Stefan Sagmeister on Art, Design and Happiness

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When I heard Stefan Sagmeister speak at the HOW Design Conference for the first time in 2000, he shared what was then a radical idea: taking time off from client work to focus on his own creative experimentation.

What seemed ballsy at the time—pursuing self-directed (read: unpaid) work—is pretty common in design these days. Then, designers in the audience hung on every word. Is he nuts? How will he survive? Could I get away with that?

Sagmeister’s first year without clients stretched from 2000 to 2001. During that year, he learned the value of setting goals and scheduling his time (so he didn’t fritter away empty days). He created stuff that continues to underpin his client work. And he learned the value of taking a break—so much that he’s made it an every-seven-years deal. Read more about his sabbaticals here.

Year two without clients was in 2008–2009, when he spent much of the time in Bali contemplating the notion of happiness, which sparked the idea for a documentary, “The Happy Film,” that continues in production. A talk in June 2010 at TED Cannes explains his ideas on creating happiness.

Sagmeister, Stefan_Photo_2014 HDC

In an interview with Debbie Millman for her online radio program Design Matters, Stefan talked about the hardest part of any design project, the comparison between art and design and his definition of happiness.

Debbie (whose show open is itself worth a listen) introduced Stefan by saying, “His work is striking to a point of sensationalism and humorous but in such an unsettling way that it’s almost, but not quite, unacceptable; he mixes sexuality and sensuality, with wit and a whiff of the sinister.

“He’s a hero, a superstar and a very, very lovely man.”

Stefan Sagmeister on thinking …

“Everything that’s at the beginning of the project—the thinking—is hard. The most difficult thing for me is the actual thinking. So I always want to naturally delay it as much as I can. When I realized this, I do it first in the day. And I’ve found that my thinking is actually better in the morning when my brain is still un-fried. I used to do e-mails first thing, but I think that’s really crap. Immediately, you have this beeping sensation in your brain, and your brain is full of all the stuff you’re supposed to do but you haven’t done any of it. So now I do everything that needs a concept in the morning and do e-mail around noon or 1. And when I do it that late I’m really eager to see who’s contacted me. And I only do that once a day. The worst is if you have the inbox open the whole day and every half an hour I check the three or five new e-mails that have come in. Your whole day is wasted. You’re constantly reacting and not creating anything. When I succumb to that, I find those days very busy and very unsatisfying.”

On the comparison between art and design …

“There’s a great and lovely explantation by Brian Eno, and he says that instead of looking at a piece of art as an object, it might be much more helpful to look at it as an experience. That solves a whole lot of problems. We can just say for ourselves, Do I have an art experience when I look at this or don’t I? I can look at an iPod Shuffle and say, this thing has been designed as well as it could be. And the sensation I have when I’m using it is an art experience.

At the same time, there’s a good quote by Donald Judd, the minimalist artist, who says, ‘Design has to work; art does not.’”

Debbie, on Stefan’s postcard announcing an AIGA engagement “Things to Do Before I Die”…

“When I got this, I gasped. It’s been on my wall ever since. This, to me, is a piece of art. It’s design AND art. And if something can be design AND art, it’s that much more powerful. I think that’s when the people who make a difference rise up and change our lives.”


On his first year without clients …

“The year that I took off was really planned and conducted to do design experiments. It had less to do with me and much more to do with design. And I think it turned out to be a good investment for our clients, because there were ideas that were developed that could be applied after the studio opened again.”

On happiness …

“In design, I think it’s being able to come up with ideas when the deadline is still far away, when there’s no pressure and you can really figure out ideas with nothing looming. In life, I have a list of moments of happiness from the past. One is driving through the Austrian Alps on my brother’s motorcycle while listening to the Police without a helmet.”

HOW Design LIVE 2014

Stefan Sagmeister returns to the HOW Design Conference stage as a closing keynote speaker for HOW Design Live. Learn more about the program and register.