An Insightful Interview With Stefan Sagmeister

Stefan Sagmeister is a veritable jackknife of skills. A renaissance man in his own right, the famed graphic designer and typographer’s design repertoire spans the gamut of branding, graphics, packaging and album covers. The Grammy-nabbing designer is also the author of "Made You Look" and “Things I have learned in my life so far,” a teacher at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, and of course he runs his design firm, Sagmeister Inc. with work featured in solo shows in Zurich, Vienna, New York, Berlin, Japan, Osaka, Prague, Cologne, and Seoul. We’re exhausted just thinking about it, which is why it’s no surprise that Sagmeister is currently taking time off for a little R&R in Bali. Knstrct caught up with him during his year-long sabbatical and he was nice enough to share some personal insight - his design heroes, inspirations, all-time favorite font and donning lederhosen, among other things.

Q. What is one essential that you always carry on you?

A. My fathers watch.

Q. The Internet... Has it made design better or worse?

A: Better. The audience is much more interested in design now because almost everybody is a designer themselves, - involved in type-choices and formatting questions etc. This technology driven change has not led to the predicted job losses for designers but to a desire for more sophisticated work from professionals.

Q. The iPad... Do you think print magazines can make a successful transition?

A. No. Right now it looks like consumers are not willing to pay for the kind of digital content most magazine's have to offer in any meaningful numbers. But I am no expert on that at all.

Q. The art of the album cover... What's next?

A. I always thought its going to be the cheaply producable, small file size graphic music video, one that looks great on the small screen and can be made by a very small team. I was wrong.

Q. Did you ever wear a lederhosen as a child growing up in Austria?

A. Yes. I even wore leatherhosen to work on my first day at a corporate job in New York. It caused a minor sensation (not in a good way).

Q. How many tubes of Neosporin did you go through after having the details of a talk xacto-ed onto your torso by your intern?

A. One.

Q. What is your favorite part of a sandwich?

A. The cheese.

Q. Did you ever dream of being anything besides a graphic designer?

A. A mountain bike.

Q. Who influences your work?

A. Tibor Kalman was the single most influential person in my designy life and my one and only design hero. 15 years ago, as a student in NYC, I called him every week for half a year and I got to know the M&Co receptionist really well. When he finally agreed to see me it turned out I had a sketch in my portfolio rather similar in concept and execution then an idea M&Co was just working on: He rushed to show me the prototype out of fear I’d say later he stole it out of my portfolio. I was so flattered. When I finally started working there 5 years later I discovered it was, more than anything else, his incredible salesmanship that set his studio apart from all the others. There were probably a number of people around who were as smart as Tibor (and there were certainly a lot who were better at designing), but nobody else could sell these concepts without any changes, get those ideas with almost no alterations out into the hands of the public. Nobody else was as passionate. As a boss he had no qualms about upsetting his clients or his employees (I remember his reaction to a logo I had worked on for weeks and was very proud of: “Stefan, this is TERRIBLE, just terrible, I am so disappointed”). His big heart was shining through nevertheless. He had the guts to risk everything, I witnessed a very large architecture project where he and M&Co had collaborated with a famous architect and had spent a years worth of work: He was willing to walk away on the question of who will present to the client. Tibor had an uncanny knack for giving advice, for dispersing morsels of wisdom, packaged in rough language later known as Tiborisms: "The most difficult thing when running a design company is not to grow” he told me when I opened my own little studio. “Just don’t go and spend the money they pay you or you are going to be the whore of the ad agencies for the rest of your life” was his parting sentence when I moved to Hong Kong to open up a design studio for Leo Burnett. These insights were also the reason why M&Co. got so much press, journalists could just call him and he would supply the entire structure for a story and some fantastic quotes to boot. He was always happy and ready to jump from one field to another, corporate design, products, city planning, music video, documentary movies, children books, magazine editing were all treated under the mantra “you should do everything twice, the first time you don’t know what you’re doing, the second time you do, the third time its boring”. He did good work containing good ideas for good people.

Q. Who is your personal hero?

A. As mentioned, Tibor Kalman, because he had the most guts of any designer I know and understood that spending energy on making sure that a design appears as designed is as important as designing it. Makoto Saito for selling the same photo shoot to different clients. Rick Valincenti for continuously doing ground breaking work. Paula Scher for designing the best project of her career (the type for the New Jersey Performing Art Center), after a 30 year career, last year.

Q. What work are you proudest of?

A. Likely the whole "Things I have learned" series. The individual projects were a pleasure to design and create, lecturing and exhibiting them was a pleasure, I was pleased with how the book came out and even now, 10 years after we started the series, I have a good time talking about it. We also got a lot of positive and steady feedback about it.

Q. Where did you put your three Grammy awards?

A. Two are on an a book shelf, the third destroyed when my dog sat on it.

Q. What is your guilty pleasure?

A. Including at least one lie when answering interviews.

Q. What does wasted time look like to you?

A. Like a lemon wafer.

Q. What advice would you give up-and-coming graphic designers?

A. Dont take any advice from tried-and-true graphic designers.

Q. What is your all-time favorite font?

A. My own hand writing.

Q. Can you successfully play an ‘Alphorn?’

A. No. But my first design job, when I was 15, was at a magazine called Alphorn.

Q. Ever caught any unsavory shenanigans on the live cam in your office?

A. Only rehearsed ones.