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Stefan Sagmeister: I am all for reality in advertising
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Stefan Sagmeister: I am all for reality in advertising

New York-based graphic designer, storyteller, and typographer Sagmeister on being naked, the key to happiness, and the only thing he wants to accomplish before he dies.

You made a film about trying yourself to be happy. How happy are you now?

Well, the last time I made daily notes on my happiness, I reached an average of 7.5/10, when I had started 6 years prior, it was at 6.8/10. I might not call this the key to happiness, but it does constitute a proper improvement.

The documentary is a serious insight into the science behind happiness.  Is there a formula one can take to find happiness?

I had heard our scientific adviser Jonathan Haidt’s conclusion that happiness comes from in between countless times during the filming and editing process:  He thinks happiness can ensue if I manage to get the relationship to other people right, this includes far away acquaintances and close family, if I can get the relationship to my work right and the relationship to something that’s bigger than myself right. Only then happiness can rise from here and there from in between. When I started my current sabbatical in Mexico City and looked for the main subject to work on, it immediately became clear to me that it will need to be ‘Beauty’, as it will force me to be in close relationship with many people, it will force me to work with many new and old experts, artists, designers and producers, and it will surely be bigger than me. The following months have been among the happiest of my life.

How much do people expect that when they meet you?

I have always tried to be as honest as possible. So when people meet me, the pretty much meet me.

Can you remember the first time you exhibited some kind of raw, “the ad guy” behavior?

I wow, I hope I never exhibited any raw, “the ad guy” behavior. I do not like raw ad guys, nor their behaviors.

You have used your body, literally, to advance your career. What does being naked mean to you?

I’m from Austria, where nudity is not a big deal. When I moved to the US, I noticed that it was here. I took advantage of that.

How did the shoots go over the years? Were there some awkward moments?

I would hope there comes a day when nudity has no shock whatsoever and the image of a weapon has a lot of shock value. This would make much, much more sense, considering that killing somebody is forbidden. So the imagery, or depiction, of killing somebody should be shunned too. Having sex or seeing somebody nude is not forbidden, and so the depiction should not be forbidden either.

What did you want potential clients to think when they saw those photos?

That we’ll do anything for design.

Brands like Target keeps it real with unretouched swimwear ads. In France, the law says any models appearing in commercial photography whose bodies have been made thinner or thicker by image processing software must be accompanied by the notice of “photographie retouchée”. You believe that the sense of beauty rests deep in the human mind. I wonder your thoughts about the new anti-photoshopped movement.

I am all for reality in advertising. I do think this is a good idea, the more human and honest it is, the better it will work too.

You have published “Things I have learned in my life so far” a book born from a running list you keep in your diary. What would like to add or revise, if you have a chance to reprint the book now?

 Making typography out of things can become boring.

The way you handle your Instagram account, “functioning like an online design clinic”, is really inspiring, and helpful. How did you come up with that?

I was influenced by Louise Bourgeois who did a weekly salon where people could come in and show their work. I had participated, and it was wonderful.


I would hope there comes a day when nudity has no shock whatsoever and the image of a weapon has a lot of shock value. This would make much, much more sense, considering that killing somebody is forbidden.


What’s the most memorable thing an artist has said to you?

Donald Judd has said, (but not to me), that design has to work. Art does not.

If you were exiled to a desert island, which works would you bring?

A James Turrell Skyspace

Is there anything out of the ordinary you want to accomplish before you die?

Remain engaged.

What do you think about when you think about death?

Coffin or cremation?

What’s your biggest pain?

Having to redo work because of someone else’s disorganized ways

What do you have planned for this year?

When I was a young designer I believed that it’s all about the idea and that form and style are secondary. I meet many young designers stating the same. After having been doing this for 30 years, I came to believe strongly this is wrong. Formal attributes including beauty are absolutely central when it comes to producing anything that should function well. We are planning a proper project about Beauty. –  [Revised, and re-edited from an interview with Ali Tufan Koc]



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