Design ‘on the Wild Side’

When he was younger and about to move to Hong Kong to make more money, a renowned graphic designer named Tibor Kalman warned him: “Do not go and spend all the money they are going to pay you, or you will be the whore of the advertising agencies for the rest of your life.”

He did not and easily got out of that. “Most of my colleagues were not lucky to get that great advice and are still stuck in them,” he asserts.

He is Stefan Sagmeister (Bregenz, Austria. 1962), a graphic designer and art director based in New York, whose ‘out-of-the-box’ vision has led him to experiences that, perhaps, not even himself imagined would live. Nowadays, he can boast to possess a treasure chest that stores, among other jewels, designs created for some legends of the music such as The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed and David Byrne of the Talking Heads.

From Mexico City, where he is now having a sabbatical, Sagmeister -who publicly opposed the war in Iraq (2003), along with a group of leading artists and entrepreneurs in the United States- cautions with a keen sense of humor:

“For a student to have a personal style is a crime, for a young designer a stupidity, for an established one a possibility and for a dead one a necessity.”

Nowadays design is ‘under the watchful eye’ of a social, democratic and eco-friendly approach. Are they truly convictions or just XXI century trends?

I do not believe that designers have an individual responsibility to be democratic or eco-friendly or, at least, not more than politicians, school teachers, and street sweepers do. Everybody has to decide for themselves if this is how they want to live their lives. In the same way that I do not think that eco-friendly could be a particularly original marketing strategy for a design company.

In an industry where predominates the motto ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune,’ is it possible to find ways to get inspired and create disruptive design concepts?

A big trick is to make the payer pay a little more to the piper. Spend that bit more is worth because the Piper knows how a disruptive design concept should look and feels.

Being a designer, you conceived an exhibition for spots like The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, The Museum of Vancouver and The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. What would you say to those theorists who state that art and design are disciplines with different ultimate aims? 

I would say that they have a point. In general terms art ‘can just be,’ while design needs to function. Even though there are cases where design has no function (say vases, where you are not supposed to put flowers into) or, where art needs to work, these examples tend to be the exception.

How do you envisage the future of design practice? Since in our context, almost anyone can be a designer and, on the other hand, professionals are requested to specialize and manage an increasingly wider range of digital knowledge.

I find the fact that most people are connected, in some way, to helpful design as the professional designers, creating more interest in it among the general public. If you played soccer in high school, you might be more interested in following the professionals.

Which is your opinion about the ‘design-stars’ phenomenon, where the name of designers (e.g. Philippe Starck, Chip Kidd, or Karim Rashid) is, sometimes, more recognized as a brand rather than the design proposal itself?

Hmmm… I do not know. Please ask someone else.

Recently you declared at CENTRO University that “there is no better time and place to be creative and innovative, than in Mexico.” What experiences in this country led you to perceive this?

Most good things that I have seen in Mexico City were made in the past five years. That means that the people who produced these things are around, which allows me to talk to them and get influenced by them. This reality beats cities like Rome, Italy, where everything that is valuable has been made by creators who are already dead.

If you could execute the complete redesign of a cover that contains good music but poor visual identity, which would be and for which reason?

I do not own any great music in bad covers, as I only buy good covers. If I would, I would choose Thriller (Michael Jackson), Jagged Little Pill (Alanis Morissette) and Greatest Hits (Billy Joel). These are the three best-selling albums of all time, and they all have awful covers. It would be a real challenge, possibly impossible, as they are too well known to be repackaged.

Share with us the latest news regarding your documentary The Happy Film

The Happy Film is now in the cinemas of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. We are busy figuring out how to project it elsewhere and expecting it to be available on various online platforms by May 2017.

Note: previously Sagmeister stated that he was looking for something meaningful to design, so this documentary forced him to do a whole lot of research and experiments within this field. “It allowed me to work in a challenging media, as I had never done a film before. As far as a definition is concerned, I find it helpful to think of happiness regarding a length of time.”

Written by Pablo Hurtado @pabloihurtado

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Environmental. The Happy Show
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Print. Talking Heads “Once in a Lifetime”

Portrait and photos by Sagmeister & Walsh