Brilliant, Engaging, But Modest It’s Not

Stefan Sagmeister is one of the best known and most popular graphic designers working today. He hasn’t yet reached the level of international renown and influence on design that David Carson achieved in the 1990s, but Sagmeister’s fame is of a different kind. His main contribution has been his emphasis on the handmade, in reaction to the slickness and unreality of so much digital design, and his willingness to treat any kind of material as a suitable component. Still, there are many equally accomplished designers at work around the world today who are nowhere near as famous. The crucial factor in Sagmeister’s success is the way that he publicly performs the role of designer, just as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst publicly perform the role of artist. Even before Sagmeister made the unlikely though hugely effective career move of cutting the details of a lecture into his own flesh for a poster, his presence and personality was a feature of his work. Since that painful moment nine years ago, his most highly publicized and emblematic projects have tended to be about himself.

It’s there again in the title of his latest book, Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far, which takes it for granted that his fans won’t be able to resist a proposition that sounds like a fusion of autobiography and self-help manual. The project—a collection of loose pamphlets in a slipcase to be read in any order—is based on 20 personal maxims that Sagmeister has been able to interpret in the last six years in the form of magazine spreads, billboards, light boxes, annual reports, and fashion brochures. The cover is an image of his own face die-cut with apertures that encourage you to play with and pattern his features in different ways by shuffling the pamphlets. It’s a typically brilliant and engaging piece of design, but it sure ain’t modest.

The maxims began life in Sagmeister’s diary, which he has kept since he was 14, and ten of them feature the words I, me, my, or myself—not strictly necessary for insights presented publicly that (presumably) possess universal application and appeal. In several cases, Sagmeister simply personalizes a preexisting sentiment or expression. Thus the commonly heard phrases “Money isn’t everything” and “Money doesn’t buy happiness” are Sagmeisterized into “Money does not make me happy,” while “Live for today” becomes “Thinking life will be better in the future is stupid. I have to live now.” Other maxims—“Drugs are fun in the beginning but become a drag later on”—are merely ­obvious. The most thought provoking are the insights that seem more particular to Sagmeister, such as “Everybody who is honest is interesting.” Honesty is not an overtly valued quality today: in popular culture, honest people are often seen as clueless suckers or earnest bores. Someone living by the value of honesty now—as Sagmeister says he tries to do—has implicitly rejected this mistaken view, and freethinkers are always more interesting than people who go along with the current assumptions.

Even routine verbal material can be enlivened, if not completely redeemed, by its interpretation as design. The fascination of these projects lies in the virtuosic treatments that Sagmeister and his collaborators bring to the phrases, and in trying to decide how the material form—the embodiment of the words in bamboo, sausage meat, clothes hangers, or underarm perspiration—affects the meaning. At times, apart from providing the maxim, Sagmeister is much less involved than one might expect. Canadian graphic artist Marian Bantjes supplies a remarkable series of flourishes for an Austrian magazine based on the sentence “If I want to explore a new direction professionally, it is helpful to try it out for myself first” (not one of Sagmeister’s snappiest), with each flowing, linking letterform fashioned with enormous dexterity and control out of pure white sugar. It hardly matters what the words say: the effect is so beguiling that it could make a hardware-store price list look ethereal and mysterious.

Unexpectedly, I concluded that a project I already knew well, a series of five billboards commissioned for a park in a Paris suburb, is the most convincing on every level. It has a strong memorable phrase, “Trying to look good limits my life”; and each photographic image, improvised by Sagmeister and Matthias Ernstberger from materials found in the Tucson, Arizona, landscape—tape, twigs, cacti—is beautifully conceived, ­constructed, and shot. Where some of the projects, as the series gained momentum, have an overstretched “What can we come up with next?” feeling to them (Sagmeister sitting on a window ledge in the Empire State Building, feet dangling above the street, holding the word over), in “Trying to look good,” text and image interact with an ambiguity that transcends the maxim’s prosaic self-improvement origins and turns the piece into something that looks very much like art.

While this is likely not Sagmeister’s intention, and he has never claimed to be anything other than a graphic designer who prefers to avoid ambiguity and wants to “touch the heart” of his viewers, the Things I Have Learned project nevertheless moves into conceptual and urban territory already occupied by artists. Sagmeister acknowledges Jenny Holzer’s influence as a phrase-maker working in public spaces, and we could also mention Barbara Kruger and Law­rence Weiner, as well as many other artists who have created text-based art for the street, sometimes by manipulating the graphic and photographic conventions of advertising and the visual expectations these conventions generate in the viewer.

The threshold where design meets art has been discussed endlessly in the last two decades, and the theoretical foundations for the work Sagmeister is now doing were laid long ago. He shows almost no interest in theory, except for some elementary reflections on the psychology of happiness in his book, and he has never been part of these design debates. He also distances himself from some of the work created during this necessarily introspective phase. “I have always found design produced for ­designers—similar to music for musicians and art for artists—sadly insular and consequently boring,” he confides in a miniscule footnote. It was always clear that the drive toward authorship in graphic design would require either clients who were exceptionally supportive of a designer’s personal vision, which is asking a lot, or designers-who-would-be-authors to initiate their own projects and create their own opportunities. In other words, they would behave more like artists, even if the outcome still looked more like design than art.

Unfortunately, while these authorship ­discussions were raging, graphic design was losing some of the power it once had, which, in retrospect, if you consider the golden years from Rand to Glaser to Kalman—Sagmeister calls him “my idol”—looks significant. Marketing had been pushing for more control of the unruly, intuitive design process for years, and in the branding-obsessed 1990s, design became its tool. Many ­designers fell into line and started describing themselves as branding experts. The digital technology that had empowered designers, spurring their demands for greater authorial control, also empowered every other computer user, chipping away at designers’ previously unas­sail­able position as masters of the once arcane arts of typo­graphy, photo manipulation, and layout, and reducing their authority. When the Web arrived, designers failed to take command, and a new generation with a different set of priorities and sense of their own purpose took on the task. An army of business-minded, user-­oriented design thinkers, who are often inclined to scorn purely visual factors, is now making life even harder for old-style designers. Small wonder that so many have abandoned the job description altogether.

Graphic design is now a bifurcated profession. While the average designer working away quietly out of the limelight is likely to be less free than she would have been 20 years ago to create the kind of work she believes in, there is still space for a small group of high-flying graphic-design stars who win the freedom to create work in a signature style. There is no reason why this shouldn’t continue so long as the designer is capable of supplying something more than just design.

In Sagmeister’s case, beyond the fine work, this is his own likability. He looks cool in photographs, he is amazingly nice to everyone (see the voluminous list of “thank yous”), and he has become a compelling speaker, entertaining audiences with amusing anecdotes drawn from his own experiences: the book is full of them. In truth, some of his ideas, such as the giant white inflatable monkeys, have no more weight than air. That media-friendly stunt, staged outdoors in six Scottish cities in 2007 and picked up by the British papers, is more like a fairground attraction than an artwork, but then a lot of large-scale public art now aspires to nothing more challenging than an undemanding accessibility. If I can coin a maxim of my own, one thing I have learned in my life so far is that “A person’s fame has as much to say about us as it does about the person we admire.”

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