Stefan Sagmeister

Q:  How do you know how to say no to a potential client?

 A:  When the project is bad.  When I don’t like them.  When they have rush jobs (clients who are bad at scheduling a job are often bad in other areas too).


Q:  From what you’ve seen and experienced, what exists in the designs that have had the most emotional impact on a community?

 A:  Designs that needed guts from the creator and still carry the ghost of these guts in the final execution

  • Designs that evoke memories
  • Designs that are viewable over and over again and again
  • Beautiful designs
  • Designs whose craft levels are very high (the unbelievability that somebody can be so good at something)
  • Surprises
  • Extremely labor-intensive designs
  • Personalized designs


Q:  How much does experience count in the ability to produce good design?

 A:  I get better at selecting the right projects and clients, I have more power in getting them through, at the same time I have to  watch against being jaded and repeating myself.  It’s a trade off.  I could not judge myself if our recent work is better or worse compared to that from 10 years ago.  Well, actually, no, not true, I do think it is better now.  I think this is true because I have absolutely no interest in showing work from 10 years ago.


Q:  Do you have any beliefs or policies that haven’t changed over the years?

 A:  Yes, a whole lot of them:

  1. Helping other people helps me
  2. Having guts always works for me
  3. Thinking that life will be better in the future is stupid.  I have to live now.
  4. Starting a charity is surprisingly easy
  5. Being not truthful works against me
  6. Everything I do always comes back to me
  7. Assuming is stifling
  8. Drugs feel great in the beginning and become a drag later on
  9. Over time I get used to everything and start taking for granted
  10. Money does not make me happy
  11. Traveling alone is helpful for a new perspective on life
  12. Keeping a diary supports personal development
  13. Trying to look good limits my life
  14. Material luxuries are best enjoyed in small doses
  15. Worrying solves nothing
  16. Complaining is silly. Either act of forget.
  17. Actually doing the things I set out to do increases my overall level of satisfaction.
  18. Everybody thinks they are right.
  19. If I want to explore a new direction professionally, it is helpful to try it out for myself first.
  20. Low expectations are a good strategy.
  21. Everybody who is honest is interesting.

Q:  With so many potential clients and design work in NYC, what has lead you to do so much work outside of the U.S.?

A:  The joy of travel, the fight of boredom, the appeal of the new, the desire to work in different cultures, the possibility to compare, the realization that it is easier to come up with a new concept in a foreign hotel room than in the studio, the current administration, the amount of red states, and utterly crappy American airports.

Q:  What do you love at work most?

 A:  Here are six things I love:

  • Thinking about ideas and content freely—with the deadline far away
  • Working without interruption on a single project
  • Using a wide variety of tools and techniques
  • Traveling to new places
  • Working on projects that matter to me
  • Having things come back from the printer done well


Q:  How do you get what’s personal out of your head and onto paper, canvas, the screen?

 A:  First, find out what’s important to you.  Then go out and try to get clients that share those obsessions.  I made and make the mistake of only taking on clients that came by themselves and never to go after somebody.


Q:  Is there a difference between the work you do for yourself and the work you do for a client?  What is that relationship?

 A:  I don’t work for myself.  When I do, it’s always with the hope that I can use it in a published project afterwards.  A project is not done until it’s published.  I don’t work to exercise my demons or as self-therapy.  I work to talk, to tell, to communicate.

Q:  Do you consider Graphic Designers as Artists?

 A:  I personally don’t care.  My favorite art definition comes from Brian Eno, who says to think of artworks not as objects but as “triggers for experiences”.  Therefore, you can have an art experience in front of a Rembrandt or not, in front of an Andres Serrano or in front of a piece of graphic design.  It depends on the viewer.


Q:  Do you believe that Graphic Designers should express their personalities in their own work?

 A:  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 don’t 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.

Q:  Have you ever had doubts about what you wanted to do, or abo A:  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.

Q:  How important is formal design education?

 A:  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.


Q:  Do you read a lot?

 A:  Yes.  The two books I could recommend to my students are both not graphic design books.  One book that was extremely helpful to me was written by Edward DeBono called Thinking Course.  Edward DeBono is a philosopher from Malta—he wrote a lot of books about thinking.  And he shows many exercises about how you can improve your thinking.  There are a good number of tricks in there that I use all the time that help me come up with ideas.  He says our brain is an incredibly sophisticated computer which is best in thinking in repetition.  It has to be that way, otherwise, if you want to pick up, say, a business card, if the brain would be creative all the time, I would have to think: oh, hands go forward, go down fingers, move, now lift it up.  It would be too complicated.  The brain, by necessity is very good at thinking automatically.  But when it comes to creative ideas, the brain also wants to think in repetition.  So DeBono shows you some ways to trick the brain out of thinking in repetitions, to throw it out of its regular paths.

 The other book is written by Brian Eno.  He is a very important electronic musician, who had invented ambient music and produced the Talking Heads and U2.  He wrote a diary for one year.  The way he goes about making his music and thinking about music is very helpful for graphic designers.

Q:  What advice would you give to someone starting off in this profession?

A:  Work your ass off.  Do as much as possible.  Figure out what you really like and get good at it.

Q:  What is the best advice you received that you would like to share with aspiring designers?

 A:  When I was moving to Hong Kong and was about to make a lot of money, Tibor Kalman told me:  And don’t 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 colleagues did not get that great advice and are still stuck in the agencies. 


Q:  What would you tell a student to concentrate on in school to become the best designer they can be?

 A:  Read a lot.  Have interest in as many things as possible.  Check out product design.  Go out a lot.  Look at art.  Get influenced by things outside of the annuals.


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