In our money-hungry modern era, very little is genuinely free. You might still luck out here and there and snag something decent from a box of household castoffs on the side of the road, or maybe you’ll get suckered into a trial of a streaming service, only to be sucked into a pesky monthly fee. On the whole, the ever-tightening vice grip of our capitalistic warlords might lead us to believe generosity is on the outs. Yet, somehow, some way, within this sea of hiking prices and monetization schemes, Stefan Sagmeister has emerged as a beacon of hope.
Stefan Sagmeister is a heralded New York designer who founded his own company Sagmeister, Inc. back in the early ’90s. There, he created legendary album art for the likes of Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, David Byrne, and many others. He’s also an author, a teacher in the graduate design department of the School of Visual Arts, and a Frank Stanton Chair at the Cooper Union School of Art. Our own Steven Heller just covered Sagmeister’s continued exploration of his Beautiful Numbers project, which he’s expanded as an exhibition entitled Now is Better on view at the Patrick Parrish Gallery in New York. To say Sagmeiser is a design expert is an understatement, and he offers his expertise through his Instagram account free of charge.
Sagmeister uses his Instagram as a platform to share the work of designers of all levels who have written to him with an idea they’d like critiqued. The captions of each post are all structured the same way: first with the description of the idea from the artist themselves, followed by Sagmeister’s honest thoughts, reflections, and recommendations for the design. He then signs off with, “And: If any of you have any questions for me about anything, please do send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.” There’s a refreshing simplicity to Sagmeister’s direct, yet soothing tone in his feedback. He comes across as stripped of all ego, purely eager to help a fellow designer hone an idea.
Utterly charmed by Sagmeister’s generosity of thought, I reached out to learn more about why he’s chosen to do this.
How long have you been providing this pro bono design review service?
We used to have a date on Monday evenings when up to ten young designers were able to come into the studio and I would review their work. After doing this for numerous years, my travel schedule and then the pandemic made this impossible. So three or four years ago, I moved it over to Instagram, where the audience, of course, was much, much bigger. The downside was that you could not be quite so harsh on IG, and it lost intimacy and directness.
Why have you never looked to monetize this service?
As an established designer, it would seem strange to charge money from designers who are still finding their way.
Why is providing free design critiques to any old person who sends you an email important to you? What is it about offering free design critiques that you find fulfilling or rewarding?
It’s simply interesting to see what people around the world are doing and thinking about. I get many, many emails from places that are not considered design centers. I also enjoy Instagram accounts that have some utility to viewers.
Is there a particular instructor, teacher, or mentor of yours who provided critiques on your work in a way that showed you the importance of this type of feedback?
Yes! I went to a critique [hosted by] Louise Bourgeois many years ago, who allowed ten artists to come to her house every Sunday night for a critique. She was incredibly tough and I was so impressed by her generosity. I copied my version (which is much milder) directly from her.
What are the types of design submissions you’ve enjoyed critiquing the most and find yourself thinking back to?
I, of course, enjoy the ones where I made some suggestions and the designer then resubmits the work with that suggestion in place, especially if the piece really improved.