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In association with Bayerische Motoren Werke.

Stefan Sagmeister has spent the past 25 years working on graphic identities, advertising and packaging for clients as diverse as The New York Times, Barney’s and the Jewish Museum. Meanwhile, his album covers for Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones and David Byrne have turned him into a pop icon in his own right. He embodies the Bayerische Motor Werke Bold Voices ideals by infusing commerce with high art and he recently sat down to talk about design and the pursuit of a healthy work/life balance.

Q: Can a designed product make someone happier?
A: Right now over 50 per cent of the world population live in cities. For this part of the population, everything surrounding them has been designed, from the contact lens to the cloth, the chair, the room, the house, the street, the park, the city. These designed surroundings play exactly the same role to a city-dweller as nature does to an indigenous person living in a rain forest. They can be designed well or badly and they will make a difference.

There are, of course, many products out there that do make our life easier but we tend to only notice them when they fail badly. I can be on a plane going up and completely ignore what an incredible piece of design it is. I'll only really notice if it crashes.

Q: What advice would you give to people who are looking for more happiness in their daily lives?

  1. When opening your inbox in the morning, single out one mail to reply to with a special thank you or praise.
  2. Exercise.
  3. Have low expectations and display incredible surprise and joy at the anomaly of something – against expectations – going right.

Q: You’ve said that a sabbatical is a 12 out of 10 for replenishing creativity. Given that not everyone can take one for a year at a time, are there any other methods you can suggest for replenishing creativity and reigniting passion for design?
A: I think the time frame itself is less important than the commitment to spend a certain part of my time doing what I am truly interested in. Every designer whose work I admire conducts a version of it: every late afternoon; one day a week; a couple of days every month. I've seen almost every version out there conducted in companies tiny and large. 

Q: Could art help us to know who we are?
A: As a maker I see the work that we do in the studio as design. I do not care much about definitions but because the outside world does, it makes sense to abide. Donald Judd said: “Design needs to work, art does not.” Art can just be; it needs no function. 

And yes, I do think that many artists create worlds that define who they are. Good art allows us viewers a view of that world, a possibility to see it from a different point of view. Design can do the same, both for the maker and the viewer. It certainly had an enormous influence on defining who I am. I discovered important issues about myself by working on the film, among them that I am not a particularly thankful person. I've been trying to make gratitude a part of my life and think I've become a little bit better. But I need constant reminders; there are times when I can be truly thankful for a sweet gesture, and others when I just take my rather blessed situation for granted.

Q: What part of your work makes you happiest?
A: I actually have a list:

  1. Thinking about ideas and content freely – with the deadline far away.
  2. Travelling to new places.
  3. Using a wide variety of tools and techniques.
  4. Working on projects that matter to me.
  5. Having things come back from the printer/programmer/builder done well.
  6. Getting feedback from people who see our work.
  7. Designing a project that feels partly brand new and partly familiar.
  8. Working without interruption on a single project.

Q: Do you think that happiness is necessary to be creative?
A: I do much, much better when I’m in good shape. I am also more useful to other people. When I am not doing well, I create nothing. Sometimes it’s possible to look back and make a piece about the time when I did not do well but during the period itself, my productivity and creativity are very low. 

Q: How do you get your ideas?
A: Ideas come from everywhere, just hopefully not from other graphic designers. I can be inspired by pretty much anything – a long train ride, a Renaissance painting, a piece of music, a newly occupied hotel room – and it is interesting to translate that into the world of design.

Q: Do you feel truly happy while working?
A: Yes, especially when I’m engaged in a craft that I can get lost in. Time falls away as I truly engage in doing my best. It's what the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”. Many people manufacture that feeling with computer games, as by design they engage them – through the various levels of difficulty – at the edge of their capabilities. 

Q: What has been the happiest moment of your work-life?
A: When I first met Mick Jagger, while we designed the artwork for Bridges to Babylon, I asked him about his favourite Stones covers and he said, without hesitation, “Exile on Main Street”, “Sticky Fingers” and “Some Girls”. I said, “We should have an easy time working together since I would have told you exactly the same covers only in a different order: ‘Sticky Fingers’, ‘Some Girls’ and ‘Exile on Main Street’.” Charlie Watts turned to Jagger and asked in a lowered voice: “What's on ‘Sticky Fingers’?” To which Mick replied, “Oh, you know Charlie, the one with the zipper, the one that Andy did.” Good times.


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