit cards that most airlines still use. The design approach is purely functional, deploying basic iconography first developed in Austria and Germany about 100 years ago. The problem is that through overuse this got so staid and boring, that most people ignore them. The function of these cards is to inform people on how to behave in an emergency, and they do a terrible job achieving this.
What was the "aha" moment, when you realized design practice had more to offer than serving clients.
It happened during the first sabbatical, when after deciding against learning how to direct film out fear I might devote a lot of time learning this new language and wind up have nothing to say, it occurred to me I should try to stick with the language I do know how to talk, design, and see if I'd have something to say in it.
Could you explain the purpose of the project "Trying to look good limits my life"?
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 am following 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." We displayed them in many cities around the world in places normally reserved for straightforward advertising. All of them were commissioned by clients. For example, broken up into 5 parts "Trying/to look/good/limits/my life" and displayed in sequence as typographic billboards, - worked like a sentimental greeting card left in Paris.
You work in projects in various corners of the world. How does this geographical and cultural variety effect your design processes? Do you take regional taste into consideration or do you go on with what you think is best within your own perspective?
When we work in regions we are not familiar in, we always work with people who are – often clients, sometimes designers - so that clear cultural missteps can be avoided. Having said that, we have found that people all around the world have surprisingly similar ideas of what is good and what is not.
What is the role of a designer/art director? What is he she responsible for aside from making things “pretty”?
I find beauty (or what you describe as "making things pretty") totally and utterly underrated within design and contemporary art. If I can contribute to making something that is beautiful today, than today was a very good day.
You work as a designer – then you turn into an artist – and then again turn into a designer. On a personal level, how does this shift happens?
Its all and both and everything. In my personal life, I am involved in cultural activities, I go to museums and concerts and lectures, and I am involved in commercial activities, I go to the supermarket and have my carpet cleaned. I see absolutely no reason why I should not pursue both directions in my work life as well.
With ‘True Majority’ you did some socially responsible design. Why did you take this work?
"True majority" is an initiative by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame. He assembled a group of 500 business leaders, CEO's and military advisers with the goal to cut 15% of the Pentagon budget and move it over to education and health care. I felt a group of business leaders will have credibility with the public in budget matters, furthermore they do have marketing experience, which meant the possibilities of success (reaching the goal) were good. I come from Austria where the military budget amounts to 1% of the federal budget, living in the US where at the moment it is over 50% made me try to do something about it. And no, its not highly paid.
How do you define "good design"? How can we tell a good design, what are the criteria? How does it change over the years?
Good design is design that either helps people or delights people.
After these experiences you have done, you are not "only" a designer. You are also a person who suggests new ways of lives to people. Maybe a philosopher. Do you feel this way? How do you think you got here?
I see it all as design. I have always felt that the idea that the designer should keep himself outside of the designs he develops an odd one, design not only should be about life, it has to be in order to be considered design. I would be VERY reluctant to call myself a philosopher as it presumes expertise/education/degrees in philosophy, which I do not have. I am a person who is alive and is a designer.
How do you deal with boredom and tedium? Do you mind doing things all over again?
This is in fact one of the biggest challenges of being a designer, maybe one of the biggest challenges of being human. How does one keep interested in the thing one does if one does the thing over and over again? The strategies we have pursued in the studio range from the experimental, client-free year every seven years to looking for new areas of design to be engaged in. Our range started out pretty narrow in 1993, - music graphics – and now widened to include anything from furniture to documentary films.
You’ve talked before about not having style, but also appreciating the need for style. Can you elaborate about that here?
Somebody smarter than me described style/form as the outside of a concept, and the concept the inside of style/form. We used to have a sign in the studio saying style=fart, but I am not so sure about this notion anymore. I found that attention to style can make the delivery of good content easier, so why not pay attention to it. I also found that by changing our own style on every project we stayed much on the surface stylistically and were in danger of ripping off styles developed by other people.
You appear to pay a lot of respect to craftmanship. At the same time, it seems as if you think very little of design solutions that are not original and unique. Does every assignment require an original solution?
Craft by itself does not require newness in itself, it is happily allowed to reuse existing traditions and techniques. In the world of communication, newness or originality helps to communicate a content more efficiently, as it can create the surprise needed to either draw attention to the message, make it memorable, or both. Craft as applied to communication can either be traditional and support a new communication idea, or the craft in itself can be new (say, the writing of digital code in order to program the creation of typography containing forms not quite seen in this way before is a craft) to support a traditional communication idea. A combination of new communication and new craft could be particularly successful.
Do you believe time pressure can affect the design outcome to be more style based, since great concepts can demand well-planned and though-out strategies?
Yes. Specifically if the designer in question has a couple of standard tricks up her sleeve, the likelihood that those tricks come out to play under pressure is large.
Some of your work forming text from pieces of intestine, a man vomiting, letters carved on your body is described as unsettling, even dark. How important to you is the visceral response, and how far would you go?
Considering as designers we have the attention of a viewer often only for a couple of seconds, any response that can be elicited in such a short time, (shock on one and humor on the other end of the spectrum) is welcome, as long as it makes sense within the context of the project.
How has the computer affected the way you work, what is your attitude towards technology-aided work?
The computer has affected every aspect of our work, many of our pieces (including the rough and hand made looking ones) would not be possible without the computer.
Are the skills of a designer something that can be taught? Or are there aptitudes that are more nature than nurture?
I always used to be vehemently on the nurture side of this debate and regarded talent in itself as a myth. I have read a lot of psychology during the last year and found some convincing arguments that the average level of wellbeing of a person – how happy someone is – is determined up to 50% by the genetic makeup (they know this from Twin research). If this is true, then I could also see the ability to determine a trend of a lower x-height among Dutch typographers as a naturally born talent.
Was science something you were always interested in?
No, not at all, in fact I had little interest in science when I was in school, received average grades and took science education for the most part as a necessary evil. I only developed an interest after going to TED and hearing from all these amazing people talking about all these amazing developments...
Do you think better knowledge of software has become something essential in graphic design today?
Yes. I think throughout design history, a deep understanding of the craft (as well as of all of its production techniques) was necessary for anybody who wanted to do good work. Some people, like my hero Tibor Kalman, who knew none of this, got around this fact by hiring great people who did know. As the current craft is a digital one a deep knowledge will be necessary.
A lot of people relate your work to you being naked and showing your private parts, which is all well, good and enjoyable. Yet, I think your work is “naked” in a more serious and vulnerable way. You put yourself and your emotions for all to see. Why has this become such an integral part of your work?
The nakedness started with the opening of the studio almost 20 years ago, when I sent out a card which showed longer and shorter versions of my parts. At that time this took a little bit of guts of me (my then girlfriend recommended heavily against it, she thought I am going to lose the one client I had). The client not only stayed, but loved it too. Any follow up nakedness was simply a case of repeating a technique that proved to work before. Also, coming form Austria (in Vienna the main student beach is all nude) nakedness simply was never a big deal, but proved to raise a hair in the US. The late Quentin Crisp, British queen extraordinaire and subject of Stings song "I'm an Englishman in New York" came to visit our students at the graduate department of the School of Visual Arts in New York. Among the very many quotable things he mentioned was that he used to say to journalists: "Everybody is interesting." They came back and said: "Mr. Crisp, this is just simply not true, there are lots of utterly boring people out there". So he had to revive it: "Everybody who is honest is interesting." This has impressed me much and informed many of our projects.
You pose nude for the sake of observing the shock value that it creates in the United States. Do you ever think there will come a day when nudity will not be shocking to the American public?
I would very much hope so. I would hope there comes a day when nudity has no shock whatsoever and the image of a weapon has a lot of shock value. This would make much, much more sense, considering that killing somebody is forbidden. So the imagery, or depiction, of killing somebody should be shunned too. Having sex or seeing somebody nude is not forbidden, and so the depiction should not be forbidden either.
Do you think it is possible to touch someone with design and have there been any times where someone has told you so?
Yes, I do think it's possible, and I do think it's very hard. The only instance where I knew I touched someone's heart for sure was when my friend Reini came to New York from Vienna and was afraid that none of the sophisticated NY women would talk to him and he'd wind up very lonely. We printed a poster with his photo and the headline: "Dear girls, please be nice to Reini" and plastered it all over the Lower East Side. He was touched. And got a girlfriend.
How are we, as designers, going to defeat the fluff? How can we overcome frivolous design?
Some of it is fine and probably necessary in the same way listening to cheap pop music every so often can be fun. Just constantly it’s annoying.
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What do you mean by a human approach in design – and why this approach is so important?
If you ever called a company and got a machine to take your call, for english press 1, etc., you instantly recognize the inherent utter stupidity of the modernist approach to communication: The Bauhaus wanted to celebrate machines in communication because they were sick of the historicisms of the 19th century and wanted to create something new for new times. In 2015, if you communicate pretending to be a machine (ie. use lots of white space, set everything in 8 point Helvetica next to a bleeding stock photo) you are not just stupid but also a bore. You might pretend to be an answering machine when picking up the phone.
In case of Rolling Stones and many others (the most delicate is Rem Kolhaas's Casa de Musica) you often have to create identity for things that already have identity. How to do balance your input and the existing history?
In both cases we added to already rather complex histories of identity. This add-on can be concentrated on a particular time span - in the case of the Rolling Stones primarily during their Bridges to Babylon tour, or almost in perpetuity like in the Casa de Musica case. If you compare these two projects, you will find they are completely different in basically every aspect, in concept, form, style and execution. The Rolling Stones do not play Casa de Musica.
Describe one experience creating a flexible identity for a client.
I have long thought that sameness in branding is overrated. There are situations where a static logo makes sense, specially when used as a quality mark, but there are many other instances where a more varied approach turns out to be superior. Flexible identities need: • A client that utilizes many, many brand applications and an attentive audience that will be able to see a wide variety of these applications on a regular basis. • Thinking designers also at the level of implementation. Its important good people are involved on all levels.
Can you tell me more about what your views are on the importance of branding?
Most international branding agencies overrate their power and influence by a magnitude. As much as they would like to insist otherwise, in everyday life their work has a small impact on the actual service or product their clients provide or manufacture. But by far the biggest impact on the perception of a brand is the quality of that service or product. There are a couple of exceptions, fields where the consumer cant tell the difference between products (say, vodka or water), but in general the consumer is smarter then they paint her.
Can you explain the new EDP identity in three adjectives?
No problem: Flexible, open, innovative. Its system is clearly flexible, it can transform into all different forms and shapes while still speaking clearly in a single language. It is open and transparent, not just in its formal layering of lucent layers, but also conceptually in its open ended possibilities and conversion into a complete design language. It is innovative in its avoidance of rubber stamping all of its materials. It reflects EDP's values of always customizing its solutions.
Can you share some surprising places you look for inspiration?
Taking train trips. The forward motion together with a view out the window and enough space for a sketchbook; this works very well for me.
How do you go about inspiration/having ideas?
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 points of departure, preventing it from falling into a familiar grove it has formed before.
What inspires you at the moments of creation?
One of my most frequent sources of inspiration is a newly occupied hotel room. I find it easy to work in a place far away from the studio, where thoughts about the implementation of an idea don't come to mind immediately but I can dream a bit more freely.
What do you feel is the biggest block to your creativity?
Boredom, uninteresting content and fear of not being able to come up with anything.
How do you fight boredom in your work and is it really the greatest designer's challenge as you once said – not to get bored?
Milton Glaser once told me that his proudest achievement in over 50 years of being a designer is that he is still interested and feels engaged. I myself find that sabbaticals to be the best cure.
What is inspiring you at the moment? (artist, music, social issue, people, etc)
I find the obsessions of Korean artist Do Ho Su interesting, listen to a lot of Mark Lanegan, got engaged into a campaign to lower of the Pentagon budget and as a person Mark Coska, the inventor of the single use syringe, a device that disables itself and prevents reuse is a real inspiration
Can experimental projects be considered a good way for the professional who intends to have a good portfolio? How do you work with experimental projects?
Yes. Many designers I respect create (non client driven) experiments as a regular part of their practice. The key word here is 'regular'. I found that experiments which are not part of a regular schedule, have a tendency to get pushed out by more 'urgent' jobs simply on account of having a deadline attached to them.
Do bouts of manic creativity ever disrupt your life?
I'd wish. My life is longing desperately for those kind of disruptions, long term plans hoping to go awry, - to no avail. Waves of creativity refuse to land on my shore.
Step-by-step, please describe any method of coming up with ideas you find useful. Stefan: Here is the method from James Webb Young:
Sometimes you use real events for inspiration, how else do you find ways to inspire yourself to great concept?
Go for a walk. Sit in a sidewalk cafe watching people go by. Do serious research. Travel (or just get out of the city).
Why is it important to make design that encourages others to participate?
When communicating anything, participation of the people we talk to is clearly a good strategy. If we can involve them, they will remember what we have to say.
Is failure going to be seen to be more acceptable for example?
Failure is overrated. The same people who talked about 'thinking outside of the box' a decade ago are now discovering 'the importance of failure'.
If we are able to face lows a bit more, face reality a bit more, might this tie in with other shifts in how we live?
I could never talk for other people, just for myself. If I'm able to overcome my fear a bit more, my life is going to be a bit richer.
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Advice for students
Is it possible to have both, making money and doing good work?
I remember a sentence in a Minale Tattersfield book that said: "In my experience, every designer whose prime aim in going into business was to make money while at the same time producing good design, failed on both counts. I believe that designing is something you have to do for love. If you are committed first and foremost to producing good design then you'll make money as a by-product because good design is something people are willing to pay for. But that financial reward will be a bonus, a gift." I agree.
Who inspired you when you were developing your practices as a student, and who inspires you today?
As an art student I was completely taken by a book about Storm Thorgerson and the work he did for Hignosis, the British design company that created all the album covers for Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and many others. They developed the most unusual ideas and employed impeccable craft to execute flawlessly. Right now I'm very much looking forward to the James Turrell show opening at the Guggenheim here in NYC, his exhibit at the MAK in Vienna was one of the most influential shows I had ever seen. Today I was inspired by an Ann Hamilton interview, where she was asked about creativity, and she mentioned that this is not a term she wants to talk about, that flexibility is something that is much more interesting.
"What would you do if you were a senior graphic design student at college or university?
I would work very hard. I would try out as much as I can. I would try to get one freelance job at the time, maybe with a client I know, can be an uncle, a friend, anybody who needs a piece of design and do it to the very best of my abilities. Not to make money, but to do one actual job truly well.
What advice would you give to designers who are looking for more happiness in their daily lives?
1. When opening the inbox in the morning, single out one mail for a special thank you/praise. 2. Exercise. 3. Have low expectations and display incredible surprise and joy at the anomaly of something - against expectations - going right.
When you hire someone at Sagmeister & Walsh, how much does a person’s happiness affect the outcome?
About half the decision is portfolio related, the other half how much we like the person. Do we want to spend serious amounts of time with each other? We tend to gravitate towards up, positive people. I myself do my best work when I’m in good shape, when I’m depressed or sad I don't get anything done at all.
You said before: «For a student to have their own specific style is a crime, for a young designer a stupidity, for an established designer a possibility. For a dead designer a necessity». How would you describe your style – as an established designer?
It sounds so very full of myself, nevertheless, I would describe it as 'human centered'. It is designed in order that it becomes clear to the viewer, that it was made by a human being and not by a machine.
You seem to have a lot of strong feelings about balance between commercial and personal projects (and also "work" and downtime). How can people find more contentment in a world where they are asked to do more and more?
On the first question about the balance between commercial and personal projects: As a person, I routinely engage within a commercial space (say, go to a store), the cultural space (look through an art magazine) and the personal space (talk to a friend on the phone). There are instances where I'm involved in all three at the same time. I see absolutely no reason why I should not be engaged in all three as a designer as well. The right mix as far as my work/life balance is concerned is that I like to work really concentrated from about 9:00am to 6:00pm and then take the evenings off and don't work weekends. Every 7 years I take a full year off in order to try things out for which there don't seem to be enough time during the busy working days.
Which five emotions must you feel to create, a process for idea inspirations?
1. Freshness of Spirit. I want to start thinking about a project early in the morning, as thinking might be the most difficult thing I’ll do all day and so I’d love to start with the hard stuff and then work myself down to easy ways. 2. Freedom of Thinking. I want to have all the necessary limitations laid out clearly - I love them. But within that space I’d like no restrictions. 3.a. Dread and Pain. There will be periods of suffering and self-doubt. I’m going to be stuck. I’m going to suck. Very old ideas will come to mind. If its easy, its likely no good. 3.b. Repeat. 3.c. Repeat. 4. Recognition of a path. I rarely have a big, single Eureka moment. But the way gets less rocky with fewer stones to bump my toes bloody. 5. Willingness to hang in there for the execution. Tenacity, interrupted by infrequent discoveries of a possibility to push the project.
What financial advice about running a business would you give to a graphic designer who’s just starting out?
Use time sheets. Use job sheets. Stay small. Take in more money than you spend. Work hard during the week but don't work weekends unless there is a real emergency.
What is the best advice you received that you would like to share with aspiring designers?
When I was moving to Hong Kong and was about to make a lot of money Tibor Kalman told me: And dont you go and spend the money they pay you or you're going to be the whore of the ad agencies for the rest of your life. I didn't and got easily out of it again. Most of my collegues did not get that great advice and are still stuck in the agencies.
How can designers find a balance between creating work that’s socially led rather than commercially without looking like cynical ploys, especially for businesses who are mainly commercial?
We are all much too cynical. I myself suspected numerous companies doing do-goody things for commercial considerations, only to find out when I got to know the principals that authentic concern was their driving force. I thought Ben & Jerry's social engagement was a marketing strategy invented by an ad agency until I got to know cofounder Ben Cohen. He is much more interested in social change than in selling ice cream.
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Type and Typography
Your handwriting is very distinctive. Do you consider it to be a typeface?
I am not obsessed with typefaces and find the selection of just the right one a rather tedious exercise. Using my handwriting eliminates that process, personalizes the piece and can be interpreted as an anti-computer statement all in one easy move.
The series "Things I have learned in my life so far" is a typographical experiment. How does typography influence the transmission of the message?
In this series, the message is always very clear and straightforward, the typography much more ambiguous and open for interpretation. I found that by utilizing an open typographic approach combined with the clear message many viewers have an easier time relating their own experience. We do employ various typographic strategies from one project to another (within the series). Some are influenced by the environment they take place in, some by an outside person, some by personal experiences.
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.
Running the Studio
Do you turn away projects?
Yes. Because we never grew big (Tibor's advice was: The only difficult thing in running a design studio is not to grow, everything else is easy), we do have the luxury of picking and choosing. We tend to work with clients who have products and services we do use or would use ourselves (this way we don't need to lie), who are kind people, and who have appropriate deadlines and budgets.
Many of your protégés have gone off and created their own successful firms. Is it hard to keep good talent?
I very much LOVE that. I think this is wonderful. We are still friends with Karlsson/Wilker, Martin Woodtli, Matthias Ernstberger, Joe Shouldice, Richard The and many others, and I am extra happy when I see something great that any of them have designed. M&Co., the company I used to work for before I started out on my own, left behind a giant legacy of design companies, and I always thought that that was one of Tibor Kalman's crowning achievements.
Was your studio successful straight from the start or did the number of your contract jobs increase only slowly?
We started with one client in place and gained two more in the first couple of months. But I had opened the studio to pursue design for music and it took us almost a year before we had completed our first music client.
What’s the best part about maintaining a small agency?
We are not financially dependent on our clients, we have the freedom to pursue unusual directions, we are nimble, we are focused, we are responsible, we all get to design, and be involved in all aspects of the job, so we are not bored. There is little need for meetings. There is rarely any misunderstandings internally so what we design mostly gets produced.
You've done some juicy promotions through the years, including baring yourself for the world to see. What motivates this? What do you hope the result to be?
I had opened the studio with a card showing me naked. That card turned out to be highly functional, not only did our then only client love it (he had put it up in his office with a note saying: The only risk is to avoid risk) but it attracted more clients who were likely of a more adventurous nature. The card that announced the partnership between Jessica Walsh and myself was intended as a little joke on that opening card and turned out to have worked just as well: Everybody anywhere seems to know about that partnership (and that card).
You’ve worked with internationally recognized musicians, large companies, art institutions, etc., yet you manage to do this with a skeleton staff. How do you do it?
We are all responsible for the projects we work on. This creates ownership and responsibility. We do not pitch for new work, so we do not work for clients we do not have. Instead, we concentrate our efforts for clients we do have. This way the work we design actually gets made. We like it. So do our clients, as they know that the work they pay us to do, actually gets designed by the best designers within the company (and not, as is so often the case, by the B team while the A team is out pitching new clients).
In what ways do your abilities or ideas complement Jessica's? What makes you better together?
Ultimately, I think our interests are very similar, and at the same time they manifest itself very differently, simply because she is a woman and about half my age. This works nicely.
You pick and choose projects carefully. When considering a new project, what criteria must be met for you to take it on?
For commercial projects, we want the product or service to be worthwhile, i.e., have a reason to exist. The project should come with a reasonable timeline and budget. We want to work with kind people.
Customers who go to Sagmeister Inc. know they want innovation in their campaigns. For you, what were the most challenging projects?
Any project I don't know and have not done before. Right now we are working on our first documentary (The Happy Film) and its amazingly challenging for me. The amount of things I don't know about filmmaking is staggering.
Did you have to invest a lot of initiative or did you have to work without profit to increase the recognition of your studio’s name in the beginning? Could you give us an example of the efforts you made?
Sure. The first music client was HP Zinker, a band where I was friends with the singer. We put 220 design hours into the project and got paid $ 1800.00, the equivalent of $ 8.00 per hour. As the cleaning lady made $ 12.00/hour, this was not going to work in the long run. But the CD packaging was nominated for a Grammy and got us a real foot in the door with the record labels.
Are there companies you would not want to take money from (oil, tobacco, clothing brands who use sweatshops etc)?
We like to work with clients whose products we love and use ourselves. This is not just because of moral reasons, but mostly because we can do a better job, it's more satisfying and if it's a promotional job, we don’t have to lie to our audiences.
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Does graphic design still have national traditions in different countries?
National traditions in graphic design used to be much stronger pronounced, when I went to art school you could easily tell a French poster from an Italian, a Swiss typeface from a Norwegian. Obviously these borders blurred but I am convinced that it won't stay that way, simply because it is not in humanity's interest to have the world be the same everywhere. Designers who can utilize their cultural roots in a contemporary way will be very successful.
How important is formal design education?
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.
What's your favorite design city, and why?
I was tempted to either pick the obvious like Barcelona, Amsterdam or Tokyo or go for the more hidden treasures like Teheran, Quito or Beirut but went for neither and chose the city that I studied in, Vienna. Vienna right now achieves a delightful equilibrium between the contemporary and the historic, between young pips and old farts. And the Albertina right now shows a giant exhibit of one of my favorite Austrian artists, Arnulf Rainer.
What is it like to work in the context of the USA?
Selling is more important here than in Europe (but less than in Hong Kong). I had clients in Europe whose principal criteria when commissioning a piece of work was quality and only secondarily looked for marketability. In the US my clients mostly first check if it works, and only then see if can be good also.
To what extent has the Mac influenced Graphic Design?
Every giant change in design was chiefly brought about by a change in technology, from Gutenberg to the invention of lithography. The Mac changed everything one more time. On the positive side the field became much wider, as related professions (animations, sound, product design etc.) utilize the same hardware with simple software variations and made incorporating the tools and strategies of these other professions more likely. The Mac allowed new fields in design to flourish (interactive, generative, web-related etc.). On the down side our everyday lives are threatened to become a bore, as we exchanged a profession that required the mastery of a myriad of tools to be performed in different rooms (silk-screening, painting, letter press printing etc) to a steady position behind a single screen.
As a client, how do I ensure that I get the very best out of the designers I work with?
Do all your research BEFORE the job starts and select a designer/firm that you love and that did similar jobs before really well. Then brief them properly, the shorter the brief, the better, and then let them do their thing. Dont organize pitches and competitions. They will be more work intensive for you and the work that comes out of it will be worse in quality.
As a client, how do I learn to recognize great design so that when a genius idea is produced, I don't bin it?
Does it answer the brief? Does it help you achieve your goals? Does it help your customer? Does it delight your your customer? Does it delight you?
Do you agree with Massimo Vignelli’s statement “Trends kill the soul of design”?
No. If you design something for short term use, it should be 'of its time', ie. it will be good if it looks like it has been designed utilizing current formal language. If I receive an email attachment about a concert happening next week, I don't need or want this attachment to be designed timeless. If should look like next week. It should look dated next year.
Your work straddles the line between art and graphic design. Can you speak about that balance?
When I am a viewer, I never make a difference between work that comes out of the design or the art world, I just see if its good or bad. As a doer, I am asked about it and then it does make a difference: The easiest differentiation is one of functionality. Design has to work, art does not (Donald Judd). Our own work so far has all been created with the expectation to work, to function, and that is why I have always all seen it as design, even when it was created specifically to be displayed in museums of contemporary art.
How do you think the regularity of studio–held exhibitions, such as The Happy Show, affects the perceptions from students on the graphic design industry?
I assume you expect me say that this skews how the profession is seen, that students are given unrealistic hopes that this is what they are going to do after college. You'd be right. And wrong. One part of me believes that if you really work your ass off as a student, try out as much as possible and are truly curious, you will get to do whatever you want. If you're lazy and dull, you wont.
What do think about graphic design education today and in future – what is the most reasonable way to become an outstanding and disruptive designer?
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 80ies and 90ies when ideas and concepts was 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.
How would you describe the difference between a graphic designer and an artist? You consciously try to exceed the bounds of graphic design, but yet you seem very hesitant to take the title of artist. Why?
Well, I grew up as a designer, trained as a designer, and always wanted to be a designer. Vienna was a good city in which to become a designer in because there is no real hierarchy between the different applied and fine art directions. This is probably a holdover from the turn of the last century, when art deco was big and the major players consciously did both. Kokoschka made posters, Klimt did murals for commercial use, Hoffman was involved with both design and art, and all lived under the same umbrella. There is a wonderful Donald Judd quote: “Design has to work. Art does not.” Art can just be—it doesn’t really have to do anything—while design will have to function. This glass, for instance, can be extremely impractical and it can be very difficult to drink from and it might have other functions than an ordinary water glass, it might have a function of representation or it might tell me something about our time, but, in the end, in order to qualify as a glass it will also have to hold fluid. And if I design it so wildly that it doesn’t hold fluid anymore, well, then it becomes a sculpture and we would have to talk about whether it is a good or bad sculpture. But I think functionality is central, and all of our work has a function even if some of it is quite removed from the regular promotional or informational function that so much graphic design has.
What do you think about the so called 'communication consultancy industry'?
I am wary of consultants in general, because of their getting compensated no matter if the advice they give is right or wrong.
Who do you think will dominate the design market in the future, small studios or big companies? Are they able to coexist?
Yes, both will continue to do work, in the case of large branding projects I could even see a successful collaboration between the two worlds, where the strategic work could be developed by the large studio, the conceptual and design work by the small studio and the implementation by the large one again. This could prove to be advantageous for clients, audiences and the studios themselves, as all could benefit from it.
Do you agree that the bigger an agency becomes, the less inspiring and more boring it gets?
Advertising agencies have sometimes been able to avoid this, but there is not a single large design company out there that I respect. No, sorry, I am wrong, IDEO does good work, and Landor manages to pull off a successful project every once in a while. But there is problem with this: Very large clients want to work with large design consultancies, it gives them a level of service and security that smaller places like ours have more difficulties to convey. This leads to the sad fact that many of the most talented designers work for smallish projects in the cultural realm, while the work that really influences the look of this world, the gigantic branding programs for the multinationals are conceived by marketing people who could not care less. This is as much the fault of clients (who find the pseudo-scientific reasoning of the consultancies comforting), as it is of designers (who are not willing to deal with the far more complex approval and implementation process). I have the highest admiration for the person who can pull off a large project in good quality. It’s BY FAR the hardest thing to do.
Do you think that the big agencies in the creative world are losing touch? Why/why not?
As a recent trend, what kinds of things do you see people demanding from creators?
The audience is much more interested in design now because almost everybody is a designer themselves, - involved in type-choices and formatting questions etc. This technology driven change has not led to the predicted job losses for designers but created a desire for more sophisticated work from professionals.
Do you believe that Graphic Designers should express their personalities in their own work?
I changed my mind about this. I used to think that it’s about problem solving and that the designer should stay out of it as much as possible. Having seen how much bland, forgettable work this kind of thinking produced, I now think that it is very important for the designer to bring his/her own point of view into the proceedings. Much like a conversation with a friend: You dont just want a story retold as he/she heard it, but also his/her personal opinion about it. Designers are like actors: The script (content) remains the same but a character takes on a very different angle if played by Dustin Hoffman or Bruce Willis.
Do you think there is any special responsibility in being a designer?
Just like in any other profession, you have a responsibility to do your job well. And you should have fun doing it and not harm others while doing so.
Do you think graphic designers care too much or too little about money?
I think young designers who open design studios tend to think too little about money. If you don't take the financial health of a new studio seriously (and put systems in place to monitor the finances) chances you're going to wind up with money problems are high. These problems will be very distracting from trying to do good work, many of these studios are subsequently forced to take on jobs they would not do otherwise and the vicious circle has started.... Older designers tend to care too much about money.
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Design for Music
How has your working relationship with David Byrne and Brian Eno changed over the years?
Well, it changed rather drastically insofar we're not doing graphics for music anymore. We all but stopped designing album covers after the first sabbatical in 2000 – there were just too many other interesting things to design and music stopped playing the same role in my life as I approached forty. The 2008 Byrne/Eno project was an exception as the music was terrific, David being wonderful to work with and having been massively influenced by Brian's published diary, I had the strong urge to meet him.
I know that you stopped doing graphics for bands, did you become disillusioned with the industry in general?
We stopped designing album covers after the first sabbatical in 2000 – there were just too many other interesting things to design and music stopped playing the same role in my life as I approached forty. The Byrne/Eno project was an exception as the music was terrific, David being wonderful to work with and having been massively influenced by Brian's published diary, I had the strong urge to meet him.
You started your career around the field of the music, has it influenced the rest of your work?
Yes. Music tends to be able to transport emotions more effectively than any other art form, and this emotionality became elusive once we stopped designing for the music industry. So we tried to recapture some of it through personal projects.
The LP has come back in these days. Are you interested in designing vinyl? If so, whom would you like to work with?
I have a stream on Instagram about vinyl albums, all bought for the quality of the designs. Please do follow me there: StefanSagmeister. And yes, we might design an album here and there again. The act of visualizing music has always been one of the most interesting thing to do in graphics.
What music do you listen to the most these days? I'm also curious to hear your thoughts on today's pop music.
Right now I am mostly listening to music bought because of their great cover. This would include: SBTRKT, FKA Twigs, Beach House, Darkside, Sufjan Stevens, Karen O, Washed out, Gabriel Garzon Montano.
Mr. Sagmeister, you've said "almost all good covers contain good music." Do you still believe that to be true? Why do you think that correlation exists? Is good taste just good taste?
Yes, that very much is true. Musicians caring enough to have a truly fantastic cover created for them also really care about the music. I make all my album buying decisions on account of the cover and I wind up with VERY little bad music. Sadly, the reverse does not pan out: There is plenty of good music in bad covers.
You yourself have recently began listening to records again... is a return to more analog ways eminent as a adverse reaction to our lives becoming so plugged in and digital?
There is something deeply satisfying (and human!) about listening to a technology that goes back directly to Thomas Edison, and that has been continuously improved over the years to such a degree that listening to new vinyl in 2016 is utterly astounding: Its incredible that such rich and full sounds can come out of a plastic grove touched by a needle. Numerous bands sound remarkably better listened to on my green sofa than live in concert (I've tried it out). The fact that I have to get up, go to the closet, select an album sleeve, take the inner sleeve out, take the record out of the inner sleeve, put it on the player and place the needle on the record also make sure that I select carefully. I now again listen to music exclusively, i.e.. I don't do anything else while sitting on the sofa. It is VERY enjoyable. I also think that contemporary album covers right now are higher in quality (and significantly cheaper) than much art exhibited in Chelsea or the Upper East Side. For proof of this bold claim, check out my Instagram at StefanSagmeister.
Lou Reed has passed away, but he lives through the iconic covers and posters you created for him. How does it feel to be irrevocably linked to such legends, like him or The Talking Heads?
We started the studio with the distinct purpose of creating designs for music, in order to combine my two main interests at the time, design and music. After 7 years we moved on towards other interesting areas. And yes, I am still very fond of that time.
A lot of designers involved in the music industry can’t seem to get enough of music packaging. This has long been a staple of your work and we have seen less of it recently. Has this change affected you? Is music packaging something you would have enjoyed doing longer than the Rolling Stones have been alive? (Pardon the exaggeration).
About 15 years ago, during our first experimental year, I decided to minimize design for music to about a quarter of our workload, not because I smartly foresaw the troubles of the music industry but because 1.) I got bored with it on a day to day level, stemming form the fact that we often dealt with 3 clients on a single project and my threshold to dealing with that dynamic became more shallow. About a year ago we decided to not accept any music work anymore and redirect that time instead for design for science. 2.) As I get older music played a lesser role in my life 3.) There are lots of other interesting things out there And.) What I do miss is the simple act of visualizing music. This never got old.
I read that you “get more uplifting moods from music than you ever got from Graphic Design. It sounds like you have a deep-rooted passion for music and I was wondering if you have ever considered a career in music?
I used to be in a really bad band (and I was its worst member). Later on (at 25) I was in a better band and good enough to realize that I better make a decision between music and design. Went for design. Still love music (I had little interest though in a band as a hobby, wanted all or nothing)
David Byrne says that you share a sort of telepathy, and that you both take it as a creativity game. Do you share David’s feeling when doing this sort of work?
David is visually literate, which makes it very easy to work with him. We seem to be interested in similar visual directions.
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How are design and happiness related?
Every single profession, in fact every single act that I perform, is in some way related to happiness. There's a famous quote by the French mathematician Blaise Pascal who says that even the person who kills himself, does it because he thinks this will make him happier, i.e., he'll be better off dead. So of course, happiness is also related to design: Can I become happier as a designer? Can I make other people happy with my designs?
Can a design product make someone happier?
Right now over 50% of the world population live in cities. For this part of the population, EVERYTHING surrounding them has been designed, from the contact lens, to the cloth, the chair, the room, the house, the street, the park, the city. These designed surroundings play exactly the same role to a city dweller as nature does to an indigenous person living in a rain forrest. They can be designed well or badly. They will make a difference. There are of course many products out there that do make our life easier, but we tend to only notice them when they fail badly. I can be in a plane going up and completely ignore the fact what an incredible piece of design that really is. I'll notice it when we crash.
Tell me about the Happy Film you made.
When I did research for this film and read many, many psychology books on happiness, I found that whenever a scientist talked about something that had actually happened to her, a personal experience, I took this much more seriously than when she wrote about a survey she conducted. So I changed the direction of the film from a general documentation on the subject to focus mainly on personal experiences, hoping that viewers would have the same reaction as I had. The film in itself will not make viewers happy (in the same way as watching Jane Fonda exercise wont make you lose weight), but I do hope that it might be the little kick in the ass to some viewers to explore these directions, like meditation or cognitive therapy. Hopefully it will be a proper look at major strategies serious psychologists recommend that improve wellbeing, they include meditation, cognitive therapy and psychological drugs. I will try them all out and report back on the results.
What do you hope people get out of the Happy Show?
As it is clearly stated at the entrance of the exhibit, this show will not make you happier (in the same way that looking at a gym wont make you skinnier). My hope is that some visitors will be entertained and ultimately interested enough that they try out some of these strategies themselves.
What makes you laugh the hardest?
There is a card dispensing machine within the Happy Show that gives every visitor one piece of advice on how to behave within the exhibition. One of the cards says: Text a joke to this cell phone number. It includes my phone number, so I get many jokes a day. It also works as a neat visitor counting device, as I know the number of visitors (every 50th card includes the joke request) from how many jokes I receive. Almost all jokes are family friendly: What did one strawberry say to the other? If you wouldn't have been so fresh, we would not be in this jam. Why did the cookie go to the hospital? Because it felt crummy.
The highly personal nature of this work makes it easy for an audience to empathize with it. Are you consciously looking to break down the walls between your personal & professional lives? Will some walls always separate the two? Please explain.
I myself do try to be as open as possible, it becomes much trickier when other people in my personal life become involved in a project, like the film. Also, it will be rather difficult to decide what should go in and what represents over sharing or goes over the line into sensationalism.
Are there more documentaries on the way or what other things are in the pipeline?
Oh no, the one is all we can possible handle in right now. Here and there we do a commercial, also in order to learn more about the medium.
Your career has mainly focused on the area of graphic design, do you see yourself as that still, or would you like to be thought of in other ways? Filmmaker or simply, artist?
I feel very much like a designer. Sometimes I now just leave the 'graphic' off, as we did complete projects like furniture and installations in the past. I am not an artist.
You took part in some interesting experiments during the film, did you find that any improved your ‘well being’? Which would you recommend? I hear David Lynch swears by meditation.
There were times during meditation when I felt it REALLY working and thinking: "Why is not everybody doing this all the time?", and then there were times when I felt it difficult and boring. Check out the wonderful and very critical German doc on David Lynch's meditation involvement called David Wants to Fly, very much worth seeing.
You are creating a documentary about happiness, The Happy Film. As a print-designer working with the new media of film making/the moving image what has been the biggest challenge?
There have been challenges of EVERY nature at every corner. How to tell a long story? Which camera system delivers the sweet spot of mobility and quality? Which cuts works with what? How obvious do we need to be so people understand? How much openness of myself is required? When does it become over-sharing? Why is everything so expensive?
What's the most surprising thing you've learned through your exploration, so far?
That film is really, really difficult to do and that my visual background amounts for very little when it comes to crating a 90 minute piece. That serious effect on well being can be brought on by very tenacious training.
How is the process of making a film impacting your journey to understand happiness? Is it a distraction, or is it adding to the journey?
The film is a huge part of it! I would have never had the stamina to read 3-4 dozen psychology books and visit research psychologists without the project of the Happy Film on my hand. I selected the topic in part because I hoped that the journey of the making of the film would be exciting in its own right. This proved right.
You have spent a lot of time contemplating happiness. What was it that led you down this path?
I was always interested in how design touches me emotionally, and eventually put a talk together titled "Design and Happiness" (which had slowly evolved out of another presentation called "Can Design touch someone's Heart?"). We've received a lot of excited feedback about that talk. During the last sabbatical, when I looked for something meaningful to do with my time, that same subject came up again.
You mentioned that you were trying out various tips from psychologists to train the mind. Would you mind giving an example of this or anecdote about one of the tips? Were you able to train your mind?
I was in Bali for three months of intense meditation, our tiny little film team joined me there. Before I left the US, I went through extensive testing of my brain in an fMRI scanner, had EEG's done (my brain waves measured) and completed all sort of written tests.
What else can you tell about the film about happiness?
I'd love to find an answer to the question if it really is possible to train my own mind in the same way it is possible to train my body. Can I – through various techniques that might include acts of kindness, diary writing and meditation – increase my overall level of happiness? While a number of serious psychologists are convinced that this is the case, I'd love to find proof for myself and the viewers.
Where did you get this idea for the documentary? Did something in your life happen to spark this, or some other inspiration?
I was always interested in how to improve my and my surroundings well-being, in a sense, why be interested in anything else? Most things I do everyday are somehow geared towards this goal anyway, often just not in a very direct way. And it seemed more challenging to do this in film rather than print, trying out a new medium prevents me to become too complacent. It might fail miserably, but if I've gotten a hair happier in the process, it might have been worth my while.
Since you’ve been working so much with happiness, do you have a definition for it?
There are a couple things that I find make the term easier to deal with. One thing that I always liked is the division of it into long-term, medium-term, and short-term; it’s called level one, level two, and level three happiness and the classification is determined by how long the moment lasts. You have things like joy or bliss or orgasms in the short version. In the middle version, you have things like satisfaction or wellbeing. In the long term, you have these really big things like finding your calling or what you’ve been put on this world for. I think different people can be quite good in one of these sections and terrible in others. But, strangely, all of these extremely different things still fall under the same term happiness even though a moment of bliss has basically nothing to do with finding your calling or finding what you’re supposed to do in life.
While happiness has been a pretty enduring human pursuit, do you think people are questioning it and quantifying it more now? Why did you decide to make the film now?
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 media, as I had never done a film before. A book would have been much easier.
Do you think we’ve been under the illusion that life should be perfect? Could this pressure of perfection be contributing to growing unhappiness in the developed world at least?
Yes, Barbara Ehrenreich makes a very good point about this in her book: Brightsided, How positive Thinking is undermining America. I myself think that low expectations are an excellent strategy for life.
We are noticing a rise in the popularity of ‘negative thinking’ as a route to happiness or simply an approach to life.
I spent my formative years in Vienna, where many embrace misery and think of anything related to happiness as either 'stupid' or 'American'. If you are intelligent you understand life and know how awful it is. One of my favorite Freud quotes reads: "All we can hope for in life is a transformation from complete misery into common unhappiness". I prefer New York.
One of the things I took from the Happy Show is that we are our own worst enemy when it comes to preventing our happiness. Do you think it is because we as a society take life too seriously?
I myself am not an expert on society, so all I can talk about is myself: I am THE expert on me. And I lead a much too secure life, one that would be richer and fuller if I'd take more risks. And: I think my expectations are too high, I'd be better off if I'd expect most things not to work out.
You're well known for your commitment to sabbaticals. Is taking a break necessary, practical and viable for every creative person?
Yes. I have seen small, medium and large companies doing a version of this, always with excellent results. My experience is that it is scary to organize and exhilarating to execute.
Happiness researcher Gretchen Rubin found some surprising happiness tricks, like making your bed every day. What are your three favorite happiness hacks?
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.
How can one keep work from falling into boredom over the years?
Change it up. We purposefully design many jobs by hand or using new and unexpected tools and processes, in order to create work that seems fresh and to keep ourselves fresh.
What sort of questions did you want answered via your research on happiness?
I wanted to see if it is possible to train my mind in the same way it is clearly possible to train my body. I ran a NYC marathon once and even though I am clearly not sporty, after a years worth of training I had gotten much better in running. I wanted to find out if the same thing could be true for the mind. So I followed the advice of one of my favorite psychologists, Jonathan Haidt, and tried out three effective strategies for three months each: Meditation, cognitive therapy and drugs.
Contrary to a lot of design exhibitions, The Happy Show doesn't seem industry facing. It is more accessible to the public. Is this something you were keen to maintain within the show's content?
We try to avoid creating designs for designers. This can become insular, self-satisfied and boring. Doing work to impress my friends seems needy.
You began seven year cycles interrupted by year-long sabbaticals. Aside from being a civilized way to do business, what has been your goal?
As with many big decisions in my life, there were several reasons: 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 research of happiness is the motor for your art. Could you say that art brings you happiness comparing to your former life (when you were graphic designer)?
I see myself as a designer, and not as an artist, so in this sense I have no 'former' life. I think that design offers similar possibilities in the regard of wellbeing as art does. I can find what I am here on this earth for in either field, both offer juicy challenges, both are able to delight or help viewers.
You’ve spent several years doing extensive research on the subject of happiness. Based off your findings, what is your definition of happiness/being happy?
I wanted to see if it is possible to train my mind in the same way it is clearly possible to train my body. I ran a NYC marathon once and even though I am clearly not sporty, after a years worth of training I had gotten much better. I wanted to find out if the same thing could be true for the mind. So I followed the advice of one of my favorite psychologists, Jonathan Haidt, and tried out three effective strategies for three months each: Meditation, cognitive therapy and drugs. As far as a definition is concerned, I find it helpful to think of happiness in terms of length of time: There is short term happiness (joy, orgasms etc), mid-term happiness (satisfaction and well-being) and long term happiness (meaning, finding what you are good for in life).
Do you think that happiness is something we can actually create, or do you think it’s a by-product of our own emotional state? Or perhaps, both?
I think it can ensue if we manage to get the relationship to other people (lovers, friends, family) right, if we get the relationship to our work and the relationship to something thats bigger than ourselves right.
And how did you change personally? Did your philosophy change?
I used to think that the direct pursuit of happiness was possible. Originally I wanted to see if it is possible to train my mind in the same way it is clearly possible to train my body. So I followed the advice of one of my favorite psychologists, Jonathan Haidt, and tried out three effective strategies for three months each: Meditation, cognitive therapy and drugs. Paradoxically, while all three strategies worked, overall I did not really seem to get happier. I now think that the problem of the direct pursuit is one of complexity, it is impossible to apply a single strategy to improve something this complex. It will be similar even with somewhat simpler pursuits like beauty or functionality. When painters in the 19th century were going straight after beauty they wound up with kitsch. When the modernists went after function they wound up with public housing blocks that did one thing not: function. They were not fit for human living and many were dynamited.
Can knowing more about happiness make one happier or are we ultimately at the mercy of our subconscious "elephant?”
I myself found that the direct pursuit of happiness was ultimately not fruitful for me, its too complex a goal to be reached through a single strategy. I would say that if I’m able to create a good relationship with my friends and family, a good relationship to my work and a good relationship to something that is bigger than myself, than happiness is able to ensue.
One of your words of wisdom at the show is that “Complaining is silly, either act or forget”. In which case did you act and used design as a tool? How were the reactions?
I might catch myself starting to complain in my head about a client, and when I’m in good shape, I can stop it: Either I can do something about it and try to change the situation, or I accept the situation and move on.
By visiting the show it feels like getting a chance to profit of your life lessons. Which one is in particular important for designers? (And why?)
Having guts always works out for me. Its the one lesson I know well, but still have not internalized completely, I still have to talk myself into it time after time again. My self-censorship keeps me from not trying out things I should.
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What's the biggest professional risk you've taken? How old were you?
I was the most scared when deciding to take the first sabbatical in 1999. Our design studio was 7 years old, the first internet boom in full swing and everybody was in the business of making lots of money. It just seemed unprofessional to close the studio for a year to try out things.
Why did you feel you needed to take a sabbatical?
Outwardly our last year with clients had been the most successful to date, we had won the most awards in our brief company history and the then booming economy had filled our coffers. But actually I was bored. The work became repetitive. At the same time I went to Cranbrook giving a workshop and actually got rather jealous of all the mature students there being able to spend their entire day just experimenting. Then Ed Fella came into the studio and showed me all the notebooks with his freewheeling typographic experiments. That did it. I settled on a date a year in advance and I called up all my clients.
Where/how do you think you need to grow still?
Plenty of room: Being able to turn the other cheek as well as not shying away from confrontation. To know what to do when.
Do you still learn new things?
Yes, we just produced our first documentary film, there was lots and lots and lots to learn. I recently thought about why it is that learning (or simply getting better at something) is so inherently pleasurable, and came to the conclusion that it has likely evolutionary roots. Evolution might have made learning enjoyable because it wants us to grow – it is in its interest after all – in the same way it made sex enjoyable because it wants us to replicate.
Is pain and struggle a necessary path to true creation and personal satisfaction? Even if you are not into S&M?
Yes. Basically every worthwhile project we have ever done had a difficult phase. I wish it would not be so. And no, I am not into S&M.
What gets you energized these days?
The one constant that keeps me excited over a long stretch of time is traveling. I've been on the road now extensively for over 20 years and its surprising to myself that I still get a huge kick out of it. I do try to steer my trips towards places I have not been before, I'll go to Colombia for the first time tomorrow.
Where does this insubordination/rebelliousness coming from? Will this limit forcing calm down one day?
I am getting calmer every day. In many ways I do feel that for me the days of being against something are over, and I find it much more challenging (and more difficult) to be for something. To create, rather then to tear down.
What is an embarrassing thing that happened to you that you can look back and laugh at now?
Getting up at a 'hottest guy in the agency' contest during a company party, even though my name was not called
What kind of music you enjoy most while designing?
1. The Queens of the Stone Age: Smooth Sailing 2. Blind Pilot: Poor Boy 3. The Brian Jones Town Massacre: Anemone 4. Absolute Beginners: Fuechse 5. Citizen Cope: Contact 6. Das Racist and Wallpaper: Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell 7. Chris Garneau: So far 8. Koehlmeier Bilgeri: Bruessel 9. The National: Sorrow 10.Nick Cave: Into my arms 11.Andrew Bird: Lazy Projector 12.Ludacris: Ho 13.Josef Hader: Das ist Freiheit 14.Al Green: Jesus is Waiting 15.Stiller Haas: Aare
Your trajectory has been interesting and fruitful. Working for M & Co., a conceptual studio, working in advertising in Hong Kong, starting your own conceptual studio, and now a partnership. Did you plan the road you've taken?
Most it was happenstance. I wound up in Hong Kong because I visited a friend. I took Tibor's offer to work at M&Co. because I needed to get out of Hong Kong. I partnered up with Jessica Walsh not because I was looking for a partner, but because she worked for us and was uncommonly talented. Out of your examples, the only really preplanned endeavor was the opening of the studio. When Tibor closed M&Co and moved to Rome to work on Colors magazine full-time, this was what I wanted to do: To open my own studio and keep it small.
What book(s) are you reading currently?
I just finished My Struggle, Book 2, by Jan Ove Knausgaard, and very much loved it. He describes his life with such wild honesty and mind boggeling detail, that I can relate on various levels. In his home country of Norway he sells more books than Harry Potter.
What drove you to take that risk?
The feeling that I was repeating myself professionally, my jealousy of experimenting graduate students at Cranbrook, admiration of Ed Fella (who had visited the studio earlier and showed off magical typographic experiments created with a 4-color ball point pen) and the realization that life is short and that I better use my time properly.
Talk about fame and money. Does it matter and why. Does fame change the creative process?
We experience the best kind of fame, the itsy bitsy design fame. When we go to conferences our egos are stroked but outside we can live very normal lives. I make enough money to live the life I want to live: I attend every concert I like, buy every book I want and travel everywhere I need. Things are good right now.
Do you still perceive “guts” as something capital when it comes to design?
Yes. I still feel that the more I risk, the higher the possibility of doing something worthwhile. I still do have to talk myself into it though.
Stefan: Villain: Klaus Kinsky in My best Fiend Book: A Man in Love, Karl Ove Knausgaard Smell: Comme de Garcon, Kyoto Film: Adaptation by Spike Jonze Band: King Crimson Artist: James Turrell City: New York City Restaurant: El Bulli Hotel: Bamboo Indah, Bali Drink: Ginger Tea Decade: 2004 - 2014 Sport: Running Advice: Stay Small Food: Tiny Bow (Chinese Soup Dumpling) Prized possession: My dad's watch Way to go (die): In Bed, either alone or with somebody lovely.
Is pain an inherent element to the act of designing?
Yes, I think it is. And I mean specially the pain involved when trying to come up with an idea. The discipline necessary not to go with the first thing that comes to mind, the determination to sit there longer and be willing to endure the frustration when nothing comes, this normally makes the difference between something good and something great.
When was the last time you had a ‘wow effect’ for an innovation (technology, social or anything else)?
I have had a deeply moving experience, much more than a simple 'wow effect', while observing James Turrell's new sky space, permanently installed at Rice University in Houston, Texas. This is basically a large ceiling with a square hole cut into it. He reflects the colors of strong LED's on the ceiling, running slow moving gradients of color on it. This contrasts with the color of the sky seen through the square hole, that, when you observe it during sun set, features its own slow moving gradients. The subtly of the color changes and the incredible richness and ultimate mind shattering gorgeousness and pure beauty of the color creates a true experience. The night sky turns from blue to dark blue, to darker blue to the darkest of dark blues I've ever observed, something that would be impossible to print or weave or create in any other way (well, its infinite space that creates that blue). It made me see nature in a new way.
You mentioned that early in your career in Hong Kong you learned all the things you never wanted to do again in your life? What are these things you never wanted to do again?
Oh there was so much: Over packaging mediocre products with many layers, printing brochures with precious pieces of vellum in between every French-folded page, the vellum not only silk-screened but also hot-stamped. Accepting poorly thought out instructions and briefs as a matter of course. Redoing the same job over and over again as a result. Rushing as a substitute for thinking, drinking as a valve for letting out steam…
Do you see graphic design as a job, a vocation or a bit of both?
It changes. When I opened the studio, I saw this work as a calling. This calling diminished over time, when work became much more routine, the design of the 22nd CD cover turned out to be less thrilling than the 1st one. During my sabbaticals – client free years I take every 7 years – it became a calling again.
How and when did you first become aware of Jessica's work, how did you first meet, and how long was it before she first came in-house at the studio?
I had already seen her 3-D illustration pieces when she came into the studio to show her portfolio. I immediately loved her sunny character and no-nonsense approach to work. Her book was very good. As I recall, she started almost right away.
You started the career as a designer early, with just 15. Your style was already like what you produce today or you've been slowly evolving and working on your ideas?
I was writing here and there for a small local magazine and then discovered that I like doing the layout better, but I'm not sure if I'd really call that activity "working as a designer". We were setting headlines with Letraset sheets donated by friendly design studios, and as they invariably had all the "e's" missing, it was easier to write that headline by hand than reconstructing the missing "e". That's where my love for hand writing stems from.
Have you ever had doubts about what you wanted to do, or about whether or not you were good at it?
Yes. Especially during school. I knew I wanted to become a designer (not many doubts there) but very much doubted the quality of the work. Had constant doubts in Hong Kong. Wanted to quit every week.
Could you see yourself becoming either an artist on the one hand, or an entrepreneur on the other, and entirely giving up your design business?
No. I have no interest in becoming a fine artist. Despite the fact that an incredible amount of fantastic work is being produced in the art world right now (I am touched more by art of the last decade then of any other decade in the 20th century) I find the art world itself a ghetto and its distribution within the gallery system not very compelling. I have little interest in becoming an entrepreneur: If I would have wanted to become a manager I would have gone to business school.
What is your feeling towards your fame – and fame in general – in the design world?
My favorite fame-in-design quote comes from Chip Kidd ("famous designer is like famous electrician"). In my opinion, electricians and designers enjoy the most desirable kind of fame, because they are to a large extent in charge of it. When famous electricians decide to visit electricians conferences, there will be pads on their backs and egos will be stroked, but outside of these conferences they will be able to go anywhere without intrusions. I have worked with numerous actual stars, famous clients whose fame -up close - did not look like much fun at all: When you walked into a Starbucks with Lou Reed, the whole place went quiet. People turned around. They whispered. Lou was not happy.
Do you believe designers have made this world a little bit of a better place?
Considering absolutely everything man made is designed, and considering I rather would live now that in any historical period I could think of, I would say, yes, on the balance, I like the designed world of 2011 better than I would have the one in 1911, for surely better than in 1511, and absolutely preferable to 0011.
In some fields within Design it is said that the designer should go unnoticed, that it is the message that is important. Obviously, this is not your case. Why is it so? Is it a sale strategy? Or is it something natural in you?
I don’t agree with the modernist notion of objectivity. A personal view can help make things clearer, warmer and more direct.
What would you change/delete/augment in your body of work?
I'd like to have the Hypnosis' album covers in there, Mark Farrow's CDs, Makoto Saito's posters, Marian Bantjes' typography, Rick Valincenti's experiments, Martin Guixe's food, Tibor's magazines and Maira's books.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen during your travels? And the most beautiful?
Strangest: Eating hundreds of frog embryos while being seated next to a Communist Party official in Shenzhen. Most beautiful: Up all by myself on the Borobudur temple in Yogyakarta at 4:00am.
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Things I've Learned
How does the typography of "Things I have learned in my life so far" influence the transmission of the message?
The message is always very clear and straightforward, the typography much more ambiguous and open for interpretation. I found that by utilizing an open typographic approach combined with the clear message many viewers have an easier time relating their own experience. We do employ various typographic strategies from one project within the series to another. Some are influenced by the environment they take place in, some by an outside person, some by personal experiences.
Could you explain the purpose of the project "Trying to look good limits my life"?
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 am following 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." We displayed them in many cities around the world in places normally reserved for straightforward advertising. All of them were commissioned by clients. For example, broken up into 5 parts "Trying/to look/good/limits/my life" and displayed in sequence as typographic billboards, - worked like a sentimental greeting card left in Paris.
What is some bad advice given in the design industry?
That our work is all about solving problems. Solving problems is for accountants and engineers. We can do so much more. We can delight! I can have an experience of true beauty (one of real awe at the gorgeousness of it all) when I look at the New York skyline and when I look at the Austrian Alps, both places I know well: I have lived close to either for more then 20 years each. Considering it took nature about 200 million years to build the Alps, but New Yorkers built the skyline in 200 years, I am somehow more impressed with New Yorkers. The form of the Empire State building does NOT follow function, but it functions much better as a building than all the 1970ies skyscrapers built under the term of functionalism.