Design, Beauty and the Pursuit of Happiness

If he wasn’t so publicly searching for it all the time, one could say that Stefan Sagmeister has reached a state of perfect happiness. The 55 year-old Austrian-born moved to New York in the nineties, worked for his idol Tibor Kalman, designed iconic album covers for Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones and developed a deeply personal style, which won him prestigious clients, widespread critical acclaim and the chance to travel the world to attend conferences in which he always comes across as the funny and outspoken teacher that everyone would want to hang out with. Five years ago he partnered with Jessica Walsh, a former collaborator of his who had quickly surged to be one of the hottest names within the new generation of graphic designers. In one of their first pictures together, they appeared naked in their office surroundings. Since then, Sagmeister&Walsh have been using a powerfully eclectic and aesthetically bold concept of design to produce campaigns, experiences, books, videos and much more for a wide array of clients, from the New York Jewish Museum to Frooty, India’s major mango juice brand. Both of them also took time off to indulge in personal projects, such as Jessica’s 40 Days of Dating, in which she documented the experiment of dating her friend Timothy Goodman, or Stefan’s The Happy Film, a documentary he co-directed in which he embarks on a quest to find happiness through different methods, from therapy to love and drugs. The idea for the latter came out of a sabbatical year that Sagmeister took in Bali, Indonesia, back in 2009, a right that he has made a point to exercise every seven years. Up to now.

Stefan
I’ve actually just come back from a sabbatical. I was the first few months in Mexico City, then in Tokyo and then in some tiny village in the Austrian Alps. Like with all sabbaticals I ended up working quite a bit, but not on any project that came in from the outside. Past sabbaticals turned out well. Because if you have one year to think about something, you normally come out with a different thing than if you had only one weekend. And if you do work that others don’t do, then you can set a price for it.

Things seem to be going pretty well here. How many people do work in the office right now?

Jessica
Around twenty. There are no more seats. Over the years we grew a bit, because we started taking on large-scale projects that weren’t possible to do it in four people anymore, but this is definitely the maximum size we want to be.

Stefan
My mentor Tibor Kalman once told me the only difficult thing in opening a studio is to figure out how not to grow, everything else is very easy.

Do you ever turned down jobs?

Jessica
We turn down jobs all the time. Also, we don’t pitch on projects, which most other agencies do. So most of our work gets to see the light of day, which a lot of the designers here appreciate.

Stefan
There is a very different commitment from the client and from us if we know we have the job. We will do more research, dig deeper, try harder. The ultimate question will always be: “What is the best thing for the client’s audience?” Rather than: “How do we win this pitch?”

What sets you apart form other studios or agencies?

Jessica
We try to create things that will make people feel something: they will get a laugh, start a dialogue, think about things in a different way…

Stefan
Or simply they will feel they are spoken to by other humans, not by a machine. Most of the stuff that communication designers do is work that pretends to be made by a computer. There’s no personal connection, no emotionality, no delight. It’s all pure functionality. Besides the fact that it’s cold and inhumane, it doesn’t even work that well. Look at that brown UPS truck out of the window. I think it’s a totally fine truck, but it could be a delightful truck. There are thousands of it in this city and still they say zero to me. The UPS truck could be iconic like the New York City yellow cab but it isn’t. If they came to us, we would tell them that.

And why do clients choose you over other studios and agencies?

Jessica
Usually they have seen a project or two that we have done, half of the time it’s our self-initiated projects.

Stefan
A lot of people feel that our self-initiated projects are real, that they were made as honestly as we could. Of course it’s not that easy to translate that, because if you say something honestly and then put a Nike logo underneath it, it already gets a different meaning.

Speaking about self-initiated projects, both your careers as designers include the desire to expose your feelings and your bodies. Is it pure narcissism? A publicity stunt? Or a form of self-therapy?

Stefan
Graphic design is a language. It’s sort of idiotic to think that so many of us within the profession just use it to talk commercially. We want to use that language in a way that is much more personal, that concerns many aspects of our lives that we find important, from kindness to how to date or the pursuit of happiness. It’s also a way to keep us sane in some way.

Jessica
Definitely Forty Days of Dating was about exposing myself in many ways. At the time dating was something that I was sucking at, so I thought: “All right… Can I make an experiment out of that? Learn something in a process but also use design as a tool to tell my story in a unique way?” But I don’t think it is always about exposure.

Stefan
The project we are working on right now, for example, is about beauty and neither Jessica or I are featured in it at all.

Can you tell me more about it?

Stefan
Both of us through experience found that if we take form seriously, then everything will work much better. So to bring it down to one slogan it could be: Beauty is Function. So much of what we see out there, whether online or offline, is basically default: “This is how it’s been done for the past eighty years. So why not use Helvetica in a grid?” We both think this a mistake and we decided to make a project about it. It will feature a book and an exhibition. It will be presented in Fall 2018 in Wien and in Spring 2019 in Frankfurt.

For a long time graphic designers have been the invisible facilitators for someone else’s work, while both of you are not only glamorous designers…

Stefan
She is. I’m wearing socks when I’m nude, and I don’t think that’s so glamorous.

… but also authors at all effects. Do you think more designers will be authors in the future?

Stefan
The designer as a true author might be as difficult as a role than being a film director. You’d need to have many diverging talents in a single person. It just doesn’t happen that often.

Jessica
But it’s also true that with social media and online platforms it has become easier to have a voice. This couldn’t have happened twenty or thirty years ago. No publisher would have given us a chance with Forty Days of Dating.

Do you think in design there is a problem of patriarchy as well as in other industries?

Jessica
In America, only 8 or 10 percent of creative directors or CEOs are women, and even less so in other countries. This causes all kinds of problems, especially competition between women. This was the main reason behind another initiative I started: Ladies Wine & Design. It’s in 140 cities now. Here in New York I do mentorship circles with ten women at a time. But in other cities they do conferences, meet ups…

Would you consider your work political?

Jessica
We did quite a bit of work leading up to Trump getting elected. Protesting against him, using design as a tool to do that…

Stefan
You could say all design work is political in some way. Even the decision to work for this client and not for that client is in many ways political. Probably one of the largest jobs that we have ever turned down was for a giant media company whose values we didn’t agree with. I’m not even mentioning this from a moral standpoint. Ultimately we work really well with clients whose products we love and use. First and foremost we don’t have to lie.

Jessica
The work we’ve done for Frooty, for example.

Stefan
It was presented in India as part of the cityscape and it didn’t annoy the people of India like so much advertising does. Today, more than half of humanity lives in a city. And if you live in Manhattan, then 100% of your surroundings were designed by a design professional. From the phone that you are holding to the clothes that you are wearing to this floor to this window to the street to the neighborhood to the city plan. From that point of view it’s easy to argue that design plays the same role in the life of an urban person that nature plays in the world of a person who lives in a Papua New Guinean rainforest.

What do you think the studio will be doing in ten years time?

Stefan
If you look at the books that Google has digitialized so far – they started in the 18th century – and you check how often the term beauty has been used, you can see it’s very high all through the 19th century, then pretty much around WWI it goes down and keeps going down throughout the 20th century. Then in the 21st century it has an uptake. We feel that uptake is going to become much stronger and play a much bigger role in design again. We both feel that, as we are going on, form will be taken much more seriously again. Ultimately we think that humans are drawn to beauty.

This article originally appeared on ICON Design, 22, April 2018.

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