Mastering Design Thinking with Stefan Sagmeister
The Grit

Mastering Design Thinking with Stefan Sagmeister

Juraj MihalikJuraj Mihalik

Stefan Sagmeister formed the New York based Sagmeister Inc. in 1993 and has since designed for clients as diverse as the Rolling Stones, HBO, and the Guggenheim Museum. Having been nominated eight times, he finally won two Grammies for the Talking Heads and Brian Eno & David Byrne package designs. He also earned practically every important international design award. We are super excited to have him on The Grit.

You probably don't need an introduction, but for the sake of those who don't know you... Can you briefly tell us who you are and what have you been up to till this point?

I always wanted to become a designer. I had joined a small local youth magazine called Alphorn when I was 15 and discovered there that I was much more interested in creating the lay-outs than writing the articles. Furthermore, I was fascinated by album covers and thought that it would be a wonderful thing to do with my life.


After studying design in Vienna and New York, Tibor Kalman became the single most influential person in my design life and my one and only design hero. 30 years ago, as a student in NYC, I called him every week for half a year and I got to know the M&Co receptionist really well. When he finally agreed to see me it turned out I had a sketch in my portfolio rather similar in concept and execution then an idea M&Co was just working on: He rushed to show me the prototype out of fear I’d say later he stole it out of my portfolio. I was so flattered. When I finally started working there 5 years later I discovered it was, more than anything else, his incredible salesmanship that set his studio apart from all the others. There were probably a number of people around who were as smart as Tibor (and there were certainly a lot who were better at designing), but nobody else could sell these concepts without any changes, get those ideas with almost no alterations out into the hands of the public. Nobody else was as passionate. As a boss he had no qualms about upsetting his clients or his employees (I remember his reaction to a logo I had worked on for weeks and was very proud of: “Stefan, this is TERRIBLE, just terrible, I am so disappointed”).

His big heart was shining through nevertheless. He had the guts to risk everything, I witnessed a very large architecture project where he and M&Co had collaborated with a famous architect and had spent a years worth of work: He was willing to walk away on the question of who will present to the client. Tibor had an uncanny knack for giving advice, for dispersing morsels of wisdom, packaged in rough language later known as Tiborisms: "The most difficult thing when running a design company is not to grow” he told me when I opened my own little studio. “Just don’t go and spend the money they pay you or you are going to be the whore of the ad agencies for the rest of your life” was his parting sentence when I moved to Hong Kong to open up a design studio for Leo Burnett. These insights were also the reason why M&Co. got so much press, journalists could just call him and he would supply the entire structure for a story and some fantastic quotes to boot. He was always happy and ready to jump from one field to another, corporate design, products, city planning, music video, documentary movies, children books, magazine editing were all treated under the mantra “you should do everything twice, the first time you don’t know what you’re doing, the second time you do, the third time its boring”. He did good work containing good ideas for good people.

Warm-up question: What design tools do you use at least once every week (when you're creating something)?

A pencil and my sketchbook.

What was your very first design job?

Not the first, but a transforming one for me was a campaign commissioned by the Austrian theater director Hans Gratzer to save one of Vienna's major theaters from demolition. I was a student at the University for Applied Arts in Vienna then, and the campaign ultimately worked, the Ronacher is now one of the most prominent theaters in Vienna.

In 1993, you started Sagmeister Inc. What were the first steps in establishing your brand and your business?

The original opening card showing me naked twice needed courage (my then girlfriend thought I'm going to lose my only client). I went ahead with it, and it worked. I got two more clients.

In 2012, Jessica Walsh joined you as a partner in Sagmeister & Walsh. Jessica was very young but a super-progressive designer already back then. How did you guys start working together?

Many of my big work decisions were informed by happenstance. I wound up in Hong Kong because I visited a friend. I took Tibor's offer to work at M&Co because I needed to get out of Hong Kong. I partnered up with Jessica Walsh not because I was looking for a partner, but because she worked for us and was incredibly, uncommonly talented.

After 2 years of her being a designer in the studio, I did not want her to go off and start on her own (as many of our other talented designers had done). I thought there were many things we might be able to try out together yet. We were about 5-7 people then. She has wonderful ideas and knows how to execute them. She has an uncommonly highly developed sense of common sense, i.e., knows what will work and how to to get it made.

Beauty Book

You tend to be quite picky about choosing your next project since you only work for products or services that you would be interested in yourself. How does a designer get to this stage?

Keeping the firm small and the overhead small was the main reason that allowed us to be very selective with the clients we work for. It is not possible to do satisfying work for an indifferent client. We need the support and the willingness to collaborate on many levels. They have to want something good. And yes, we were picky from the beginning. In my experience, it is not possible to first grow doing so-so work and then hope to improve the quality.

I have read that you only present one thing to your clients. This is a very bold approach. Sometimes there are two rounds with the client, but that's all. How do you achieve so few iterations and nail everything the first/second time?

We always warn the client ahead of time and have gotten surprisingly little pushback on this. The only time when the client insists on 3 or more directions is when there is a decision-maker above that is not part of the meeting, one the lower client needs to please. We found that if the person who makes the final decision is not part of the briefing and presentation sessions, it is impossible to do good, new work.


We found that whenever we showed 5 directions, the client knew that they paid for all five and wanted to get the ‘most value’ out of this, by combining the type from direction #1, the concept from #2.., which often led to Frankenstein solutions ultimately nobody was happy with.

"Take it On" posters for the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City

We find that the client knows their business much better than we do, and we listen very closely, visit their offices, factories, and stores. Once we understand their business and their goals, we do know how to communicate that business.

You’re quite known for taking the extra step. By that, I mean either the skin-cut poster in 1999 or all your nudes shot for promotion of Sagmeister & Walsh. What lead you to do these things?

I wanted to do more work where the story of the making becomes part of the design. The most famous example I knew of at the time was that Pink Floyd Animals cover where they photographed that flying pig above the Battersea Power Station for real as a huge inflatable rather than photo montaging it in. The pig then broke loose (the guy who was supposed to shoot it down in that event was on lunch break) and flew all the way up to Wales, landing on the field of a freaked out farmer), the whole story creating a lot of press and admiration among fans. We probably could have photoshopped that AIGA Detroit poster, rather than cutting the type into my skin. I think the results are more authentic and the process more interesting (and painful).

Nudity is just a cheap (but very effective) trick. Being naked is no big deal for me (studying in Vienna where many public bath places are nude or topless) but seems to get everybody's attention here in the States every time. As you still bring it up 26 years after it was published, it shows that it worked well as a piece of communication.

If the whole world burned, what would be the one design piece you did that you’d like to save? Only one. Why?

My dad's watch. Why? Because it was my dad’s.

You must have helped so many clients during your career. If you had to pick one, what was your favorite one, and why?

David Byrne is unusually visually literate, which makes it very easy to work with him. We seem to be interested in similar visual directions. He also is funny and incredibly smart.


At which point did you know you should move on from Sagmeister & Walsh?

Jessica and I always worked with very simple letters of agreements that lasted three years, to be renewed after that time. The understanding was that we would work together for as long as it would be good for both of us. Jessica has ambitions to grow the studio, to also include strategic and consultancy directions, my own desires pointed towards self-initiated projects with a smaller footprint.

What are you currently working on? Do you have any fine personal projects?

I am working on a project that deals with long term thinking. Short term media like Twitter and hourly news create an impression of a world out of control, with democracy in peril, ubiquitous conflicts, and an overall outlook of doom. But if we look at developments concerning the world from a long term perspective - the only sense-making way - almost any aspect concerning humanity seems to get better.

Fewer people go hungry, fewer people die in wars and natural disasters, more people live in democracies - and live much longer lives - than ever before. 200 years ago, 9 out of 10 people could neither read nor write, now it is just 1 out of 10. I am working on creating intriguing visualizations of these developments with the goal that viewers might want to place them into their living rooms, as reminders that the latest tweets are just tiny blips in an overall rather healthy environment. I guess everybody is asking you about your famous yearly sabbaticals. I cannot resist.

You use your Instagram to critique the work of young designers. How did you get the idea?

I had gone to a salon of the late artist Louise Bourgeois, who allowed every Sunday evening up to 12 people to come to her living room.

Everybody needed to bring work, which she then critiqued. She was ruthless! And of course incredibly generous too, it is quite a gift to be giving up an evening every week in order to do this. In the studio we had received a constant stream of requests from people who asked to come in and look at their portfolios, I simply copied her idea and conducted a salon, where up to 12 designers came into our studio on Monday evenings. This worked well for many years until my travel schedule made it impossible.

I liked doing the critiques in the studio, as in a closed room with 12 people (plus me), it's easier to be very personal and to be tough without being hurtful. Instagram has the significant advantage of the audience being much larger (by a factor of 30,000), so other people might receive a benefit from the critique too.

I critique about 1 out of every 10 pieces sent in. I select them either if they delight me or if they have some merit, and I suspect I could nudge the designer into pushing it just a bit harder to be truly good. Very rarely do I also review pieces that I don't think are good if they allow me to make a larger point. I try to avoid being snarky or brutal, but sometimes my reviews might be seen that way anyway.

I hope I write my reviews in the way I like to be critiqued myself: With the best outcome for my piece and myself in mind. Do follow me on @stefansagmeister.

What would be the one thing you've learned over your long career that stuck with you up to this point?

Stay small.

What’s an interesting or fun fact about yourself we wouldn't find on the internet?

Fun fact: Interestingly, everything about me is findable on the internet.

What’s your favorite way to eat an avocado?

On toast.

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