Stefan Sagmeister: Bring the personal and the human into design

Stefan Sagmeister talks about 'The Happy Film', his studio and his advice to young designers. Please note: this film contains nudity.

Part of the event

Stefan Sagmeister is an Austrian graphic designer living and working in New York City. His talk at the AGI Open 2013 conference in London was entitled "Sagmeister on Happiness", in light of his upcoming documentary The Happy Film.

In this interview he discusses the film and its subject of happiness, as well as the broader subject of his work in design. He explains his decision to work as a designer in New York versus Vienna, saying that in New York people are more about "actually doing things" rather than talking about doing things.

On his seven-year sabbaticals

A practising designer for more than 30 years, Sagmeister tells of how the graphic design industry has changed over the years.

His studio segues easily between advertising, furniture, film, app design, music, exhibition, graphic design and more, and he now splits his time almost evenly between working on experimental, self-initiated projects and traditional client-based work. The way that his studio, Sagmeister & Walsh Inc. (previously Sagmeister Inc. before he partnered with Jessica Walsh in 2013), deals with this is by notoriously taking a sabbatical every seven years. During this sabbatical he and his employees focus on other, more experimental projects and he finds that this fuels their work and determines their direction to a large extent for the next seven-year period.

Big changes need some thought, says Sagmeister, and there is a certain kind of idea that you can only pursue if you have the proper time frame.

Sagmeister explains that this routine has divided his studio over the years into three fundamental time frames. The first seven-year period was music-centric, the second branched out to bring the personal and the human into design, and the third seven years increased that even more significantly by working on projects that emerged entirely out of that mindset.

The Happy Film

Sagmeister’s latest big project The Happy Film came about from a desire to do something worthwhile. It focusses on his interest in whether it’s possible to document happiness and control it to a certain extent, and it explores what happiness means to different people. Through Sagmeister's research he has come to believe that it’s not possible to reach a constant state of happiness, and neither is it necessary.

If we would reach permanent happiness there would be no compass anymore. But I do think that we can hone our skills that can point in that direction, says Sagmeister.

The film has been a fairly long and trying process for Sagmeister, almost four years in the making, and he hopes to release it on festivals in 2014.

How will he define its success?

If people watch my film and feel happy, then I feel the project has been a success, says Sagmeister.

Advice to young designers

Sagmeister's advice for young designers is to try out as much as possible as early as you can.

Don’t worry about finding your own voice; it will come by itself, he says.

He encourages designers to travel down new roads as even though it will be more difficult, it will be more rewarding.