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Stefan Sagmeister Stefan Sagmeister

- Graphic Design

Stefan Sagmeister, an interview

For over twenty years Stefan Sagmeister has been one of the greats in graphic design and of course, he and his partner Jessica Walsh do benefit from the studio’s reputation. Yet much is purely down to attitude, says Sagmeister, and the ability to keep the goal in focus, to scrutinise principles of design and to learn from mistakes.

Taking form seriously

In general, how do you approach a new project? 

We are a small studio with eight people and have remained deliberately small throughout our 22 years. We have not grown to keep pace with the number of offers we receive. We pick and choose, which means that we have a much higher rate of projects that actually get realised. We don’t do pitches and about eight out of ten of our jobs are actually then implemented. This greatly increases morale in the studio.

We try to only take on projects involving a product or service that we would be interested in using ourselves. This makes things more honest and we don’t have to muster up an artificial interest. It gives us more affinity with the client, but the main advantage is not having to lie. The approach is relatively simple. We talk to the client, look at the production side, even talk to our client’s customers every so often, and draw up a strategy. We never involve external strategists because, in practically all cases, our clients understand their own business best and we understand communication.

Would you permit a quick peek into the design process?

We hold a very precise briefing, then we take a step back and then later on there will be a major presentation. We only ever present one thing, never two, three or twenty as that would be the most boring and laziest strategy you could select. If I were to allow myself to present five things, then my focus too would shift and would lack precision. If I know that I only have to present one piece of work, then it had better be good. It has happened that we have been on the wrong track, but then this one thing is an excellent basis for reviewing the project and asking what went wrong. The second attempt always worked. In 22 years there has never been a third round. 

We explain this process to the client in detail in advance, and there are practically never any problems. However, we do insist that the person making the decision at the end is present at the briefing. This isn’t anything new. Milton Glaser, Paula Scher, all of them do it that way. 

Has it become easier to get the client to accept your ideas because you are well known?


I would say that it has certainly given us an advantage. But the client doesn’t hang on our every word. Unfortunately even I am not always right, and if something hasn’t gone perfectly, you just have to learn by your mistakes.


You think it’s a bad thing, then, for designers to always have to argue everything instead of being able to take up a position and say that’s the way it is because it looks good and is beautiful …?


In client presentations we naturally have arguments as to why a certain thing should be as we say it should. The reason why beauty interests me and why we use it as an argument, is function. I have come to realise, and experience has shown me, that beautiful things work better. Whenever we have taken form seriously, things also worked better. There are scientific tests that demonstrate that we look at beauty first and devote the most attention to it, even if we are only aware of it subconsciously. For us as designers to think it isn’t important and not to dare to say this to our clients is absolute functional nonsense.

As a final question, how does Stefan Sagmeister work best? Do you have any quirks? Do the pencils have to be properly lined up?


I am tidy, Jessica is chaotic, so completely the opposite. I like to work in the morning best. I start with the most difficult things and end with the easiest. Then I do of course have some quirks I’ve adopted over the years. For example, contemplating something that hasn’t anything whatsoever to do with the issue. This is good for the design process as it helps you to avoid the obvious. It has been scientifically proven that most parts of our brains operate automatically. So if I search my brain for a new idea, the first thing it will give me is an idea I’ve already had. The second idea it will give me is one that I’ve already seen elsewhere at some point. The trick of first thinking about something entirely different means that I’m forcing my brain to start from a different point and approach problems from a different direction. The route is therefore a different one which also increases the chance of hitting on a new idea.



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