For two-time Grammy winner and TED speaker Stefan Sagmeister, beauty is more than just a concept or an aesthetic: it’s a guiding principal.
In fact, says the internationally acclaimed graphics designer, design in the pursuit of only functionality without consideration of beauty often does not function at all.
“Formal attributes including beauty are absolutely central when it comes to producing anything that should function well,” he says.
in the below Q&A, Sagmeister, who has designed for such clients as the Rolling Stones, HBO and the Guggenheim Museum, talks about his approach to design, beauty, work and change. Daily Brief talked with him by email in advance of his upcoming presentation at the PromaxBDA Conference 2018 at the Midtown Hilton in New York June 11-14.
DAILY BRIEF: You talk a lot about beauty as a key concept that guides your design aesthetic. What role would you say beauty plays in the world of design today? What defines beauty for you?
SAGMEISTER: Most design-centric professions, be it architecture, product or digital design don’t take beauty very seriously, with many practitioners seeing it as superfluous, while concentrating on function. I very strongly believe that the sole pursuit of functionality often leads to work that does not function at all, the public housing projects of the ‘50s and ‘60s being a prime example: The goal was to house as many people as effectively as possibly resulting in projects that were not fit for human habitation — they needed to be torn down again 20 years later.
And a quick definition: Beauty is a combination of shape, form, color, composition, material and structure, to please the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.
Has your perception of beauty changed as you have evolved in your career? If so, how?
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.
You have always done a lot of work for musicians and the music industry. What is it about working for and with these artists that inspires you? What do you think about the state of the music industry today?
I was always envious of our musician clients, mostly because of the incredible emotional connection music can have with its listeners. But it is not one of my talents. The industry is not in great shape, but many individuals have found solutions to the misery by being much more flexible, fast and entrepreneurial.
You are a big proponent of taking a year-long sabbatical from work every seven years. Why and how do you manage your life around it? Did you ever worry you wouldn’t have clients when you got back from a year off?
I have NO desire to switch off from work during the sabbaticals, actually they are there to work and I normally work more hours in them than in a regular year. We just don’t do any client work, but instead pursue little experiments that might yield results for clients in the future.
And yes, in the beginning I did worry a lot. But our clients turned out to be much more loyal than I had given them credit for.
I read that the best advice you said you had received came from your mentor Tibor Kalman, who said that the most difficult thing when running a design studio is to figure out how not to grow. Why was that the best piece of advice? Why has it been important to you to keep the studio small?
Yes, staying small within our team offered us many, many benefits, among them the possibility to be involved in many different processes, independence from large corporate clients, the possibility to pick and chose clients and many more.
How do you find that people’s demands around design have changed as the world has gotten more and more digital?
All the big changes in design always come through technology. Starting from the invention of the hand axe to printing and the PC, changes in communication have always been driven by technology.
How do you manage change?
Badly. I have the ability to focus well, which comes with a correlation to being somewhat inflexible. I have to force myself, it does not come naturally.
What motivates you and stokes your creativity? Is there anything you feel like you need to have in place in order to be able to work and create?
Being on a train helps a lot. The forward motion together with a view out the window and enough space for a sketchbook; this works very well for me.
What have been some of the most inspirational moments of your life? How have those inspired your work?
The work on the The Happy Film inspired my work a lot: It forced me into doing a whole lot of research and experiments within this field. I also figured that whatever we do might have a chance to be of possible service to other people. It also allowed me to work in a challenging media, as I had never done a film before. A book would have been much easier.
What do you hope the audience will take away from your time on the PromaxBDA stage?
The fact that beauty is part of what it means to be human. And that everything that is beautiful works much better.