True Vision

Success finds graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister thinking about the cultural issues that shape us.

Stefan Sagmeister is a rock star. The Austrian-born graphic designer could be the Karim Rashid of print—if he wanted to be. Although he may be the most recognizable name in his profession, he has always been as sincere and unassuming as he is thought-provoking. For evidence, one only needs to flip to the back of his 2001 monograph Sagmeister: Made You Look and see that he not only graded himself critically on completed projects, but also revealed his design fee for each.

Sagmeister is motivated by a general concern for humanity. After 20 years, he still strives to “touch someone’s heart” with his work. Three years ago he took a self-imposed sabbatical to reflect and re-motivate himself, and is now prominently involved in True Majority, a 650,000-strong activist organization established in 2002 to address human rights and social issues in the United States.

The Metropolis art department—designers Criswell Lappin and Nancy Nowacek—spoke with Sagmeister at his New York studio as he prepared for his traveling retrospective, Sagmeister: Made You Look, which was exhibited this winter at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where he has taught since 2000. The three discussed the exhibition, the UPS logo, and the possibility of the Olympics coming to New York.

Criswell Lappin: Tell us about the show and how it came about.
Stefan Sagmeister: There were many shows over the last couple of years. They’re always organized and designed locally. I have nothing to do with them as far as the design is concerned. The show has been to Vienna, Zurich, Osaka, Tokyo, Seoul, Berlin, and Cologne. It is going to Prague after New York. It looks completely different every single time. I walk in and think, “You know, some people might think it was done by a different design studio.” That’s nice.

CL: Do you do a lot of interdisciplinary collaboration in your personal work?
SS: I am often more interested in talking to product designers or architects than graphic designers, because there is really something to learn. I mean, how much can we talk about kerning?

CL: What do you feel students really need to learn before they start practicing?
SS: One of my teachers said—and I thought it was so impossible—that designers must get a good cultural education. When that was said to me, I felt like, “How will I ever get that? That is so big, how will I ever start?” You just need to go out and see. Don’t do a lot of things that don’t interest you.

Nancy Nowacek: Tibor Kalman said you’re much more of an inventor than a designer. What you think about that?
SS: That was a kind thing for him to say. I have an interest in science, but stupid science, on a museum level. I don’t really invent things. I think certain engineers are real inventors. Think about what a creative act that is. For example, think of the guy who invented the anti-skip mechanism. It records 20 seconds ahead, and as soon as it skips, it switches to the recording. To be able to come up with an idea like this and make a mass product—the fact that nobody would know that person, but everybody knows a singer if his face is pretty enough, is a mystery to me.

NN: In this context, how does design in some way equal invention?
SS: I think certain things are simply easier to express in design than others. A lot of the things expressed in design are very short, like a poster or magazine page. You look for seconds or minutes, very rarely hours—which I sometimes find is an advantage.

CL: Do you think the book is so successful because it is partly about you as a person? You even put yourself into the pragmatic information. College kids, I’ve got to imagine, probably ate that up—flipping to the back of the book to find out how much you got paid or what you thought of a specific project, how you graded yourself.
SS: I really was scared to put the money in, because clients might get upset, or new clients will say, “Oh, you did this for so little!” But we didn’t have a single complaint. Not a single client said, “But in there you did a similar project much cheaper.” There was one client who wanted to be left out, and we took them out. They were a terrible client.

CL: And how did you grade your projects yourself?
SS: I tried to be very honest. Quentin Crisp first said that everyone is interesting, and he got a lot of s*** for that because there are so many uninteresting people out there. So he revised it to say, “Everybody who is honest is interesting.” And that really seems to be the case. It was easy to grade myself because I thought, “If I’m just honest, it’s automatically going to be interesting, according to Quentin Crisp.”

NN: What do you think about the current state of design?
SS: I’m happy to see young people doing good work again, as they did in the ’90s. It seemed to me that for a while many people who were very talented got out of school, took on jobs for $70,000 or $80,000, and did terrible work. Here in New York there is a sort of scene of young people who do good work that’s different from the work of my generation.

CL: What gap do we, as graphic designers, need to fill?
SS: Well, in general, it would be great if graphic designers would concentrate more on projects whose sole purpose is not to sell. I think it would be great if designers would concentrate also on other things besides graphics—anything from information to entertainment.

CL: A designer’s best contribution is not always designing objects, it’s about making people aware, especially those who have problem-solving capabilities.
SS: I think a lot of the people that are hiring designers do very specialized local work, which is fine. But at the same time, the really large projects—consumer packaging, large identity objects—are done by branding people who really couldn’t care less. Or they care, but they don’t care about the same things I care about. It’s a pity something that really does have visual influence on how kids grow up, identities that are implemented on tens of thousands of buildings and trucks, is not recognized.

NN: Were you upset when the UPS logo was redesigned?
SS: Yes, I do think it’s worse than it was before, but I never saw the old UPS logo as one of Paul Rand’s masterpieces. And now it looks more like a gas station. But there were no big tears. I get much more upset about the redesign of the Verizon logo. I think it has so much more influence on our visual culture than some CD cover.

CL: Do you like the idea of the Olympics coming to New York?
SS: I think it is an excellent plan. I’m not all that involved in sports, specifically in sports viewing. But there are a couple of aspects of the plan that I think make Manhattan a much better place. One of my favorite parts is that they would handle all of the village traffic by high-speed ferry, which means we would have many more reasons to go to the waterfront. The waterfront will become much more part of the city. I spent years in the ’90s when I did not see the water an entire year. I forgot I lived on an island.

CL: What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?
SS: I guess, ultimately, something that touches you. All the pieces are out of their native environment. But they’re still design pieces, so they can still live in the shows too, which is why I can so freely let other people design the shows. I think if the pieces can’t survive handling by somebody else, there might be something wrong with them in the first place. If you put them on a red background and they can’t survive, then maybe they’re not good design pieces.

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