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Stefan Sagmeister creates with open perception

Stefan Sagmeister creates with open perception

He is one of the most innovative contemporary graphical artists, the sage, the thinking man’s designer: Stefan Sagmeister. His most radical work was a poster he created for his lecture in Detroit 1999. The invitation text was scratched into the skin of his torso, then photographed with a large format camera, which made every pore and every drop of blood clearly visible.

Let’s see what Stefan Sagmeister tells us about his life’s lessons thus far.

Photo © by John Madere

What’s your basic, first-resort working method?

Think. Making a list. Concentrate. Talking to the client (often musician). Listen to the music (in case of CD cover). Look through old sketchbooks of mine.

In another interview, you were asked how far you go to maintain your concepts, and you replied, “I scream, I yell and I beg.” It obviously works, but how do clients normally react at first?

Our “normal” client reaction is that they like it, we have not have an unsuccessful first presentation in some time. But we had some averse reaction to what we showed in the past. I also did lose many fights. Also: Often I was wrong.

In keeping with the idea of creating systems, do you think it is possible to “get out of your own way”? If so, how?

No, I’ll always be in my way.

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 point, preventing it from falling into a familiar grove it has formed before.

Do you think we can do anything to encourage chance?

Be more open, less rigid. Give chance a chance (all we are saying…)

Do you think there’s a relationship between accidents and chance? Can you give an example from your own work? From someone else’s work?

If I accept the accident I give it a chance. Example: Projects comes back ‘wrong’ from the printer. Often wrong is just that, wrong, but every once in a while wrong is better. If I can see it and the client has not approved ‘right’ yet.

When you’re stumped for an idea, what do you do to get your creative juices flowing again?

– switch to another project
– use Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards (these are directional cards you can randomly pick up. They help to throw you out of a beaten path).
– Think about the project starting with a nonsensical statement: For example, if my problem is to design a car, may statement might be: The car has no wheels. Using this as a beginning thought, I will arrive at solutions from another angle (even though my resulting car might have wheels again)

In several cases in your work, you use the human body, whether you are nude yourself, using writing on the skin for Lou Reed’s book cover for “Pass thru fire”, cutting into the skin for the AIGA poster, or using a nude corpse for the Pro-Pain CD cover. Why is the human body as a design element such a prominent part of your work?

The human body is just one of the strongest forms there is, one that is incredibly familiar to all of us.
Of course we use it.

What is your explanation of beauty?

My old mentor Tibor Kalmann said: I have nothing against beauty, I just don’t find it all that interesting. Even though I had always liked that quote, I do disagree now: I do find beauty interesting.

Is there any evidence to your Austrian roots in your work?

The thinking that came out of the Viennese Secession around 1900 that it does not really matter if you work on a poster or a chair or a sculpture, that they all come out of the same desires, influenced me greatly.

What traits in your personality distance you from other designers? What separates good from great?

I was born 5 miles from the German border and am likely better organized than most designers. I am not very spontaneous but very focused. Great work is formerly good work that has been pushed very hard.

I have asked you this before, and I think your take on it is quite inspiring… 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.

The Detroit AIGA poster is now being shown in an exhibition which shows highlights of the design collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. How would you explain that this work became such a milestone?

It’s a strong visual. It tells the story of it’s process (it’s making) in a single image.

And just out of curiosity, do you still have scars from when your assistant carved the AIGA invitation into your chest with an x-acto knife? And how badly did that hurt?

No, all healed up. And yes, it hurt a lot.

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.

Are the projects you’re currently working on similar to what you’d done before the sabbatical? Do you feel you want to continue to do CD packaging design?

We are shifting the focus. I still want to do some CD’s, but not as concentrated as before. I’d love for the studio to also focus on socially responsible projects.

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.

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 personnel 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.


What, in your opinion, does have the biggest negative influence on the existence of a small studio or a big company?

For a small studio: the fact that big companies get all the big jobs. For the big companies: That everybody thinks all the good work is done by the small studios. I just returned from Semi-Permanent in New Zealand, a very well run design conference with 1600 attendees and 12 speakers. There was not a single big company represented.

How has the Internet affected your work? Have clients ever ask you to do web work? And also, are there any Web sites that have amazed you?

The biggest web influence on our work is google. We can now find things quickly that would have taken serious research three years ago. It enables us to do (printed) things differently. Clients have often asked us to do web work and so far we have always declined. I became a designer because of print (I could have done TV graphics then too, but they never interested me much), so as long as I have a choice (and I don’t get bored) it’ll probably stay that way. There are many amazing web sites out there.

Are there any websites that you frequent on a regular basis? If yes which websites.

What’s your attitude towards the digital age – facebook, twitter, social networks, etc.?

I try to spend less time in front of a screen and more time in front of people, simply because I like it better. As a result I spend little time with all of them.

Talking about innovation, once again you have surprised with your site (, where people can watch, in real time, the agency team working at Sagmeister Inc. For what reason did you decided to install this camera in the office and provide the images online?

People started to complain about our old flash based site and it was those complaints that prompted us to rethink. We wanted the new site to feature content in a fast and clean manner, and at the same time utilize a somewhat exciting interface. Our original plan was to paint the buttons on the building opposite our studio on 23rd street in Manhattan and than point a camera at it from our office, so a viewer going through the site would have the same view as we do. When we could not get the permits for painting the buttons on that building we painted them on our own floor. And we all wound up in the interface.

Do you think technology encourages or discourages accidents?

The more complicated the tools, the bigger the possibility for total fuck-ups.

What do you like to do to get away from design to relax?

Work out and lie in the Jacuzzi afterwards. Sex. Movies. Books. Fly away.

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.

What is the function of graphic design today?

To communicate efficiently and effectively utilizing words and pictures.

Design can seem so impersonal and I’ve read that you want to be able to touch someone’s life. Do you think it is possible 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.

You are pushing for “Design” to become more humanistic and less shallow. You gave two design examples of instances where you have touched people (“Dear Girls! Please be nice to Reini.” and a televised happy birthday wish for your mother). Unfortunately, neither of those two has made you any monetary profit. In addition, when business advertisements focus on social issues rather than their own products, they are often criticized. Is there a happy medium?

I think businesses are criticized because their cause is seen as inauthentic. I used to think the whole Ben & Jerry’s socially responsible behavior was a marketing gimmick without any real values behind it. Ben Cohen in the meantime became a client and a good friend and I have changed my mind on his intentions completely. I think I became less cynical as I got older.

I saw you did a presentation ‘branding is overrated outdated crap’ or some such thing… and I would love to hear another view point than those fawning over brand wonderfulness – a viewpoint that places this brand frenzy into a realistic light?

In general branding people (as well as designers) overestimate the power of their work. I saw Jeff Swystun, the head of international branding at Interbrand show a slide of a Starbucks coffee cup and the price of $ 4.00 underneath, and compare it to a slide with Dunkin Doughnuts coffee (50 cents) and triumphantly declare the difference between the two as: Branding.

Jeff of course is unable to tell the difference between two different products: One in custom made, the other not, one is steamed, the other dripped, etc. Branding (or at least the kind of branding Interbrand provides) plays a miniscule role in all of this.

In your book, Sagmeister: Made You Look, there is a personal quote stating, “Art fucks design and vice versa.” You seem to be a fan of both. Why do you think these two don’t play nicely together?

Because right now, with all the talk about blurring the line in between them, they still don’t know much about each other. But there were always moments in time when they did have a great time together, in this century at the Bauhaus in Germany and at the Wiener Werkstaedte in Vienna. Or, a more recent example, that Damien Hirst book by Jonathan Barnbrook, one of my favorite art and design collaborations.

Eclecticism seems to surround you. Your work, your life, and those you’ve chosen to work with—all showing a wide range of nationalities and cultural influences. How much do you think this has molded your creativity and success as a designer?

Actually, I don’t see myself as a particularly eclectic person. I am pretty regular. Different influences are always helpful. Most designers I like have big interests in other fields: John Maida and his programming abilities, Tibor Kalmann and his political background in the student movement, Storm Thorgeson and his photo montage wizardry, they all stayed away from the typical influence of design annuals.

What was it like to work with Tibor Kalman?

He was the single most influential person in my designy life and my one and only design hero. 25 years ago, as a student in NYC, I called him every week for half a year and I got to know the M&Co receptionist really well. When he finally agreed to see me it turned out I had a sketch in my portfolio rather similar in concept and execution then an idea M&Co was just working on: He rushed to show me the prototype out of fear I’d say later he stole it out of my portfolio. I was so flattered.

When I finally started working there 5 years later I discovered it was, more than anything else, his incredible salesmanship that set his studio apart from all the others. There were probably a number of people around who were as smart as Tibor (and there were certainly a lot who were better at designing), but nobody else could sell these concepts without any changes, get those ideas with almost no alterations out into the hands of the public. Nobody else was as passionate. As a boss he had no qualms about upsetting his clients or his employees (I remember his reaction to a logo I had worked on for weeks and was very proud of: “Stefan, this is TERRIBLE, just terrible, I am so disappointed”). His big heart was shining through nevertheless. He had the guts to risk everything, I witnessed a very large architecture project where he and M&Co had collaborated with a famous architect and had spent a years worth of work: He was willing to walk away on the question of who will present to the client. Tibor had an uncanny knack for giving advice, for dispersing morsels of wisdom, packaged in rough language later known as Tiborisms: “The most difficult thing when running a design company is not to grow” he told me when I opened my own little studio.”

“Just don’t go and spend the money they pay you or you are going to be the whore of the ad agencies for the rest of your life” was his parting sentence when I moved to Hong Kong to open up a design studio for Leo Burnett. These insights were also the reason why M&Co. got so much press, journalists could just call him and he would supply the entire structure for a story and some fantastic quotes to boot. He was always happy and ready to jump from one field to another, corporate design, products, city planning, music video, documentary movies, children books, magazine editing were all treated under the mantra “you should do everything twice, the first time you don’t know what you’re doing, the second time you do, the third time its boring”.

He did good work containing good ideas for good people.

Your portfolio includes political work. Are you politically minded, or is it simply client work that you happen to agree with?

As I grew up political questions were part of my life. Naturally I would like them to play some role in my design work. But then there are times when I think my involvement is bullshit. That I should just forget about it, go about doing my little harmless music design projects, have fun, and leave it at that.
On top of it, if you support a cause, who knows if you are right. I was at a conference in February in Monterey where a Chemistry Nobel Prize winner declared global warming a joke, saying that the entire question is a scientific fiasco clearly traceable to a measuring mistake.

Did you experience changes in and around your creative work after the September 11th?

Yes. All the way up to September 2001, I was in the middle of a year without clients, a space where I was trying to conduct experimental designs without the pressure of everyday projects. During that year I decided that I wanted to spend less time on music oriented design projects, and more on “socially relevant” projects. At the same time I was aware that we will need to work on some corporate jobs to finance the whole thing. The events of September underlined this desire. The crisis of the unnecessary, as Peter Saville memorably put it, became severe.

You are a member of the nonprofit organization group called Business for Sensible Priorities. I have also read the script from your speech (How Good is Good?) at the AIGA National Conference in March 2002. What the backgrounds and motives behind your such activities? And its relations to your creative work?

There is my desire for the things that I do to matter. I also found the work in the nonprofit field very difficult. First, you have to know that you are right. Second, you have to be part of the group, designing from the outside turned out to be not very efficient. There are small budgets and large boards to deal with. Many changes. CD covers are definitely easier.

What are some of the subjects or issues that interest you or preoccupy you recently? For example, in your speech “How Good is Good?,” you have mentioned the positive effects which design/designer can offer to society such as emotional, educational, humanitarian goodness, and etc.

We finished a lot of work for a group that developed out of the aforementioned Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities group. True Majority, led by Ben Cohen (Ben & Jerry’s cofounder), is trying to get the U.S. government to adopt a number of long term policies designed to prevent another 9/11. These include very wide things like world hunger and reducing our dependence on oil to more specific points like paying UN dues ungrudgingly.

With regard to the prizes you have won, how important are they to you?

I am very happy about the Grammy, after having worked in the music industry so long, it is sweet to have won its major award. The design prizes I guess were nice when they were given to us, but they definitely don’t create lasting joy or meaning…

Why did David Byrne, the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed come to you to design their CDs? (I know, the “stories” are in Peter’s great text and your journal entries, but I wonder if there’s a *common desire* that you sensed in all of them.)

Free lemon wafers.

Ellen Shapiro says that your language is personal and intricate, enigmatic. That it takes some time for the spectator to understand it, that it is like a puzzle. Many people support the postulates that messages should be clear, easily decodified, etc., people who would consider your way of designing almost an aberration. What is your opinion about this?

It all depends on the medium you are working in. If I am designing an outdoor poster, it will have to read fast. But if I design an art book, where the viewer can spend a stoned hour in front of it, I can work much more multi-layered, complex and intricate. We also tried to design some of our pieces for different spectator time spans: So that the viewer who has 5 seconds would get something out of it, the viewer who has 50 seconds would understand an extra level, and there is something the 5 minute and the 50 minute viewer too.

You mentioned in one of your video lectures the furniture you made in Bali. 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 $ 125,000.00, hmmm), and the stuff I could afford I did not love. So we designed it ourselved in Bali, took a reasonable budget per piece and had them made. Other people liked them so we had some more made. The Darwin Chair is one of these, now manufactured now by Droog in Amsterdam.

Where did you get this idea for the film about happiness?

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.

Do you have a working title for your documentary yet? And do you have an estimate about when it will be done?

The Happy Film. Release 2013.

New York has been great for you. Are you there to stay, or are your dreams to move to Sri Lanka still intact?

Sri Lanka is still calling. New York is definitely the best city I know of anywhere, but that does not mean that I dont want to try out some other places too.

Looking to the future, how do you think the scene will be changing, and what new directions will it be taking?

The still image will continue to lose its importance. Everything that can be animated will be animated. The book will die.

I am as interested in what people are reading as what they are listening to, are there any books, magazines, websites etc. that you are reading at the moment that you would like to share with us?

Eric Larson, The Devil in the White City, Haruki Muarakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun, Zadie Smith, On Beauty.


I had a few, but then again, I’ll mention them anyway: I should not have taken on that Aerosmith job. And I should have taken that cover for Zadie Smith’s book On Beauty.

What is the thing you most curious about right now? (e.g. culture, politics, economy, etc.) What interests you about it?

From the big directions, probably Science: There are incredible developments being created and explored within the scientific community, probably the biggest discoveries in human history with incredible impacts for all of our future lives and still largely ignored by the general mainstream culture.

How do you seek to remain authentic?
By trying to be honest.

What moves you most in your life right now?

The Happy Film Titles from {group theory} on Vimeo.

The Happy Film is a feature-length documentary (in production) in which graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister undergoes a series of self-experiments outlined by popular psychology to test once and for all if it’s possible for a person to have a meaningful impact on their own happiness.


Sagmeister Aiga Detroit poster
“For this lecture poster for the AIGA Detroit we tried to visualize the pain that seems to accompany most of our design projects. Our intern Martin cut all the type into my skin. Yes, it did hurt real bad.”

Art Direction: Stefan Sagmeister
Photography: Tom Schierlitz
Client: Aiga Detroit
Date: 1999
Size: 27.5” x 39” (69 x 99 cm)



“We designed a poster announcing the new album of Lou Reed. The lyrics are extremely personal. We tried to show this by writing those lyrics directly over his face.”

Art direction & design: Stefan Sagmeister
Photography: Timothy Greenfield Sanders
Client: Warner Bros. Music Inc.
Size: 680mm x 984mm
Date: 1996


Things I have learned in my life so far.
Astonishingly, Stefan Sagmeister has only learned twenty or so things in his life so far. But he did manage to publish these personal maxims all over the world, in spaces normally occupies by advertisements and promotions: as billboards, projections, light-boxes, magazine spreads, annual report covers, fashion brochures, and, recently, as giant inflatable monkeys. In this presentation Sagmeister throws his diary, a lot of design, and a little art together with a pinch of psychology and a dash of happiness into a blender and pushes the button. It tastes surprisingly yummy.

This book was published in Spring 2008 by Abrams featuring 15 different covers and 256 pages.

Concept: Stefan Sagmeister
Design: Stefan Sagmeister & Matthias Ernstberger
Photo: Henry Leutwyler
Illustration: Yuki Muramatsu, Stephan Walter
Editor: Deborah Aaronson
Production: Anet Sirna-Bruder
Client: Abrams Inc.
Year: 2008


“David Byrne and Brian Eno approached us to create the deluxe packaging for their latest collaboration – Everything that Happens Will Happen Today. The music is folksy – however not without a dark edge.

We let this influence the design of the package. An idyllic suburban house sets the stage for many different scenes. Some seemingly innocuous (an oil stain on the driveway), some quite curious (an industrial-size air conditioning unit on the front lawn) and others more disturbing (a gasoline canteen in the kitchen)… All of them eluding to a deeper story which goes untold.

Recipients of the special edition package are treated to a miniature 3D diorama of the scene, light-activated sound-effects originating from within the house, a 92-page lyrics mini-booklet, the music CD, a bonus DVD with enhanced content and other surprises.”

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
Art Direction: Stefan Sagmeister
Design: Richard The, Joe Shouldice, Jared Stone
Illustration: Stephan Walter
Client: David Byrne and Brian Eno
Production: Gamil Design
Size: 5 in x 5 in x 3 in (12.5 cm x 12.5 cm x 7.5 cm)
Year: 2009

Biography Stefan Sagmeister
Stefan Sagmeister, a native of Austria, received his MFA from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and, as a Fulbright Scholar, a master’s degree from Pratt Institute in New York. He has designed visuals for the Rolling Stones, the Talking Heads and Lou Reed. Having been nominated five times for the Grammies he finally won one for the talking Heads boxed set. He also earned won most international design awards. In 2001 a best selling monograph about his work titled “Sagmeister, Made you Look” was published by Booth-Clibborn editions. Solo shows on Sagmeister Inc’s work have been mounted in Zurich, Vienna, New York, Berlin, Tokyo, Osaka, Prague, Cologne and Seoul. He lectures extensively on all continents.

Belonging to the first generation of true Europeans, with roots almost covering the continent, I spread my life between Germany and Serbia. Read more