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Stefan Sagmeister talks finding happiness in design

By Julia Kline, For the Daily
Published November 9, 2012

Stefan Sagmeister’s work is simultaneously playful and profound. Towering inflatable monkeys proclaim “Everyone Always Thinks They Are Right.” A wall of green and overripe bananas shouts the mantra “Self Confidence Produces Fine Results.” A digital interactive spiderweb responds to the slightest movements of the observer.

Sagmeister, an idiosyncratic graphic designer who gave Thursday’s Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design Speaker Series, has created these and dozens more strikingly original pieces in a career that has spanned four decades.

The Austrian-born design luminary began his career at a youth magazine at the age of 15. After honing his craft in Hong Kong and New York, Sagmeister founded the New York-based design firm Sagmeister Inc. in 1993.

He first gained widespread attention in 1999 when he advertised a lecture by having an intern slice the relevant details into Sagmeister’s torso. The resulting photo advertisements were shocking and representative of Sagmeister’s design style, which is convention-shattering and unflinchingly brave. Other modern icons have gravitated toward this inspired iconoclast. David Byrne of the Talking Heads and Rolling Stones are only a few of Sagmeister’s long-standing collaborators.

In this lecture, called “Design and Happiness,” he explored the factors that contribute to happiness and posed the question: Can I pursue happiness in design?

Sagmeister discussed his less-than-conventional approach to finding happiness in his work. Every seven years he closes Sagmeister Inc. for the year to go on sabbatical.

During these sabbaticals, he accepts no new work from clients, instead spending time in deep contemplation exploring challenging concepts. On a recent sabbatical in Bali, he tackled the enormous question of what makes us happy.

This critical period of reflection inspired Sagmeister to produce “The Happy Film,” 15 minutes of which were screened at the lecture. Sagmeister summed all his research on happiness by saying that men are just as happy as women. Climate plays no role in happiness and money is only important up to a certain point. Whether a person is married and religious are the most predictive factors of happiness.

In a humorous segue, Sagmeister, an unmarried atheist, said that he had to pursue his happiness in a very different way. In “The Happy Film,” Sagmeister attempts to capture this by implementing his life mantra: “Having guts always works out for me.” The sequences show Sagmeister doing gutsy things like complimenting strangers or implementing difficult design concepts, with visually astounding results.

Sagmeister said that viewers shouldn’t expect the film to make them happy, any more than they’d expect watching a workout video to make them skinny. The idea is that the viewers would be inspired to implement these ideas in their own life, he explained.

Sagmeister also challenges the so-called “negativity bias” in modern life by journaling three positive things each night. Journaling has been very important to Sagmeister’s work as a whole. Many of his designs have begun as quirky lines from his diary. The phrase “Trying To Look Good Limits My Life” provided the genesis for a series of billboards Sagmeister created for a French company.

“I always kept a journal since I was 13,” Sagmeister said. “Twenty-three years ago I was influenced by a business article of a guy saying the best thing he ever did was writing a business diary. I started and find it very helpful. In the best of ways, it’s a little bit meditative.”

In 2008, Sagmeister published “Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far,” a collection of twenty gems of insight that began as entries in his diary. One of the life lessons reads, “Keeping a Diary Supports Personal Development,” creating a self-referential linkage between the book’s wisdom and its success.

Sagmeister’s presence is just as inspiring as his design. Leah Whiteman, a junior in the School of A&D and frequent Penny W. Stamps lecture attendee, felt that Sagmeister’s talk was particularly engaging.

“He was one of the best speakers we had ever had,” Whiteman said. “He talked about his work but he also talked about his process. Some (speakers) skip that or just focus on what they are currently doing.”

Whiteman added that the emotional aspect of Sagmeister’s work made it easy to connect to him.

“His work is about what we’re feeling,” Whiteman said. “Because everybody experiences it, it’s more relatable.”