Stefan Sagmeister: Beautiful things work better

I stopped by for a quick chat with designer Stefan Sagmeister at his New York City apartment to get a glimpse at his mind and his new book on Beauty. I stopped by for a quick chat with designer Stefan Sagmeister at his New York City apartment to get a glimpse at his mind and his new book on Beauty. I stopped by for a quick chat with designer Stefan Sagmeister at his New York City apartment to get a glimpse at his mind and his new book on Beauty.

What are you proud of?

As a studio, about 10 years ago we started to use the language of graphic design for things that are not necessarily promotional. At some point, this idea came out of conversations with my former mentor Tibor Kalman who always talked about design as a language, as a combination of visuals and words. I realized that if that is true, then it makes no sense to you use design only to promote. Say if I learned French, I wouldn’t just use French language to create advertising, would I? Same with design — you can use it for so many different ways.

The extreme core of communication design is to go through lots of data and turn it into something that speaks to you. What we’ve done with our projects on happiness and now on beauty is the core of communication design. These topics are gigantic but we’ve tried to communicate them fairly rapidly.

I’m quite proud that as a studio we’re able to embark on these projects and still be a sustainable business — we’re not going out bankrupt tomorrow.

Do you learn from commercial projects and apply it to your work or does your personal work add your projects?

It’s a two-way. There are many techniques that we’ve used in our self-initiated projects that we’ve learned in the commercial world. At the same time, many clients who saw our own work would get inspired to work with us on a new project. This is how it should be and I don’t think there’s a way to tell one from the other.

I was just in Vienna at a museum and saw a show by Gustav Klimt. On the same wall there was a poster, a painting and a commission mural. Klimt made no difference between these — he didn’t say “Oh, in the morning when I made the poster I made myself less worthy, but in the afternoon when I worked on the painting I was a better person. I think in many ways that difference of personal and commercial is artificial.

I might walk around the city in the afternoon, I might go to MoMA or be at a store buying something while I’m on the phone with a friend. It’s possible that at this very moment, I do something cultural, something commercial, and something personal. Everyone does all three all the time. When it gets to doing your job everyone suddenly flips: “You guys do something do something artistic and you guys do something commercial but don’t mix the two”.
When I look at work, I care if it’s good or not good. I don’t care if it’s made by a designer or an artist.

How do you handle focused work?

Yes, I can sit down and think about an idea but it doesn’t mean that I can actually arrive to one. In my work, I have to come up with ideas within a time frame that fits within a budget and I can’t afford to hope for inspiration to come down on me. I found that the deadline is very important. There’s a certain amount of time and a certain amount of possibilities — these are my main parameters. It’s very difficult to work without any set parameters.
Artists are no different — I know many of my artist friends come up with their own parameters.

In the personal projects like the Beauty project or the Happiness film — did you set your own deadlines?

With the film, we made a mistake of not having a deadline. We were also shooting live with a little script which was very difficult for me — I’m a planner. For the beauty project, the deadline was defined quite organically. The museum we planned to do the exhibition with just asked “What’s the opening date?”. That kind of defined everything else including the book.

What’s your favorite medium?

Right now, exhibitions are particularly juicy. People are very happy to go to museums. If you go to the MoMA free night — I don’t know if you can even get in, it feels more like LaGuardia airport at rush hour. An, of course, there are many things you can do with the audience at a museum than what you can do from a design perspective. You can give experience that are beyond reading or watching something. And a special experience is being able to look at something while you’re discussing it with a friend — it’s a special experience that you can’t do with the movies or even online.

As a designer, I was always interested in large audiences. There’re many advantages in designing music album covers but one of them was that you can easily get your work seen by millions of people.

If we could design something good for a large audience, for us that would be a holy grail.
I have big respect for people in the applied arts, who for example can make a large movie that’s seen by millions of people and that is actually good — Birdman comes to mind. Or to create a piece of architecture that is completely embraced by everyone — the Highline comes to mind. That is much more difficult then create an avantgarde housing unit that’s loved by architects but is not really speaking to anybody else.

What about designers who want to be primarily celebrated within the design community?

Designers designing solely for other designers? I ultimately find that boring.
When I was 17 I thought that is the true designer, the pure designer. Now I find that you’re basically aiming to please your friends. And seems a little cheap to me a definitely not the job.
I was kind of surprised and delighted that my musician friends felt exactly the same. Music for musicians? Boring. A lot of that world seems insular and self-congratulatory.

Are the book at the exhibition in Vienna showing the same things?

Not quite. The overall trajectory and the themes are indeed the same but the way we deliver the content is very different. The book is organized traditionally, in chapters — in the museum we did a quite different thing.

Of course, we still wanted to be interactive in the book. For example, there’re quizzes where to can pick different objects you find more beautiful than others. We found that most people pick the same object — and it doesn’t matter which culture they are coming from.

Did you make every decision on the book? How did you work with the publisher?

We had two excellent editors and from the text point of view that got very much involved. I could not claim anything without the editor asking me to prove it. It turned out to be a very well fact-checked publication and I don’t know any art-focused publisher(and we’ve worked with a couple in the past) who would go through that incredible amount of length. We also wanted to keep the book affordable for young creatives so quite of few production compromises happened along the way.

I can see the book is smaller than your typical design or art book…

This book is a heavy mixture of images and text so we wanted to make is a sort of reference. You can still take this book on a plane. You don’t really need a coffee table for it. We want to give everybody a good experience — who has 30 seconds at a bookstore some sort of idea what the book is about as well as someone who has a little more time. In film everybody got this 93 minutes that you need to cut the film to — and the person who doesn’t like it and the person who loves it have still the same 93 minutes to enjoy it. In the book you have an ability to be much more reactive to the various degrees of interest in your audience.

There’s an astonishing lack of really good research in psychology about aesthetics because it fell out of favor in the field of psychology.

Things that are more beautiful work better.

People who were at the forefront of the invention of functionalism — the pillars of the Bauhaus, people like Max Bill, Jan Tschichold — all of them 20-30 years into it thought that it won’t work without beauty. That this idea of the ruling of functionalism is completely wrong.
If the windows are not functional, they are not windows. Of course, they need to be functional but they also need to be beautiful.

Designers love function so much because it’s so easy to do.

What do you think about the state of design in New York City?

I think it’s doing pretty well. I was just in London last week — I think it’s often doing a better job with public spaces. Probably one of the most active new areas is the city is Hudson Yards. Sadly, most of the new architecture there is mediocre — many of the buildings may have as well be built in Cincinnati.

What’s keeping you up at night?

I sleep pretty well. Do I wish we had a different government in the United States? I think I do. Do I think that working on beauty in a time like this is frivolous? No, I don’t. I want to use my skill to contribute. If I can make the people who voted for Trump not vote for him, I would definitely do that. Right now, I don’t think I can, I don’t think I’m close enough to the people who vote for him and I don’t think I understand them well enough. Just for fun — that’s too much work. It would be so easy for us to do an anti-Trump visual exhibit. There’s so much good work create around him that you wouldn’t even need to commission anything.

How do you work at the studio?

We brief together, then everyone works on their own thing. Then we very soon narrow it in and work in one direction. We don’t show five directions to the client. It’s very easy to show 10 mediocre things.

What’s your advice for young communication designers?

I would take form very seriously. It’s much easier today to find people with good ideas and much more difficult to find people who can make something actually look good. The good thing, it’s trainable. You can train yourself in becoming more sophisticated formally but that’s very difficult.
In the online use experience world, everything is mostly ruled by function. If you look at your Facebook pages on your phone, and then Airbnb or Etsy — they all are traceable back to the layout design by Jan Tchichold in 1928. It’s a joke — because they are three completely different things but they all use black sans-serif text on a white background organized in a grid in a completely old-fashioned way.

What are you reading?

Just now, I read a lovely book “Sara Berman’s Closet” by Maira Kalman. She’s in many ways on a new form of expression. This is image an text combines into something that is not a comic book or a children’s book. It’s deeply readable and hovers beautifully between design and art.
I think a new book that’s amazingly inspiring is a new book by Stephen Pinker called “Enlightenment Now”. Where he asks how do we measure the quality of life and what does the quality of life mean and how do we measure how good we are doing. And then he proves that in all of the aspects of life we are best now. If you have any desire for any other time in human history, you will be worse off then.


Sagmeister & Walsh: Beauty
‪By Stefan Sagmeister, Jessica Walsh‬ ‪
Phaidon Press, 2018‬ ‪
280 page‬s
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