Stefan Sagmeister: Life So Far

To use a word like “legend” in connection with Stefan Sagmeister does not seem too far a stretch.  It’s not only that this Austrian designer has received nearly every important international design award, along with a Grammy for his design of the Talking Heads boxed set (and 5 more nominations).

Or his diverse range of clients, from Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones to HBO and the Guggenheim Museum.  Or the countless solo shows on the work of his New York City design company, Sagmeister Inc, in every major design capital across the world.Or… well… we could go on for a very long time.  But instead, 99U sat down with Sagmeister to hear directly from the mouth of a master on staying small, taking a human approach, and life lessons.

Most companies equate success with growth; like waistlines in ancient times, size becomes an indication of prosperity.  But Sagmeister believes that remaining small has been the key to retaining his integrity as a designer and making ideas happen.  He explains, “The conventional wisdom in our business is that you have to grow and keep moving to survive.  We never grew, always stayed tiny, and it serves us very well over the years, allowing us to pick and choose projects, and keeping our financial independence from our clients.  We actually have a rather good track record, because we do select projects carefully. Most of our ideas don’t eat dust but glimpse the light of day because we find it much more helpful to spend some serious time and effort before we start working on a project, rather than suffer through it afterwards.”

So many viewers are left untouched by those machine-like visuals out there – a more human approach seemed a smart alternative.

This lean and nimble business philosophy likely contributes to Sagmeister’s courage to buck trends and move his company in the opposite direction of where design is shifting.  As he tells us, “In the early nineties, when the modernism revival started and many designers opted for cold, slick design, it seemed a natural reaction for us to go the other way. My feeling was that so many viewers are left untouched by those machine-like visuals out there; that a more human approach seemed a smart alternative.”  But even visionaries need a little process in their lives, and Sagmeister Inc. is not above simple procedures for staying organized:  “We don’t procrastinate, and generally start working on a project right away. We keep time sheets and flow charts.”

In addition to citing a fascinating range of outside influences, Sagmeister proves that sometimes the best ideas are generated from a source very close to home – ourselves.  In his case, it was his own journal that spawned his latest success, proving that professionals should not shy away from the highly personal.  He tells us, “By far the most interesting project I have been involved in the last years is a series of typographic works that came out of a list I found in my diary under the title, ‘Things I have learned in my life so far.’  Every one of these pieces was published, and so far they have appeared as French and Portuguese billboards, a Japanese annual report, on German TV, in Austrian magazines, as a New York direct mailer, and an American poster campaign.  The series was influenced by my grandfather (who was educated in sign painting, and I grew up with many of his pieces of wisdom around the house), by American artist Jenny Holzer, as well as the rustic wooden signs available in tourist stores all over my hometown of Bregenz in Austria.”

For our sake, we hope Sagmeister continues to share lessons from his unparalleled life.

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