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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Stefan Sagmeister
Stefan Sagmeister

sagmeisterpic Stefan SagmeisterGraphic Designer/Typographer
Sagmeister Inc.

The IHAVEANIDEA Creatives section, with few exceptions, has long been the domain of illustrious advertising creative directors from around the world. But just like how the ad industry must travel into other realms to find truly inspirational creative work, sometimes we at IHAVEANIDEA meet non-advertising creatives that are just so fascinating that we want to share them with our ad family.

Such is the case with Stefan Sagmeister, Austrian-born super-designer and founder of Sagmeister Inc. in New York City. Stefan’s work in everything from album cover and poster design to brand identity has earned him high praise in many creative circles, but it has been his philosophical musings on work and life that have made him a minor celebrity and very popular TED conference speaker (in fact we caught up with him in Cannes at the TED event held there during the Cannes Lions).

Always on the lookout for interesting problems, Stefan answered some of the quirkiest questions we could throw his way.

IHAVEANIDEA: Imagine this scenario; two small towns in America, both with the same small population of 5,000, and both with a similar main street, a small supermarket or two, barber shops, a baseball diamond, diner, mom and pop shops, and the usual small-town economy.
Now imagine that we send one creative professional to each town to work with all of the businesses to remake their brands in whatever ways the creative sees fit. To town “A” we send a major advertising creative director, highly awarded and very talented who’s worked in the ad industry all his life; and to town “B” we send a designer, perhaps someone like yourself who was worked with a lot of great brands. Both would have the same budget and time and would be given the ultimate goal of using their powers to have a maximum impact on the town. We would leave, and come back a year later. What do you think will have happened in the towns?

Stefan: The CD would look at all the merchants and select the strangest and oddest ones in order come up with a number of funny and clever ads, run them for no money on the local cable channel, submit them to Cannes and win a Lion or some other sad little sculpture. Outcome 1: The town remains the same. The agency hallway becomes uglier.

The designer would organize the merchants into an action group that ultimately bans all billboards, vinyl banners and oversized signs within town limits, including the print versions of the clever ads the CD came up with. Outcome 2: The designer remains the same. The town becomes prettier.

IHAVEANIDEA: Say that I would get a group of senior art directors from top agencies to sit in a one day class where you would teach them. The curriculum would completely be up to you. What do you think they’d need to learn?

Stefan: To sit still for a day.

ihaveanidea: How is the creative process for a designer different from a conceptual creative process of coming up with a brand idea?

Stefan: It’s more lovely.

IHAVEANIDEA: A lot of agency people hit a wall when the web took over because they had been doing TV, print and radio for so long that they had (and still are) a hard time at adapting their skills to interactive. Is it the opposite for designers? Was the web an easy move?

Stefan: In the beginning yes, now no. The craft on the web has developed: If you don’t know the tools you cant come up with ideas.

IHAVEANIDEA: A lot of the best agencies I know have moved designers from being the ones that fix up typography for the art directors to being a full fledged member of the creative process and the team. If you were to take a guess at what the role of designers in the ad industry will be in three years what will it be?

Stefan: Wieden and Kennedy is run by the designer John Jay. If there is an agency in the US that has been doing more good work consistently for a longer time, then I don’t know of it. In three years there will be a number of other similar situations.

ihaveanidea: What traits in your personality distance you from other designers? What separates good designers and art directors from great ones?

Stefan: I was born five miles from the German border and am likely better organized than most designers. I am not very spontaneous but very focused. Great work is formerly good work that has been pushed very hard.

ihaveanidea: Give me a crazy client story with the big lesson you learnt from the experience.

Stefan: Here is a long account of my first meeting with Mr. Mick Jagger: On Wednesday, a brand new and extra-clean stretch limo picks me up at the studio. We are going to Newark airport, and the driver hands over business class tickets for LA and I have a stupid grin on my face all the way to the airport, looking out over the New Jersey industrial landscape with the Statue of Liberty in my back, contemplating if this is one of those ‘happy’ moments that I have about once a year.

The next morning, Jagger’s assistant Lucy meets me in the bar, gives me a quick rundown on Mick and we go to the suite. In the elevator I’m nervous. Mick opens the door, turns around immediately without saying hello and I feel awkward. Lucy introduces us, and he’s friendly but busy going through a Sotheby catalogue with Charlie Watts. “At nine million that’s a real bargain”, he says in heavy British accent looking at a Monet painting. “Pity I have no walls left to hang it”.

As I help Lucy opening the water bottles, Mick grabs my portfolio and says, “So, you’re the floaty one”. “The floaty one?” “Yeah, all your covers seem to float in the plastic box.” He likes the Lou Reed package, he likes the attention to detail in some of the others and now I can stop being nervous. I ask him about his favorite Stones covers and he mentions without hesitation: Exile on Main Street, Sticky Fingers and Some Girls. These are my favorites as well: “We should have an easy time working together since I would have told you exactly the same covers only in a different order: Sticky Fingers, Some Girls and Exile on Main Street“. Charlie Watts (in lowered voice) asks Jagger: “What’s on the Sticky Fingers?” to which Mick replies: “Oh, you know Charlie, the one with the zipper, the one that Andy did”.

The stupid happy grin is back on my face.

Jagger shows me the presentation for the stage designs, labeled “The Blasphemy Tour”, with a huge baroque cross in the center of the stage. “Just look at it for style, forget about the title and the cross, we got rid of that.” I mention that I’m certainly glad they did, cause after having had the orthodox Hindus on my back for the use of Hindu iconography on the Aerosmith cover I have little desire to revisit the religious world and have right wing Christian groups making bomb threats. Watts asks me about my accent and I tell him all about Bregenz, Austria and that I lived in New York for the past eight years, and that I’ll fly back there tonight. “Oh, you came here especially for this, so this is like a little vacation then.” I tell him I feel like I’ve won first price in “The Big Rolling Stones Meet the Band All Expenses Paid” radio show contest, they crack up and I am out of there. I take the limo back to Rizzoli’s, get some books on Baroque, meet with the stage designers and fly out at 8:30. I feel good and am asleep before the plane leaves the ground, having learned no big lesson whatsoever.

IHAVEANIDEA: You get stuck in a deserted island for one year with ample supplies of food and water. You get to choose three things you can take with you to the island to help you pass the time. What would they be?

Stefan: A sketchbook. A pencil. A pencil sharpener.

Interview by:

ignaciocreditpic Stefan Sagmeister

Ignacio Oreamuno
El Presidente
IHAVEANIDEA

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