August 3, 2008

Stefan Sagmeister - 100 greetings from lovely 14 Street

This is the full version of an article printed first under the title “Complaining is Silly - An Interview with Stefan Sagmeister” @ at this link. The new title is taken from Stefan’s own “sign off” (hell, he even writes creative emails, go figure).

All pictures and images full copyright of Stefan Sagmeister, used by special licensed permission. For full details to various images in this article, see either Stefan’s web-site or in addition

If you're doing research on Stefan Sagmeister and his work, you'd better make sure your computer has enough free disk space. For someone still comfortably under the age of 50 (b.1962 in Bregenz, Austria), his work, as well as the many reviews, interviews and other written overviews would easily fill your memory stick for sure.

Stefan's work has spanned an amazing amount of applications, uses and media. He is perhaps best known to the masses for his album covers for such stars as Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and David Byrne – former lead man and pure genius behind the Talking Heads for those not keeping up, with Stefan even winning a Grammy for his cover design for a special limited edition box set for this band.

During his various stops around the world he has also built up an amazing portfolio of books, branding designs, graphics, packaging, posters, even cars and other "mobile" forms of getting the message across! His media has ranged from the usual to the extremely unusual and he is known for clever works made of rubber (for example, just search for the phrase "monkey balloons in Scotland"), sculptures designed specifically for each award winner, clothing to spell out type, organic materials of all sorts, interactive visual media that change as someone walks by, works created with thousands of filled coffee cups, works made of bananas (changing color over time), billboards that slowly fade away in the sun, and even a very painful – though ultimately rewarding – venture into carving his work into his own skin, as shown here (sans naughty bits).

Stefan's web-site is also one of the most well presented electronic playgrounds you can find. Not only does it take the viewer through a well-presented tour of many of the works and themes mentioned above, but also takes the time to share "typical" questions with enquiring minds and young designers, not that these two are necessarily exclusive from one another (note: we do indeed encourage everyone – particularly those interested in the business of design or crazy enough to be thinking about going into this field – to visit the web-site's "Design as a Process" section).

Stefan, you are certainly one of the most decorated designers we've met with, if not at least the tallest.

First, to quote one of our favorite Monty Python sketches : how tall are you (seeing you pictured next to your lady friend recently was perhaps a misleading comparison)? Secondly, can you tell us how it feels or what it means to be essentially considered a "celebrity designer"?

First, I am 1.95 meters tall.

Second, my favorite fame-in-design quote comes from Chip Kidd “(a) famous designer is like a 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 pats 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. For example, if you walk into a Starbucks with Lou Reed, the whole place goes quiet. People turn around. They whisper.

Can you give us some insight into your general design process from A to Z (or because of your busy schedule, say A to Q), including how do you "pick out" the ultimate form, texture and color a work incorporates (for full credit, you must use all three of these words in your answer)?

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.

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.

Among all the media you've worked with what has been your favorite?


What would you like to work with that you have not tried yet?

Serious, high end cell animation.

You've indicated before the importance of being "choosy" when picking a client (e.g. no a-holes) as well as a project, especially in terms of keeping your interest high, being proud to be associated with the outcome, and also to be honest ­getting paid.

Has their ever been a project you've done that you'd like to go back and redo, and if so, how and why?

No, I'd rather learn from the experience and do it better next time. I am not big on regrets.

For someone that I would still consider to be relatively young (heck if you're old, I'm not far behind you), you seem to incorporate a lot of "philosophy" in your works, including your various "split" pieces (e.g. "Trying", "To Look", "Good", "Limits", "My Life") and even widely published "excerpts" from your diary, including one of your best known pieces of advice given as the title of (the previous article.

Explain a bit then about the emotions you're trying to generate with these philosophically based works and why it is that you do seem to the untrained eye to focus on "words of wisdom" in your works.

The entire series "Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far" came out of a desire to create graphic design that goes beyond promoting and selling. I have nothing against either (my parents were sales people) but think that the design language is too powerful to do just those two things with it. Its like learning French and then using it exclusively to talk with your accountants.

Again, in reference to your philosophical side, some of your works "split up" a message, be it in different picture frames or even works that span over several cities. What message or impact are you trying to convene with these separation techniques?

These are just practical devices, i.e., a long sentence being divided up over several billboards. No particular mystery behind it.

Now according to your own words you were indeed once a musician in a band, albeit the worst musician in a bad band to be exact. What other work would you consider doing (exceptions: design and music then) and why?

Making films. Sounds like fun.

You've indicated some, let's say, discomfort about the work being done by larger branding consultancies out there. With that in mind, how do you feel about the ever-growing and some say more and more invasive use of ad media in our lives today (e.g. pop-up ads on INTERNET, ads broadcast through our mobile phones, the swarm of print and visual ads we deal with everywhere, even when rushing to meet our plane)? Do you have any feelings of discomfort about being involved in this market?

I am not involved in any of the things you mention above. While I do agree that it does make the world uglier in many regards, I am not that worried, as I block all that crap out immediately. The entire notion that "we are now bombarded with 25,000 messages a day" is technically correct, but the more crap I am bombarded with, the better I get in blocking from even entering my mind.

You've had some interesting stops on your world-wide career tour. If the gods themselves appeared to you and said "you can have your cake and eat it, too", namely, you could pursue your interests ANYWHERE in the world without any discomfort or interruption to your processes, where would you go set up shop and why?

I will start my second client free , experimental year this September 1st near Ubud, in Bali, Indonesia. The gods themselves appeared.

You've not only done some work that contains strong statements or images in relation to social responsibility, but have also commented how important this is to you.

Where do you see yourself and your own role in terms of social responsibility? Can / should the design industry being doing more in this regard and if so, in what way?

There is no special responsibility for designers, but there is one for us as humans.

Do you see any trends either for your own work or the world around you? Or do you prefer to keep trends out of your radar scope?

Everything that can be animated, will be animated. The still image will lose its importance. I am going to Bali.

Extra credit:

How did the "Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far" show go? Can you describe a little bit in terms of what it takes to prepare for such a show? How does this hinder or help your overall creative process and your "day job"?

Right from the start it was so crowded that the cops had to come with bullhorns to get the waiting masses out of the traffic on Grand Street. Inside it felt more like a Bangkok disco then a New York design exhibit opening. My friend Paul, while parking his car 3 blocks away, was warned by a homeless man 'not to go over there, - its too crazy'.

We did have 10,000 typographically arranged bananas on the wall, a couple of giant inflatable monkeys about, and Milton Glaser, Massimo Vignelli and Bob Gill all taking hourly shifts drawing type into the fogged up window of the gallery.

It seems all of your web bios love to start out with "He's Austrian", like this seems to indicate you have a third arm or an extra eye on your forehead (same as my experience working for nearly 18 years in Switzerland, I am always introduced as "Ziggy Nixon, who is zkwxtkz (sorry signal temporarily lost)...", noting I had my own third eye removed years ago). All kidding aside, what "hints" of your Bregenzian roots could one find in your works? How do you think this differentiates you from other "native" colleagues say in either New York or Hong Kong?

I became aware very early that a life lived solely on financial goals will be a very poor one, a notion that is likely to be more readily available in Bregenz than in NYC.

You've also given well received presentations for
TED. How was that for you?

The first time VERY intimidating, as I was sandwiched between the guy to decoded the genome (Craig Ventor) and the women who fixed the Hubble telescope. I felt like an idiot showing my CD covers. But it turned out that the scientists are as interested in my world as I am in theirs.

Some folks think TED can be a bit "exclusive" (at $6'000 a ticket, I could see why some would think that). Do you find that to be the case or even is their presentation "rules" (e.g. limited time, etc.) in any way "constrictive" for your style?

YES, it is a "bit" exclusive, to say the least, but considering they put so many talks up on the web for free, its hard to keep bitching about it.

Okay, I'm not the gods anymore, but instead the Devil HERSELF (ahem). You've been a bad boy and I'm going to punish you by making you do the job you would most hate in the world. What would it be and why?

Design one more Aerosmith CD cover.

Ziggy Nixon James Posey Stefan Sagmeister

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