Stefan Sagmeister – Design has to work, Art does not

Stefan Sagmeister

Sagmeister Inc. (recently won the Lucky Strike Award and was awarded with a Grammy in the category ‘Best Recording Package’) is a graphic design company in New York City and Rockstar Designer Stefan Sagmeister worked some time ago on his most enjoyable book project “Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far” (published by Hermann Schmidt Mainz, ISBN: 978-387439747-6). His grandfather was educated in sign painting and Sagmeister grew up with many of his pieces of wisdom around the house, traditional calligraphy carefully applied in gold leaf on painstakingly carved wooden panels. One of his panel, still hanging in Sagmeister’s hallway in Austria, reads:

This house is mine, and it isn’t mine
the second guy won’t own it either.
They will carry out the third one too,
so tell me, my friend, whose house is it?

Sagmeister is following his tradition with these typographic works. All of them are part of a list he found in his diary under the title: “Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far. “

“Astonishingly”, Sagmeister says, “I only learned twenty or so things so far. Over the last five years I did manage to publish these maxims all over the world, in spaces normally occupied by advertisements and promotions: as billboards, projections, light-boxes, magazine spreads, annual report covers, fashion brochures, and, recently, as giant inflatable monkeys.”

The book is working with statements visualized as typographic work and design. We picked two of them: “Complaining is silly. Either act or forget” and “Trying to look good limits my life.” Can you give us a little insight at which time and circumstances you wrote these in your diary, and what really changed personally after two years the book has been published?
I think of complaining as a useless activity. It never makes me feel any better, (and on the other side, I don’t enjoy hearing other people complaining about something). It just makes more sense to see if I can so something about whatever I have the urge to complain about, and if yes do it. If not, forget about it.
On your second question, this talks less about physical looks or the way I dress and is really about my desire to always appear as the nice guy. This narrows my life, makes it less rich.

Does keeping a diary support ones personal development?
Yes! I think its the easiest and quickest form of a mini-meditation. I find it helpful to reflect once a week, see what worked and what did not. It also allows me to go back and read old diary entries, I am often astonished how long it takes me to change something in my life. When I see that I’ve been writing about a particular flaw of mine for years, I then might finally have the resolve to tackle a problem.

Has there also been a kind of “Things To Do Before I Die” list?
Yes, a very old one. I completed most of the things on it and might have to write a new one.

Art and Design are two different things. As your work is very more art-orientated, what kind of problems you’re faced with in your everyday work for clients? Is this kind of art-design gap the reason why you came up with your sabbatical year?
I see all of our work as design work. Sometimes it comes close to the art world, sometimes it comes close to the product design world, sometimes it comes close to the film world, and at the end its all design. My favorite quote about the difference between art and design comes from Donald Judd: “Design has to work, Art does not.”

On Sagmeister’s website he’s answering some most asked questions by students. On about “running a design studio” he’s been asked for whom he would like to design. Besides Coca Cola there is King Crimson. Why especially King Crimson (a british progressive rock band in the 70’s)?
Because its the only band that I already loved when I was 15 that I still have a lot of respect for.

Currently you’re living part time in Bali, Indonesia. How did you get in touch with Bali and when did you discover your desire living part time in Bali?
I spent the sabbatical year in Bali but am now back in NYC full time. I was first in Bali in 1990 and was captivated by the wonderful mix of gorgeous landscape, kind people, a vibrant craft culture and sophisticated infrastructure.

Can you speak and write some Indonesian, which by the way reminds me sometimes on the old german writing? Does it have it origins in the old Pali, Sanskrit writings?
Indonesian is a very new language, only about 50 years old, a mixture of all the various languages spoken on Indonesia’s 1000’s of islands. Its the Esperanto of South East Asia and no, sadly, I dont speak it. If I would commit to live there longer, it might be quite easy to learn.

Stefan, thank you for bringing this fresh perspective to the role and work of designing.

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