Hey everybody, how's it going? I'm Chase Jarvis. Welcome to another episode of, "Chase Jarvis Live," here on, "Creative Live." You're tuned in, specifically to the, "30 Days Of Genius," series. In this series, I sit down with the world's top creative's, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders, and talk with them to create actionable insights for you to help you live your dreams in career, hobby, and life. If you're new to this series, you should go to www.CreativeLive.com/30DaysOfGenius. The number three zero days of genius. All you have to do is click the blue button, and then you get a bad ass interview like this one, in your inbox everyday, for 30 days. A lot of information, a lot of inspiration. I promise it will add value to your life. My guest today, you will know him he is one of the top designers in the world, bar none, he's won a Grammy award for the work that he's done in the music industry, the National Design award, he's the author of numerous books in installations and collecti...
ons worldwide. None other than, Mister Stefan Sagmeister.
Thank you very much. (upbeat music)
All right, welcome to the show. Thanks again, for joining us. All the way ... We came across the country to sit down and talk to you. We're very, very happy to be here in, New York, your hometown.
Happy to be here too. It's still my favorite city in the world.
It's an incredible city, and actually I'd like to go into ... So, before we start, just a moment ago as we were just turning on the cameras, Stefan's phone started dinging and he said, "Oh, that's a joke." I don't understand. What's happening?
We have an exhibition running right now in Vienna, called, "The Happy Show," and one of the many things that's in there is a big push button in one of the walls.
Just a random button?
It's a button with an arrow and it say, "Push This." And, you push the button, and out of the wall comes a little card, and that gives you like, a prompt of what to do next in the exhibition. You know, all sorts of things, and one of the cards says, "Text a joke to this number," and it's my cell phone number. So, I get tons and tons of jokes, all the time.
Do people ever call the number?
Here and there, but quite rarely. Especially, it's surprising how very well behaved people are. Like, in the beginning I thought, "Oh my God, I'm gonna have to change my number afterwards, "because people will call it, all the time." It's not the case at all, and I get some really, really excellent jokes.
Of course. A: You've got an installation in Vienna, right now. B: You've wired it up so that you can entertain yourself throughout the day. That's brilliant. Talk to me about the exhibition. So, it's, "The Happiness Show," it's travel a little bit, right?
It's eight stops, so actually this weekend ending in Vienna, we'll go onwards to Frankfurt, and I, no pun intended, happy to say that it is the most successful graphic design show in the history of the universe. It now has 350,000 visitors. Which is, I think even in a regular show, like even in the world of MOMA very, very big. It's just been incredibly embraced meaning, I literally, more so than that number, I think what actually counts, to me, is that I literally get letters every day. Not just one-liners, but like where people sit down, and write a page or two on how the show had an affect on them, including 15 year old boys who kissed their first girl because they finally overcame their fear, prompted by something that was said in the exhibit. So, it's ... I've long had this dance of, in the studio I had this dance that, what does it mean to do design that's meaningful. That's actually worthwhile to do. Like, how do you define that? I think that the quickest way to say this would be, if we can design something that helps somebody or delights somebody. In some rare instances, maybe one can do both. And, I can say now from results, that The Happy Show, did boast to a good number of people.
350,000. Well, there's certainly ... A lot of that's probably being attached to your name, so people are going to see your work. You've had a long history of successful exhibitions.
That's not necessarily true, I would say. I think that in Vienna possibly, because yes, your studio is known. Let's say, you know, the show was in Vancouver. Our studio is not well known in Vancouver. In Vancouver, it's the Museum Of Vancouver, so this is not like, you know, it's not the design museum. Yes, there would be some of this, and people come around, but this is also our general audience.
But, the city is very design-centric, is it not? It leans way into architecture.
Vienna is, you mean?
No, I'm talking, even Vancouver.
Yes, yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that there is a certain amount of that, yes.
I think you're also being incredibly humble.
I am actually not a humble person. I have to admit, I'm not.
Well, congratulations. The topic then, let's talk about the topic. So, if it's not Stefan, is it happiness. Is that what's attracting people?
You know, the interesting thing is that--
Are we not happy, and people are seeking it?
I definitely expected when we moved into Vienna that we would get a lot of criticism, as in, "This guy has lived in the States too long. "His brain got soft. "He's talking about happiness. "Who gives a shit."
That is very Austrian to think like that.
There's still a pride in being miserable. There was still this thought pattern that, if you're happy, you're clearly stupid, because you don't understand the seriousness of what it means to be alive. It started with Freud, who quite famously said, "All we can hope for in life "is a move from hilarious misery "to common unhappiness." Like, that's sort of our goal. I think we were all very surprised that it would be, actually even more successful in Vienna, as it was in some of the American cities. My guess, my now in retrospect guess, would be that this has something to do with the fact that they get much less of that information. It has, therefor, a bigger impact, or is a bigger novelty, as easy as that. Now, we have ... The Happy Show, really was the small cousin project that came out of the bigger thing, which was the documentary film on happiness called, "The Happy Film."
I wanna go there, right now. Let's go there.
That thing is really, finally done.
That thing. You're talking about, that thing, it's seven years, yes?
Yeah, seven years.
Oh my gosh. Does it feel like you're giving birth, right now after seven years? Or has it been gestating, or has it been, you've been working on it, putting stuff out, for seven years?
I think that there was just a lot of instability, and inexperience on my part that led to it being such a long project. Many things having to be redone and redone. If you're seeing it, you'll be surprised, you'll be like, "What the fuck did he work for seven years "on that one for?" It doesn't look that work intensive to me, but we did work for that long. And, we'll see. We got lucky enough to get into Tribeca, so it will be showing it in our hometown--
Congratulations. In April.
April 16th, yeah, is the premier, so soon, three weeks.
Maybe we'll release this video on April 15th.
That would be wonderful. That would be wonderful.
Noted! Kim, April 15th.
So, I'm definitely looking forward to that. We'll see how it does. You know, I'm a big believer in, in projects ultimately, living on their quality. So, if it's a good film, which I really can't say because I'm too close to it, it will be fine. If it's a bad film, which is absolutely possible, it will die a very fast and quick death, or it will whatever it will do.
So, how have I seen sections of it? I've seen pieces. Have you, sort of been, releasing pieces over time, or is that something that I saw because I saw you talk.
I think there will be short, little pieces like, you know specifically, the more designey pieces in talks and things. I think the title sequence got quite a lot of hits on YouTube, or things like that.
Yeah, cuz it's beautiful.
Those are not really the pieces that I'm necessarily worried about. There is, I think, in film making ... You know, we started out as trying to make a film on happiness. That didn't work quite quickly, because the subject was just so gigantic. Everything could be part of this. You know, coffee could be part of it, water could be part of it, my shoes could be part of it. Anything can go in there. So, a year into it we decided, let's just make a film on my own happiness, because that, at least, I'm an expert on. I can really talk ... I'm the world's number one expert on my own happiness. The difficulty with that, and that's literally unbeknownst to me ... So, like two or three yeas into that I discovered, I'm actually making a film on me. Because, in order for that to work it had to be somewhat of a personal film. The thing that I discovered was that, we had hundreds of hours of footage, that all of the stuff that I looked good in was kind of boring, and all of the stuff that I looked really shitty in was kind of interesting. So, when we cut the film, I didn't look all that good.
Well, you said earlier, you have a big ego, so how is that to wrestle with?
Well, it's something to wrestle with. Basically, like, it's easier to sit here on the couch and say, "Well, I didn't look so good." When we were actually editing, and I'm looking at this thing, and I really appear like an asshole, it's sort of like, "Do I really want that? "Am I really working that hard to basically "give that message to the world?" So yeah, there is, I don't know, conflict.
That's part of what makes a good film.
Let's go back ... So, for the folks who ... I think you're very, very well known, and certainly in our audience, the people who are on the other side of these cameras are people who are creative, they self-identify as creative or aspiring to be. They might be closet, and looking to go from zero to one. So, for the folks, the very few folks that are probably out there, can you give me little bit of a nutshell on your background, and you're path? One of the things that I'm most excited about, this time now than ever before, is that there's a million paths to go. You just have to get in, go to school, become a designer, graduate, work for a firm, work for a firm, and then start your own thing. Maybe that was your path, but maybe it wasn't. So, share with me, if you would, your sort of, trajectory.
So, I'm Austrian. I grew up in a very small town, very pretty town, in the Austrian Alps, close to a lake, in between the mountains.
Bregenz, yeah. So, still love to go back there. I'm back there five or six times a year. All my brothers and sisters are there. I was the youngest of a very large family of six kids. Started at 14 or 15, to write for a little magazine, and discovered quickly, that I actually enjoyed doing the layout for that magazine better than the writing. That put some sort of design bug in my head. Also, I was playing a little bit in bands, but not very good ones. From there, got interested in album covers, and that sort of like, seemed a juicy thing to pursue. And, I did go to design school. I actually loved design school. Like, for me to switch from regular high school, where I had to learn things that I was not really interested in, to going to a university, and actually pursuing what I really was interested in, was a dream. Like, I really like, I loved design school.
Was there any pressure to do something other than what you loved?
From my parents?
From anywhere. Culturally, your parent's, your family.
Not really, because I was the youngest.
So, they were exhausted. They were like, "Do whatever you want, we're tired."
My parent's had a store, like they had a men's clothing store, which two of my brothers had already gone in. So, that was, and it was one store, so it was like, there was no need for a third person to go into it. I was actually, from that point, pretty free to choose what I wanted to do. I also had a granddad, who was a learned, sign painter. Which, at the end of the 19th century, that's basically a graphic designer. Graphic designers, professionally, didn't really exist. His dad, so my great granddad, didn't allow him to really be that, but forced him to take over the store. The same store that my family, that now my nephew just took over. So, there was definitely, sort of like, a more supportive streak in my parents. Picked that up, then got a scholarship to study some more in New York, and then I did a Master's Degree in New York. So, I basically just was--
What kind of scholarship?
It was a Fullbright scholarship.
I knew that, I just wanted to hear it from him. That is an incredible opportunity. Is that something that you sought out? Did you specifically want that kind of a scholarship, so it would give you freedom to pursue your dreams?
No, that was all basically, happenstance and luck. As students, we had designed posters for a very well known theater in Vienna. And, when I had, through another happenstance, applied for that Fullbright scholarship, it turned out that the judges on that jury, were all big theater goers, and they were very surprised that the posters that they knew, for the place that they had gone to, were designed by the student's. So, that basically clinched the deal. And, of course, you know, I was 24. At 24, to get two fully paid years in New York City, where all you have to do is attend a couple of classes, and do that class work, but you're basically in New York, with some serious extra time on your hands, to explore and try too, was fantastic.
Was that objective, to get the scholarship? Did you wanna do exactly that?
Yes, absolutely. I actually, I definitely wanted New York City. I had actually gotten, three months earlier, a Fullbright for the Art Institute Of Chicago, and refused to go.
Not one Fullbright, two Fullbrights.
The guys said, "You will never, ever, ever, "get another thing, "if you say ..." Like, they thought it was unheard of, and I said, "Well, I've been to New York once, "and I've been to Chicago once, "and to me Chicago was the clear number two. "So, if I'm going to the States, "I wanna go to the number one city, "not to the number two." So, for me, the scholarship was much more about the city than it was about the school itself. Now, that I know much more, the school in Chicago would actually have been better than the school in New York. I didn't know that.
Of course. So, you find yourself in, New York City.
I did another year, sort of, like of work experience. You could do that. Had to go back to Vienna, because there was a two year home residency requirement that came with the scholarship. You had to basically, enlighten the people at home. Did civil service there, because Austria still has a draft. So, I had to do the alternative to the military service, went to Hong Kong, did two very commercial years there. I founded a design group for a big, for the largest ad agency in Hong Kong. Learned about all the stuff that I never wanted to do again, in my life. Then, came back here, worked for my hero for half a year, for Tibo Kalman, who was, that was the pinnacle, in my point of view, of where graphics were at the time. Then, opened my place in '93.
That was, Sagmeister Inc. for a long time, and now of course was renamed, four years ago into, Sagmeister and Walsh, because I have a young partner, Jessica Walsh.
Excellent. All right, so one of the things that, as we're talking about, there's the group that's zero to one, and finding out your path, the scholarship path. There's a study abroad, there's adventure, there's travel, there's service, there's going to a job that you hated. I'm trying to deconstruct this a little bit. There's going to a job that you hated. Two years, I think ... So many people that ... Like I said, this is a question that I get, I think that Creative Live gets a lot is, "Oh man, I wanna become this." And, that there's this belief that it's a straight line from where you decide you want to be or become something, and then achieving it. Does that match your experience? Just listening to you, you had to go all over the world, literally three different countries, you had to take two or three different jobs. One of them, that you loved, it sounds like. Working for your, your mentor. Is this standard, or are you the anomaly, or is this the way it is when you're trying to make a go in the career world.
I think that what you pointed out before is definitely true, I think there's all sorts of way. All sorts of ways. I know designers who never went to school, Tibor being one of them, and did fantastically, and there's people like me who loved design school, and went that route. So, I think that there are all sorts of ways. What I would say, from a repeatability point of view, what worked really well for me is having pockets of nothingness in between, that allow for redirecting.
Ooh, keep going.
In my case, like, I can get very much bogged down in the day to day, and so the fact that I was, you know, four years in Vienna studying, then three years in, New York, then a year back in Vienna, then two years in Hong Kong. There were always, in between those times, like, between Hong Kong and New York, I've been three months to Sri Lanka. I did some work in Sri Lanka, but there was also time to reorient. You know, to figure out, what is it that I really wanna do, and go for that. It was not immediately that I said, "Okay, this is next." But, I had like, you know, two or three months to like, figure this out. To the point where I kind of, institutionalized this. Even now that the studio is 23 years old. '93, yep, 23 years, I'm doing a sabbatical every seven years.
I'm gonna hijack this, just for a second. First time we actually met, in person, was in Seattle, at a dinner, a dinner for 10, and I remember you telling me a story about taking a year off. You decided you wanted to do it, and you were afraid that it was going to be the end of your design career, and ironically, as you told me that night, that was the thing that was like a catapult for making you more recognized. Give me a little context around that. I found that fascinating. The thing that you were most scared of, actually was the biggest asset.
Well, basically this was, you know, the studio was founded in '93, in the year, so in '99, around '99, I really felt, even though it was my studio, I had made all the decisions, I was, sort of, frustrated with that we were repetitive in what we did. Not quite happy with the quality of the work. I ultimately thought, "I should do this." But, felt bad, because if you remember, '99 was sort of like, really the height of the first internet boom, so everybody was completely busy. New York, was booming, everybody was making a shit-load of money, and I felt, if I closed the studio now, this is just gonna be so unprofessional. It's gonna look like, you know, clients will think that you're nuts. In times like this, this is just crazy. So, I pondered this for, I think I went forwards and backwards on this, for about a year, until I realized that if I don't do it, I'm going to be in this, sort of, vicious circle where the work is gonna continue to get worse, which will make me even more unhappy, which will be a downward spiral. So, I said, "I'm just gonna do it." Basically, the opposite happened. None of the clients thought it was unprofessional. The normal reaction was, "I would love to do this, myself." That was the most common client reaction. Many of them were completely willing to accommodate this. I mean, I gave them all a long time warning, so we all could work around it. Some people, including Lou Reed actually moved his album release, so I could still do the cover, afterwards.
That's a story in and of itself.
This was incredibly accommodating. The strangest thing that happened, one of my bigger side peers were like, "You know, we had a seven year period "of building the reputation of the studio." Which at that time, was good. And I felt, we're gonna be forgotten immediately. Like, specifically in these boom times, it's just I will have to build up the studio again. And, ironically, we got much more press for not working, than we've ever got for working. To the point, where fellow designers, after the year, came up to me and said, "Clearly, this was like a marketing gimick. "You've been secretly in there "working your ass off. "This was just what you told to the press." They literally thought, I made it up, because it had gotten so much press, but it's not like that we had P.R. Personnel that then made a press release, or any of that. It was just that it was apparently an unusual story that people were interested in, and they had called up. If somebody had called up and said, "Well, we would like to do something about this." Well, I said, "Yeah, then do something about it." But, that was nothing that we seeked or anything like that.
Okay, I got two things. I'm trying to hold a pin in two different ideas, at the same time. One is, the idea of being different. Presumably, that's what became the thing that was talked about. Was, you were doing a thing, everyone else was zigging, and it was the time where everyone else was making hay, as we say, because the getting was good, and you stopped. So, is it just being different, that got that talked about, or was it literally the time off, and people were jealous. Was it a cultural thing. And, the reason I'm trying to, if we could think about this as a specific example, the general applications is like, is different a thing we should aim for? I advocate people trying not just to be better, but to try and be different. Is this a case of that?
I think there's two things. One, is probably a little bit, the being different thing, but probably, more importantly, I think that many people in their heart felt that even if they can't quite see how to make that happen, they would like to see. They would like to make that happen. I feel that I, you know, in earlier times when I was 20 thought I was unbelievably different from everybody else. And, I actually found that I'm pretty mainstream. I'm pretty similar to other people, and specifically the research that we did for The Happy Film, I could see that so many of the things that I thought, that were my own individual character quirks, were actually mass character quirks. That I was surprised to see that there were gigantic studies in the mainstream that proved that most people are exactly like that. Since then, I found it allowable to see if I really feel some way that probably many people feel that way. And, I really felt and still feel that way, that if I look at the, if I look back at the years. Years, meaning years as a working person, the years that were financially very successful, were never the ones where I felt the best.
The years where I felt the best were the years that we did the highest quality work.
So, quality is clearly important to you. You said something earlier. This is one of the things I wanted to put a pin in. I'd say, dramatically successful, Fullbright Scholarship, working for the best design and designers in the world, outputting some of the highest quality design, working for the best musical artists, having them change their release schedule to accommodate you, and yet you said something that I am attaching myself to which is, you didn't like the work. You didn't feel it was that strong. So, how does someone, or why does someone ... Again, I'm trying to put myself in the mindset of someone who's listening to this, like, "Oh my God. "Stefan Sagmeister "not satisfied, at the very top "of the design game." How is that? Do you just have a ruthless self editing mode that you're always in, or is that something that you actively took a breath, stepped back, looked at the work, as objectively as you could and made a decision? Or, is it something that's always ... Is it that voice inside your head at 3:00am, that's telling you, you're not good enough? Or, is it something that you objectively stood back and looked at?
I think it changes over time. I think I got milder, now with age. Probably more forgiving towards myself. The first sabbatical, I probably was harder with myself. When I look back at the work now, that I remember thinking, "This is just a repeat of something "I did four years ago. "I have to stamp that out. "I cannot repeat myself in that way or form." I would probably now, be a little bit more forgiving, I think. I also, at that point, I think was still, slightly in that motion that every piece that we're doing needs to be new. Or I was, sort of like, I still was at that cusp. Now, in the meantime I found out that, that actually is, humanly impossible. Like, you cannot create a new direction for every piece that you're doing. And, I think that the people who try that, and there are people who try that, including myself for awhile, wind up either stealing from history, like you do whatever. 60's Playboy shoots now, and then you do whatever, 20's still thing there, and then you do that. And, we know the names in photography who do that. Or, which would be worse, you're basically stealing from your colleagues. I think it's just it's ... Now, that I have much more of a distance, I would say that it is impossible to create a new direction for every project.
I used to do that with my talks. Try and give a different talk on photography. Anyone who hired me got a unique thing, because I felt, almost a moral obligation, as a creator, to create something for this particular audience. It used to just crush me. Crush me. It wasn't even about mixing up the order of my photos, it was entirely new stories, entirely new thesis, entirely new POV. I found it ... Maybe that's that same piece of us. Do you think that's a common thing, or is it a creative ... Is it a crutch or is it a self sabotage, what is it?
I think it's a ... I think it has something to do with youth. I remember, a design company that I quite admire, going in a talk and afterwards there was a question of the audience. Sort of like, accusing them of milking their own style. They basically had a stance of saying like, "We developed this language, "and this is the language we talk to." And, I, at that time, still thought this was a cheap cop out. I don't anymore. I actually think, "No, they really did develop "a unique language." And, there is, well I would say it like this, ultimately, when I'm completely stepping back, I still prefer the changers over the stay the samers, I do. Like, I am a bigger fan of Warhol than I am of Lichtenstein. Like, you know Lichtenstein basically, once he developed this comic thing, he went down that route. But, still, if you look at recent exhibits, there's quite some variety as far as the technique is concerned. I mean, anything from wood, to metal, to painting, to drawing. Meaning, he did many techniques within that very narrow language. While I was 25, I hated Lichtenstein. Like, I thought he was, you know, like, I thought he was a sell out, and forgettable. Like, you know, like he got his schtick, and he just milked it to death. Now, I don't feel that way, at all. I think that has something to do with age, and just a different point of view.
Is wisdom another word, was that substitutable for age? Because, age could also be laziness. Is it wise, is it virtuous, this choice?
Maybe, it's lazy wisdom.
Lazy wisdom. (laughs) All right, I'll let you off the hook.
There is something in between there. I think that, I actually do think that stance, probably is connected somehow to lower energy levels. Yeah, I think it's somewhere in between.
Okay. So, let's go back to the mind set of the viewer, someone who's watching this. I know, because I've personally been asked, and I try and represent the audience when I sit down with you and the likes of you. How do you develop a personal style? I think this is one of the hardest questions that I get asked, because the answer, anytime I try and answer it, ends up just being like, "Well, I do a lot of work." But, I know I can get a better answer out of you than the one I've been using. So, how do you ... A: How do you know that something is your style and something isn't, and how do you develop it?
I think that, this will sound a little bit like a cop out, but I really don't mean it as a cop out. I actually think it's sound advice. I would say you develop a personal style by not worrying about it. It will come by itself.
Just, with repetition or with volume?
I'll say that later. I think that it will be much more difficult to get rid of that personal style again, than it will be to develop it. It is now much easier to develop a personal style than it ever was, because there's many more feedback mechanisms. I do think that developing a style does have something to do with feedback. In our case, for sure, it's sort of like, we tried stuff out. Handwriting played a role, but this was still pre, preinternet time, pre rapid feedback time. Things worked well, so we allowed ourselves then, in the studio, to try that again, and maybe more intensively, or with more production behind it, or from a different side and angle. And, it worked again, or it worked even better. So, we tried another version of it, and then that sort of like, became it's thing where, typography was clearly still made by a human, but not impossibly remotely based on handwriting, but wasn't really handwritten anymore. This really developed over time, and had something to do with feedback. I'm not sure if I could have, or I myself, if I could have developed that in the same way without a talk to an audience. I think that in many ways, everything we do in the studio is very audience oriented. Part of the reason why I do think the show is successful, the exhibition is successful, is because we design for audiences. I think that there, in this case, that is possibly a different stance than most artists would have.
What about putting Stefan in this work? Or do you look at an audience and put Stefan in that audience and then make something?
I think that in the world of design companies, we probably would be at the very forefront of doing personal work. Meaning, that our own opinion, sometimes our own, like we, as physical people, would be in the work. I think that that's part of my whole anti-modernist ...
Ooh, this is good, anti-modernist.
Impression, I mean, I grew up with Vienna, with Aldo Fleurs, who was a big influence on the Bauhaus. I grew up in that entire world, and found some of those ideas very valid for their time. Some of them were already stupid in the 1930s. Some very valid, for that time. Many, by now, through incredible over use and through the fact that these have been the status quo in communications, in product design, in architecture for 100 years. Unbelievably boring and incredibly lazy, and totally, utterly unquestioned. There are so many modernist statements. A modernist direction or strategies that were quite smart, in the 20s, that are utterly, totally stupid right now. That are crazy on contemplation that we are still doing them, out of because nobody questions them, and because it's like it's how it's done. Exactly, yeah.
So, you're putting yourself into your work and yet, you're still designing with an eye for a particular audience. Who would you say the audience for, The Happy, installation of The Happy exhibition was then. Unhappy people?
No, no. I think it's basically it's it's people who go into a museum, which is you know, a slice of the audience, that are ready to relate to somebody else, and for awhile think about larger questions in life. It turns out that there was a lot of people.
And, that's a pretty large question.
It's also a pretty large group who is happy to do that.
It also turned out, that because of these exhibits, where mostly, in museums where normally contemporary art is shown, that a whole bunch of people, also turned out to be a very large group, of people who go into even mass audiences. Places like MOMA was all, kind of expect to understand nothing. Yes, they go and see Whatever the water lilies and they do understand that, but there is a vast chunk of contemporary art that is shown in places that are, where masses of people go in and out, but really is unrelatable, by a big chunk of the population. Because you need to know too much about 20th century art, you need to know about the peculiars and particulars of that thing. It's almost like solving a cross word puzzle.
Or a private language that 10 people are in or something. So, I wanna turn the conversation toward you, in particular. I like that you put so much of yourself in your work. As you said earlier, you were literally physically in many of your pieces, whether it be a photograph, your hand in design or typography, your film, for example. You're the star of your own film. I'm sure, through the film, I've only seen the parts that you've shared, so I'm looking forward to seeing the parts that you call unflattering about yourself. But, let's talk about you. Are there a set of habits that you have that you feel like put you in the right space for creating, or are you a machine? Like, do you have to manicure yourself to be in a creative mood, or do you just sit down and do the work? Is there a set of habits?
I would say most designers or most people who have been doing this professionally, there's a couple of tricks that you have. The rarer ones is like, I love coming up with ideas in a train.
In a train, yeah. I think that the combination of being in a thing that moves forward, and being able to look at a landscape on eye level, that flies by and is sort of interesting, but not as interesting as that it would interrupt a flow of thoughts. Also, not as boring as a white wall. And, the fact that, I think that you're still moving forward. So, you kind of feel that you're working. You know, that there is something going on.
Yeah, you're a part of something.
Allows me to, to really think a thing through.
Is it the equivalent of a shower? Is it quiet?
It's much better than a shower. I can think much better in a train than in a shower. Maybe, I'll do that at one time in my life. I can definitely see, like, a design course or workshop, given in like, you know, renting out a train compartment, like, you know, one wagon or two of them, and have that drawn over, you know ... Have that sort of, like attached to trains all over the country, and do a one, once workshop that is 20 people.
I see an amazing creative live workshop in the future. That would be incredible, to just go across the country with you. All right, so that is a thing. How bout, is there a part of this like ... One of the things that's confused me a little bit about your, the time off, is because you work six or seven years, and then you take a year off, but what does the off year look like? Is that a part of your routine? Is that what makes you, sort of, successful? Allow yourself this breathing room to stand away. Do you not require yourself to make money then, are you just exploring, or are you literally off, like, deserted island with your hands above your head and your feet up?
No, I'm working. And, I'm working hourly properly. I clearly could also, sit on the beach and read, and it's just turned out that in the two sabbaticals that I had done, that that's not what I like to do, at all. I mean, I did zero of that, zero. I'm actually, I found that, for me, it works best to really have a plan for that year. So, I normally have a whole list of things that I would like to check out. In the beginning of the year I normally, put that list into some sort of hierarchy, and then the most impressive thing or most important thing to me, gets five weekly hours. Then, I literally put a weekly schedule together, like in grade school. And, it will have like, Monday 8:00am to 1:00pm, the five hour explore Bolognese craft and see what we can do with it. And, I literally would do that. And, even on days when nothing would come to my mind I would be forced to sit there and actually do that.
How important is that for the success of your year off?
I think it's important. I had started the first year off with deliberately no plan, and it very quickly turned out that I'm not cut out for that. Meaning that, it was just a waste of time, which would have been fine too. I mean, I don't really mind wasting time, but it was an unhappy wasting of time. Meaning I was reacting to other people's demands. I was like, you know, sending files to Japanese design magazines who wanted them. I felt I had become my own intern, and there was nothing coming out, and I was becoming unhappy with spending the time, that way. So, then I switched into the opposite of being very structured. It also turned out that, let's say, after doing this very structured time for three or four months, I then normally can throw that plan away or that schedule, because by then so many projects are sort of like, alive and working that I don't really need the structure anymore.
Somebody just said to me, yesterday or the day before at dinner, that there's research that has come out that says that, five projects is the ideal number of things for a creative ... A person who thinks of themselves as creative, to be working on. And, too few and you end up like, overworking them, and they don't ... You know, you get lost in the details. Too many, you can't invest enough into any one of them. How many things are you working on right now?
In the studio, but of course it's much more than just myself, it's almost, it's basically like a dozen projects that are on the plate, in different states.
Across half a dozen or 10 people, maybe?
Yeah, yup. Not all of these are necessarily alive at the same time. I think that five sounds like a very reasonable thing, and actually if I look back at the sabbatical years, that's roughly there. And, I find that, exactly that. One of the easiest techniques to get unstuck, is that you switch to another project. If I'm like, working on something, and it's like, I can't get further on it, rather than sitting there, and pulling my hair out I just switch to another one.
Another set of challenges and constraints.
Yes, and that other one, even the stuckness from there, might actually open up something there, because it's unexpected, and I was just thinking about something else.
That's great advice.
And then, there is a technique that I've been using a lot. For me, it really works super well. It's been developed by a guy called, Edward de Bono, who is a big thinker on thinking, and he had a name for it, but that's all completely irrelevant, he basically says, think about the project from the point of view of something that has nothing to do with the project.
Oh, I love this.
And, it really goes super well.
So, this is the guy who was like, "If you're gonna design sneakers, "think of a plastic Coca-Cola bottle." You look at the new product through the lens of anything else. Can you put any two things together?
For example, let's do it like, are you working on something?
I'm working on a lot of things.
So, tell me something that you need an idea for.
Okay, I need an idea for, oh man, I need to hone the idea for my next book.
A book on photography, what kind of about?
A book on creativity.
Okay, so you're doing a book on creativity, and let's say, my normal stance of, "Okay, we have to design this book on creativity. "What should we do?" Let's look at other books of creativity. Let's talk to the audience, see what they really like about creativity, and you know, let's do all that.
Sure, like let's pick up 10 TASCHEN books.
Exactly, and likely, your book on creativity would look somehow similar than all the other books on creativity. And, now, we say, "Let's forget about this. "Let's design the book on creativity "with this water. "Starting with this water bottle." Start with this water glass. Okay, can we do something with fluids? Does it have a cover in fluids?
Can the cover be transparent?
Can the cover be transparent? Can we have a reflection, can the whole book be transparent? Is it possible to have the book printed on so super thin paper that it bleeds through, or can we print this book on such thin paper that we have every image printed from both sides, and we only see them together? Maybe there's something in there, that it's almost like the whole thing. How about a book on creativity that has a thousand pages, but is only this thin. So, it's like super dense, and you can still have it with you, but it's almost like a Bible, kind of thing. Okay, we're getting somewhere. I'm not sure if that's the answer, but at the end.
You've got five ideas that you didn't have before.
The water glass will be completely material, it's gone. Like, already, when we were at the Bible thing, it's completely blown out. Nobody will ever know, we started with the water glass. There is very good scientific explanations of why these work so brilliantly, because the best parts of my brain, the ones that work the best, are the oldest parts of the brain.
Exactly, and that part of the brain is fantastic in repetitions. I can talk to you, I can pick up this water glass without ever even thinking that I'm picking it up, and continue to work, because my brain does that stuff so well. So, if I ask it for a new idea on a book on creativity, what it immediately will give to me, and it did, is what I did before. Because, those synopsis' have the biggest connection. And, immediately, what came to my mind, as we were talking was, "Oh, I could drill a hole through it." Because, we did that. So, the initial thing that my brain gives me is, the stuff that I did before. If I reject that, because I don't want to do this. I don't wanna drill holes through the book anymore, the next thing that it will give to me is, stuff that I've seen before. Because, that's the next good synopsis connections.
Got it. What was the name of the guy?
Edward de Bono.
Edward de Bono.
So, the water glass basically forces my brain to say, "No, you start thinking from "somewhere else, "you start thinking from a new synopsis, "you will go through the book of creativity, "but I will force you "to go through parts of the brain "that you would normally, "where you don't have a connection yet." Hence, the Bible, or whatever.
Brilliant. So, would you consider that a hack, or is that just a trick that you go to, and you go to that trick every day?
Yeah, go to it quite often. It sadly, I have to admit, works the best with an audience. Because there's a little pressure there. It's the same reason, I suspect, people like, who are really good improvisors in chess, recording their improvisation right cuts, in front of an audience, because they need that, sort of, pressure to actually have to perform now. That pressure that, I literally had to come up with the idea for the Bible.
With the cameras and me.
It works well, for it.
How important is doing stuff you're passionate about? You talked, early on, about the music influence. You won a Grammy for your work. Were you literally sitting around saying, "I love music, I love design. "I'm going to design for the music world."
I did do that, yes. Very much so. And, it felt like that was ... When I opened the studio that was definitely ... We even had a subtitle design for the music industry. So, yes, I think that, that was part of it. And that, in the opening phase, definitely created that little warm and fuzzy feeling in my stomach, that just felt yes, this is right. I really wanna do that.
How important is that to have to move yourself forward?
I think it's very important. Specifically, in times when the chips are down. And, I found that in any endeavor that you do, doesn't matter if you're in design, or in film, or if you're an entrepreneur. There will be times when it's difficult. I think it's part of the ... If you do things that involve the help, and the teamwork with other people, which is basically everything, then you will have trouble. It's what it means to be human. And, I think in these times, when you have trouble, it was always very helpful to me, to be able to say, "You know, I really wanted this." Like, to think back of the time when I had the fuzzy feeling and say, "I really wanted this, "so I better shut up, "and find a way to get through this." Because, without that, I would have never finished a film, for example, never. Like, this film had so much trouble, and so much deep trouble. Our co-director dying. With all that meant from a friendship point of view, to a production point of view. Me knowing, this is bad, but not knowing how to fix it on the lighter side of things. I'm not comparing the two, but it's just, it just had so much trouble that if I wouldn't have the possibility to say, "Okay, there was a time "when I thought "this a really good idea to do. "I really should do this. "And now finish, suck it up, "and finish this thing." I would have never finished it.
How important is the self talk?
The self talk?
Yeah, you were having a dialog with yourself there.
I do a weekly diary, every week. Religiously, since many, many, many years. I take at least 10 minutes out, and I quickly write sometimes just what's happening, sometimes what I could improve on, or like you know. Rereading that stuff has been sometimes helpful.
So, it's more than just getting it on the page? You go back and read it.
Here and there. Not often, but here and there. On a Saturday morning, I might sort of like, go back and sometimes I come across a thing where, I complain about something, that I've been complaining about last week, and suddenly I figure out, "Oh my God, I've been like "complaining about this four years ago, "and I still haven't done anything about it." So, maybe now is finally the time to do something about it.
What's one thing that people don't know about you, that they would be surprised if they found out?
I think I've been pretty open, as far as my interesting and not so interesting parts of my life are concerned. I'm not sure if I could answer that question.
I'm trying to be cognitive of our time together. I still wanna take a picture of you. Is there anything that, that we haven't talked about today that you'd like to tell the world? You just said, you're pretty available and open. You put out a ton of work, and you're very prolific. I'm super excited about the film.
Very quickly, like, basically Jesse got me, got me interested in posting on Instagram. And, I've been doing this big series on album covers. And, I think that probably two stances. One is that, very surprisingly to me, this whole world of design and music that basically looked very dead, is completely reborn in vinyl, in a very different stance. To the point where I would say, the last year saw more high quality pieces being created than any other year in the history of album cover design. If you're interested in that, or if you wanna see if this could possibly be true, follow me on Instagram at stefansagmeister. And, the second part that's, sort of, related to that is, I really, really got interested in the subject of beauty. And, there of course, human made beauty. And, specifically, how unbelievably important it is to function. Like how, something that actually is really thought out well, from a formal point of view, tends to work so much better. And, how things that have been made carelessly and only with function in mind, where the entire direction of the makers went into making this work as good as possible, in so many cases, they wound up with something that didn't work at all. Even though, that was their entire intent. And, I think there is ... It's a very big field, that I think I'm gonna spend some serious time exploring.
Thank you so much for your time today. I could handcuff you to this couch, and talk to you for another two hours, but I know you have to get going. To the folks at home, follow Stefan, not just on Instagram, but across the web. You will not be disappointed, and if you can see, "The Happiness Project," where's it gonna be next? It's, "The Happy Show," will open on April 22nd, I think, in Mak, M A K Museum in Frankfurt. The Happy Film, will first go through a Tribeca film festival, that's April 16th, and then we'll see how we will get distribution. If we do it online, if there is a theatrical release. We don't know yet.
Incredible. Thank you, my friend. Good to see you, again. Folks, signing off. Stay tuned, there will be another one of these bad ass interviews coming up very shortly. (upbeat music)