Stefan Sagmeister is graphic design’s Johnny Depp as the strange rockstar of the industry. Boasting diverse clients like the Talking Heads, Rolling Stone, and Time Warner, he is consistently granted the opportunity to immerse himself in original and sometimes strange work. I, personally, like it.
Not too long ago, Sagmeister participated in two TED TALKS. In 2004, he spoke on “happy design,” that is, how certain projects made him feel as an artist, and how it impacted the work. Here, he explores “moments of real happiness.”
Sagmeister on Happiness
In the first half of his speech, he compares the difference between “the visualization of happiness” and “happiness.” In doing so, Sagmeister carefully leads his audience to the complex relationship between happiness, as an ideal, and design.
Unfortunately, when Sagmeister presented how to engage happiness in his designs, he noted that it was difficult to be “authentic” and avoid being “sarcastic.” He moves on to address the more demanding issue: campaigns that made him, the viewer, happy.
The subtlety in what makes Sagmeister happy speaks true to graphic design. He pulls at the drudgery of riding the Metro, the simplicity of watching the clouds, and advertisements seen around New York City. In essence, what makes Sagmeister happy, and what I suspect makes other viewers happy as well, is taking common knowledge and adding something special, a certain “flare” if you will.
In design, I suspect that the flare that Sagmeister calls attention to is what makes him so effective as a designer. It is within the minute details to everyday objects and concepts that bring his artwork to a new level. Positive images, colors, intention, and style in everything from typography to location helps the viewer experience satisfaction and happiness.
In moving from his favorite projects to his own, Sagmeister takes the time to list what makes him happy while working on his projects. I took them as words of advice from a master:
- Think about ideas and content freely––with the deadline far away
- Working without interruption on a single project
- Using a wide variety of tools and techniques
- Traveling to new places
- Working on projects that matter to me
- Having things come back from the printer well done
On most levels I agree with him in and out of working with visual media. I like to do my work early so that a deadline doesn’t stifle me into “just get it done” versus taking the time to enjoy the work. More than anything, I enjoy working on projects that matter to me, which I think is something that is more of application of attitude than anything else. However, what Sagmeister fails to mention in this list is immersing yourself into work. Sometimes I get so concentrated that I don’t notice that hours have passed and I haven’t eaten. That is why I––and I suspect other designers as well––enjoy crafting our art so much.
Sagmeister closes his talk with his life lesson “having guts always works out for me.” Yes, Sagmeister, take leaps of faith. Tie toilet paper to trees and participate in TED TALKS. Those “guts” are what makes you different from the rest of the crowd; without individuality or the willingness to be different, no one will think that you are special.
Sagmeister on What He Has Learned
More recently, in September of 2008, Sagmeister gave another TED TALK. He expanded on his life lessons and how he turned his personal life into his personal portfolio. For example, he took the lesson “Everybody thinks they are right,” inflated some blackand white monkeys, and attached each word to a different monkey. In another scenario, he picked a fashion street and, with several thousand hangers, wrote out the words, “Worrying solves nothing.”
In essence, Sagmeister starts with an idea, a phrase that is important to him, and then breathed life into it with imagery. With everything, place and medium had significance, and impacted the viewer in a different way. In graphic design, or rather in all art, it is necessary to pick words and tools with distinct meaning, or else the entire thesis of the piece falls through.
More importantly, Sagmeister has found what has inspired him: his life lessons. His talk begs the question, from where should I, as a designer, gather my motivation?
Marian Bantjes on Intricate Beauty by Design
Stefen Sagmeister notes that Marian Bantjes is “one of the most innovative typographers working today,” and he isn’t off base. Bantjes sometimes strange and always intriguing work begs the question, “how can she have such vision?”
“The appeal of what I do is why I do it,” Bantjes explains. People enjoy her work because they see that spark in her design and it resonates with them. She focuses on work that is “mutually beneficial to herself and a client.” Wow. Harping back to Sagmeister’s words of advice, work that is important to oneself seems to be so inspirational that it improves the quality of one’s work. Bantjes argues that the work should ultimately be personal—if ego is not involved, then the audience won’t be either.
Sagmeister says happiness, Bantjes says ego, I say that they are the same thing. In order to feel good, you must feel good about yourself. Improving yourself makes you feel good. Both ideas really are one overarching absolute in graphic design and in art itself. The amount of involvement, passion, and personal interest in a project increases the effectiveness of the final result.
Bantjes also plays with the idea of “wonder in design.” She plays with awe and image in her patterns and templates, ultimately intertwining the two. Art and information, she argues, is one of the more impactful underused tools in adult literature.
I would love to be able to tap into that creativity, that symbiosis of design and idea, that Bantjes hints at. But isn’t that why I’m learning digital design?
As someone who is also studying creative writing, what particularly appealed to me was Bantjes’ use of prose. Her valentine was beautifully written and crafted, perfected with the right font (or handwriting—I honestly couldn’t tell). Again, the marriage of literature and visual art astounds me.
Finally, when preparing whether or not to accept a commission for a piece, Bantjes asks, “Who is it for? What does it say? What does it do?” In answering these questions, Bantjes connects the piece to herself, her ego, and decides whether or not it satisfies her. I think that these inquiries are necessary to address the beginning of any design, art or not, to ensure that it is fully effective.
“Inspiration is cross-pollinating.”
Bantjes closes her speech calling for her work to inspire others, that the reason that she does what she does is to inspire ideas in others. That is why design is so important—that is why, I think, we all do it.