BY NADINE PELZER / SABINE STAHL
What makes people really happy? This is precisely the question the acclaimed designer Stefan Sagmeister has asked himself. The very personal documentary ‘The Happy Film’ is the result of years of research and self-experiments on the way to happiness. His work inspires and fascinates, and is known for its provocative designs that question the role of the designer in today’s society. Together, we discussed his life, his work and the search for happiness.
Stefan, you are a very successful designer working in the broad field of advertising. At the same time, you’re looking for happiness. Is this due to the fact that ‘advertising’ and ‘the promise of happiness’ are already associated with one another in your profession?
Oh no. I have never believed in the promise of happiness in advertising, neither as a designer nor as a consumer. If someone still creates advertising that claims that buying a car, a handbag, etc., will increase the buyer’s happiness, he’s a lost case. This also applies to the consumer who believes such nonsense.
You are very successful in your profession and have carried out projects with many famous customers such as the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed and the Guggenheim Museum. What fascinates you in your work?
Graphic design is a vast field in which we can make movies, furniture, websites, posters, products and political social media campaigns while still remaining in the same profession. Therefore, it is very rarely boring.
Nevertheless, you decided to postpone your retirement for a few years: instead of putting an end to your professional life at the age of 65, you have already started taking a sabbatical year every seven years and want to keep going like this until the age of 72. What do you want to achieve through this?
These are experimental years in which I try everything for which I find no time in my usual work years. So far, each year has been different: the first year I was alone in New York City and spent much time thinking, but managed to produce very little work as a result. The second year showed some completed projects in Indonesia after working manually in a team of five. One of the main results of the sabbatical years is the fact that, even after almost 30 years, I still find a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction in my work. The current sabbatical is again quite different. It began in autumn 2016 and I’m going to spend it in three different places: Mexico City, Tokyo and Bregenzer Wald. The first four months in Mexico City were among the happiest and most productive of my life.
In your personal quest for happiness, you conducted various experiments to find the most effective method to increase the individual sense of happiness. These included meditation, concentration and relaxation exercises, cognitive behaviour techniques and also the consumption of pharmaceutical products. This lasted for a period of nine months. What insights into your happiness did you gain from this adventurous journey?
Happiness can hardly be traced to a direct source, it must arise of itself. But certain situations and life conditions can be created to increase the chances that happiness will come about.
Your movie ‘The Happy Film’ has emerged from this and is currently in German theatres. It takes us on your self-experimental search for happiness. Where and when did you film yourself, what do you want to convey through ‘The Happy Film’?
I had previously put together a presentation on the topic of design and happiness, and it was always well received by the public. When I then went on sabbatical and was looking for a topic that I hoped would be of ‘use to some people’, the topic became relevant again. We filmed in NYC, Bali, Austria, Sofia and Brighton, from 2009 to 2016. At first, I had the vague idea to make a film from which the observer ‘would get something’.
You have also expressed your research on happiness through emotional infographics, headlines, prints, videos and films, installations and sculptures. ‘The Happy Film’ emerged from all this, a successful exhibition that was shown in many museums and immersed visitors in your world of ideas. How does it feel to expose your deepest inner self to the outside world?
Good. If I don’t want people to know about a thing that I do, then I should not do it. But then, I don’t really have a clean record.
When asked what makes them happy, many people certainly responded ‘love’. But seen from a down-to-earth point of view, isn’t love also a mirage that involves much illusion?
Through the use of typography in your work, you constantly blend the borders between design and art. Is typography the binding element in this for you? How do you see it?
Graphic design is a language that combines text and images. We have often tried not only to combine text and images, but also to unite them – to make them one. It seemed sensible to us.
You originally come from Austria, but you have been living in New York since the early 90s. How has this affected your life, your creativity and your work?
The density of New York allows you to live without a car and provides a kind of pleasant basic friendliness that enables you to get to know many different people easily. All of this makes it very pleasant to live and work here. The possibilities with clients are certainly greater than in Austria.
What characteristics did your origins lend you that may help you to live a happy life today?
As a Vorarlberger, I take much pleasure in work well done. That makes me—as a designer—happy, possibly also my customers and hopefully also their customers. The same is true for the Vorarlberger butchers and plumbers.
Why is it so hard for people to be happy?
I could write pages to answer this. Since I am a graphic designer and not a psychologist, and therefore would have to mostly quote other people on the subject, I would rather stick to writing about my own happiness (on which I am an expert) and leave the happiness of others to professionals.
Can you practise happiness?
A little bit. Many people say that mediation provides a foundation on which they can build. In my case, this effect was only limited, but I would say that mediation allowed me, through the rest of the day, to approach greater issues for which I usually would not have taken the time and leisure. Now and again, considering great issues such as death is good for me.
In therapy, I learned to look at my environment and to check whether my behaviour is correct, in line with this environment. Through homework, I can then change things in which I want to get better. The more diligently I do the homework, the better it works.
Do you see happiness differently now than before you worked on the topic?
Yes. Good relationships with my fellow men, a good relationship to work and a good relationship to something that’s bigger than myself provide a basis from which happiness can arise. And: I realised that a 20-minute run in the morning makes a greater difference for me in the quality of my day than 40 minutes of meditation do.
Does your creativity depend on your personal happiness? How do fewer moments of happiness affect it?
The better I feel, the more productive I am. I’m also more of a help to others if I feel good.
You once said that you often buy music based only on the cover. What role do aesthetics and design play in our era?
A much too small role, because the 20th century has replaced beauty with functionality. How incredibly stupid and ultimately inhumane in the truest sense of the word.
You have received two Grammy Awards for your work and been nominated six times. Are awards the proof of good work for you? How do you define the success of a project?
Each of our projects has a defined goal, sometimes clear, sometimes vague. When we reach this goal, it is a success.
Name us a few things that make you happy right now.
First of all, the work on the Beauty Show and the Beauty Project. Then, definitely sitting on the plane to Tokyo, well rested and with a cafe au lait next to me, knowing that four wonderful months are awaiting me in Japan.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin, issue Q1 2017. Picture credit © Sagmeister by John Madere