A Solid 7.8! Stefan Sagmeister’s Happy Place


If you follow the world of design, the name Stefan Sagmeister will need no explanation. Originally from Austria and based in New York, Sagmeister’s audacious and clever design strategies have earned him international fame over the course of his career. Chances are good that you’ve come across his work or at least seen his TED talks over the years. If not, you can get a good sense of what makes him tick by seeing The Happy Show currently on at the Museum of Vancouver. It’s a whimsical, clever, funny and illuminating exploration of what defines and constitutes happiness for many of us.

On the day of his sold out lecture and presentation with Marian Bantjes, VR Media sat down with Stefan to wax cheery and share Werner Herzog impressions.

VRM: In your 2004 TED talk you began by speaking of arriving in Hong Kong and seeing signs on your way in from the airport, maybe thinking they’d hint at how things might go. It was a kind of superstitious exercise. Were there any signs you saw on your way into Vancouver?

SS: On the way here there’s a big electronic billboard that says: “Stefan Sagmeister: The Happy Show” and then I turned the corner and there it was! The fucking Happy Show! Right there in the museum! But no, since the Hong Kong experience I’m not really a big believer in signs. It’s a fun exercise to amuse myself but there’s no value in these kinds of signs. I don’t believe in astrology, or in not stepping on cracks in the sidewalk and so forth. But I at least have a suspicion that it might be useful to think about dreams. But not because I believe that they’re actually meaningful but because they can be a good starting point to think about my life, an entry point so I might think differently about it.

VRM: You have also landed at the nation’s Ground Zero for reiki healing, chakra balancing and all manner of New Age “wellness” solutions designed and sold, in part, to achieve some measure of happiness.

SS: I heard Vancouver referred to as “California for poor people!”

VRM: Which is becoming less and less the case! The “poor people” part, I mean…

SS: I would think there is still a California-ness about it.

VRM: The timing couldn’t be more perfect. Your show opens in the same week a study is reported to show that Vancouver is the unhappiest city in the country!

SS: I saw that too and I understand that the research was pretty good, meaning that it had been conducted by proper people with proper methods. But the interpretation of it, I thought, was a joke. If you just read down to the fifth or sixth line it shows that the average person in Vancouver feels like a 7.8.

I have a lot of data on myself from the last six years using exactly the same system (of measuring people’s happiness on a scale of 0 to 10). If I had a 7.8 week, well, that was a damn fantastic week, an excellent week! So that there would be any complaints about “Oh my god! We are unhappy because we are only 7.8 on an average!” is ridiculous. Secondly, they were complaining that only 30% of people in Vancouver feel like a 9 or 10. I mean, who the fuck feels like a 9 or a 10? I don’t know anybody who feels like a 9 or 10 on an average.

In a period when I was on drugs and had fallen deeply in love I had several “10” days in a row, but this was a very particular and singular time in my life. I don’t know anybody who could say of them selves that they feel like a 10 for any prolonged period. But to me all this stuff is inconsequential. The fact that some people in some town in Quebec feel 0.3 points better or whatever, is immaterial. At the same time I do understand the problem of if you’re young, and the real estate costs are so beyond you that you can’t aspire to it, then that’s a real problem.

VRM: Exactly. Security of home and a sense of place are major factors that affect people’s levels of happiness. Vancouver has much going for it but if you live with constant underlying angst over such fundamentals, “maximum happiness potential” may be perpetually out of reach.

SS: From what I hear there are a lot of investment properties around that are actually empty and I think that that’s a problem. I think it’s a moral problem. Society has a choice about how it looks at that. In Germany or Austria that is looked at extremely badly. If I would be in Vienna and I tell my friends “I just bought two apartments. I’m not living there. I’m just leaving them as investments.” people would look at me and say: “You’re a fucking asshole! Are you out of your mind? You’re taking up space for your personal gain?” It would be seen as a deep moral shortcoming. This clearly is not the case here.

I think morals traditionally are things to be discussed within a society. What are our values? Is housing something that we agree upon that we should make as much money from as possible. I mean these are all big questions. There’s no short term answer to it but I’d say its one of the most significant moral differences that I see between how I grew up in Vienna to what seems to be the case in, let’s say, Vancouver. The same thing would be the case with income equality. In many central and northern European countries it would be seen as distasteful for a CEO to make more than a certain multiple of the lowest paid worker. It would just be seen as unfair and slightly corrupt. There seems to be no such thinking within the Americas.

VRM: We are also a major centre for dispensaries of medical marijuana. Certainly there are good cases to be made for its medicinal qualities but, from experience, and aside from the huge profits that motivate much of this, I know people like to just get high, it makes them happy or at least enables some form of escape. But the design around this new industry is atrocious. It seems to have ossified since the time of 1970s head shop culture.

SS: I smell a lot of pot walking along the streets here. I have to say that that world passed me by and while I used to smoke a low amount of dope, I don’t anymore, very rarely. Mostly because I found that as I got older, the wonderful advantage that smoking marijuana had (that you didn’t get a hangover) puffed away. Also, it is now so unbelievably strong. Now if I smoke something on a Friday night I still feel groggy on a Monday so the high on Friday isn’t good enough that I would take feeling groggy on Monday and so I stopped. And with me not being an active smoker I have no interest in redesigning it. I think that I would leave that for people who are active smokers. I think it’s extremely important that designers who design things believe in the products or services that they design.

VRM: Humour can be part of (or distinct from) happiness. There is a lot of humour in this show and in many instances of your design practice overall.

SS: As graphic designers, the very nature of how we communicate with much of our audience, and with much of the media that we use, is now very short term. Sometimes you get two seconds if it’s a billboard, half a second if it’s a poster, three seconds if it’s a website or whatever. But it’s mostly short term and obviously if you’re dealing with somebody for that short a term, surprise will be a major strategy. You’d have to be an idiot not to use surprise if you know you only have the attention of somebody for such a short time. And of course an extremely important ingredient of humour is surprise. The surprise element is very crucial. I think that it’s also a coping mechanism and it played a big roll when we were working on the (unfinished and not always happy to make) happy film as well. But we always, if at all possible, try to make it part of our communication strategy.

It works very well for things that people see once but very badly for things that people see for ten years. I would not encourage any client to make a funny identity because if it’s around for twenty years you’re basically dealing with a lame joke for all that time. And I’d say the same is true for all those idiots who have a funny name for their branding company. That any company would go with a branding company with a funny name is a mystery to me because they already proved to me that they are complete idiots by naming themselves! Clearly if you name your company Razorfish, it’s a little bit funny the first time around but then becomes lame immediately and after ten years it’s just really lame. It’s the same with bands I know. Billy Corgan was very sorry to name his band The Smashing Pumpkins because every joke becomes lame.

I’m equally surprised that people would want to buy joke paintings by Richard Prince. Why would you have something on the wall that hangs there for years and years – considering it cost millions of dollars – that’s… a joke? Why wouldn’t you want to have something that is re-visitable, where the re-visitability factor is very high?

VRM: In your own findings there seems to be a lot of value placed on work satisfaction, yet creatives have endured incredible pressures and devaluation of their work in the marketplace in recent years. (Note: Stefan addresses me as a photographer because I’d just done his portrait. It was clarified that the interview was being conducted in my additional roles as editor/publisher/writer.)

SS: I think that this hits you guys more than us. I think that the devaluation of photography has been much more significant than that of design. As with all major developments within our field, this has been driven by technology. Basically your technology has become so unbelievably easy to use. We are moving and putting a photo studio in because every intern can shoot it and then another intern is good enough in Photoshop. We are not quite there, where you guys were, but we’re there for that kind of (catalogue/documentation) usage.

VRM: Effectively the middle has dropped out. Professional, dedicated catalogue photographers are virtually extinct which means that you have genuine talent sticking out more. The question is now “Yes, you see where quality matters, but will you pay for it again?”

SS: Exactly.

VRM: Our federal government recently put out an open contest call to design a logo for the country’s 150th anniversary of confederation. The grand prize was $5000. This got the established design community in a lather. But seeing as our professions are now mingling and merging, surely the established guilds or professional associations speak for fewer and fewer people. After all, the concept of the guild goes back to medieval times and was/is all about protecting interests and maintaining standards in a world where all the horses seem to have left the barn on that front. And even some top designers think we got a good logo out of this recent contest (though it’s been pointed out to me that the logo image seems to be based on a Japanese maple!). Is there still a role for the guild system in design?

SS: It depends on country and circumstance: The AIGA in the US used to play a terrific role in many questions regarding the profession, they were largely responsible for the ‘don’t pitch for free’ stance many quality designers adopted. They were also lobbying Washington for better federal design (not very successfully) and maybe most significantly they helped create an atmosphere of mutual support among American designers that I have not witnessed in Europe or Asia. They used to run a terrific gallery on New York’s 5th Avenue in a building they owned. D&AD in the UK does a rather good job as far as educational initiatives are concerned, but I am less familiar with the details there. Many other national design organizations limit their activities to just a conference and an award show.

In design, the field has become so gigantic. We are literally doing, in a single day working on furniture, a documentary film or a website and a business card. This used to be four professions.

VRM: Many people now associate happiness with a detachment from objects, and from consumerism in general, the very life-giving stuff of much design work. The “de-growth” movement seems to be gaining traction everywhere.

SS: There was a big discussion recently among product designers who said they’re not really interested in making objects any more. I think some of that is true and some of it is just the usual language that’s hip to talk about right now and it’s going to go away again. I know one of those designers talked about how he’s not interested in doing objects anymore. A week later I got 8 emails announcing all the new objects he’s introducing at Salone del Mobile in Milan so I think there is some dis-ingenuousness in that discussion. The fact that we can talk about that at all is a very luxurious thing. And I see that the extreme high end goes there faster. I have very rich friends who go through unbelievable lengths to get everything done on their iPhone, to use it for all their presentations and to basically to get rid of the iPad, and particularly the laptop.

I just spent a couple of nights in what is basically a studio apartment in New York which is completely and expensively fleshed out so that you can you can have a dinner in there for twelve and it sleeps four. It’s this convertible thing that does everything but ultimately exists on a footprint of 450 square feet. I wouldn’t be interested in designing or living in that apartment and at the same time I’m extremely aware of how extra things become an albatross around my neck. But I don’t think that I’m a good example. I mean, yes, I don’t have a car but that’s not a big deal in New York. Very few people have a car there. And I have a nice apartment but its not huge and I have no desire to make it bigger. I’m all with that but not at the fighting forefront.

VRM: You designed one of my very favourite mainstream CD packages, Pat Metheny’s “Imaginary Day” and one of my least favourite; the deluxe version of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s “Everything that Happens”. I haven’t seen much music design from you since then and much has happened to the music business in recent years.

SS: I feel like we’ve “done that” and I also feel about that like I feel about the pot design. I think there is a whole new generation of designers for whom it is fantastic to design a vinyl sleeve. But last week I threw everything else (CD players etc.) out and bought a single record player, tube amplifier and two loudspeakers and will only buy vinyl that comes in a good cover. But if a band that I love is interested in doing a vinyl cover only then I would do one as a hobby, for the love of it. In general I’m a little bit suspicious of these areas where you can’t create a sustainable living from it. I would say design for music would be one of those areas. Yes, if you make music videos for one of 10 stars then it’s possible and rightfully so, because to the vast majority of listeners, the cover plays no role whatsoever. They don’t even click to download the artwork because they’re not even interested in who the band is anymore.

Of course this development is bad for designers. Luckily I was already gone when it happened but it’s also really bad for musicians because if you became famous after this development, people don’t know your name or how you look so not only didn’t they pay for your music when they downloaded it, but on top of that, if you have a poster around when they play your city you have no clue what their name is because it’s just heard on some playlist that you’re not really interested in. That development is very very bad and it’s the reason why we have very few really major acts developing since. If you look at Billboard’s list of the biggest tours of the year, all the top tours are by people who became famous way before all this; the Stones U2, Billy Joel etc. All these people have the top spots with only one or two who are outside of that.

VRM: Your favourite Werner Herzog quote (in character)?

SS: “The birds in the jungle. They are not singing. They are screeching in pain!”

The Happy Show is now on at The Museum of Vancouver.

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