Happiness, Design, Meaning, Beauty — The happy interview with Stefan Sagmeister

It’s a rainy day in Windy City. Stefan Sagmeister comes in a bit late due to a traffic jam. He wears a unique leather jacket with darker americana pastel colors. He apologizes for his lateness — sincerely, the European way. We decide to grab drinks from the bar. Stefan asks the bartender for something light and non-alcoholic … We have almost an hour to talk before his documentary, The Happy Film, premieres in Chicago.

Tadej: Hello Stefan, welcome to Chicago. Where is your happiness level today?

Stefan: Well, I stopped measuring them really, when the film premiered at Tribeca [Festival]. I really stopped thinking about it, but I think today, I’m doing good. I would say like 7.5.

T: What is happiness according to Stefan Sagmeister?

S: The best definition that I’ve seen discussed is one that divides happiness into short-term, medium-term and long-term happiness. Short term being something like a happy moment or a moment of bliss or possibly an orgasm, medium term would be something like satisfaction — laying on the couch and things are just right, the music is right, you read the paper … that sort of thing. And long-term would be something that’s more associated with meaning — as in finding the stuff that you are good for in Life. And these three things have really nothing to do with each other. A moment of bliss is something totally different than satisfaction and is something totally different than finding meaning in your Life. I think that’s partly where the confusion comes from, because somebody talks about one thing, and still in the term of the large term happiness and somebody talks about meaning of life which is something completely different.

T: In the film we see you in the following scene: Listening to music while you were driving a scooter in Bali … is that happiness?

S: [Smiles.] That would probably be short-term happiness — that would be a moment of bliss that lasts seconds … That’s wonderful. It’s fantastic. And I don’t think this is Bali-centric. You could also do it in Chicago.

T: What led you to explore happiness in the first place? It’s started a couple of years ago ….

S: It started originally 10 years ago and initially it came out of thinking just about design and why I am doing it and I discovered that when I go back far enough many of these things actually … I’m doing them because there is some sort of a far-end goal that I would actually be happy afterwards. I started looking at the design world from that point of view and ultimately did the talk on the design of happiness — exploring Can design make a user or a viewer happier? And can we become happier as designers? That presentation had always good feedback. The ultimately in Bali I decided to make a film about it.

T: In your movie you experiment with meditation, cognitive therapy, and drugs (medical drugs). So, what works?

S: It turned out that all three work in very different kind of connotations and have different effects for me. I would say that meditation works form a point of view that it opened me to allow for larger thoughts — thoughts about if I should have a family, what happens when I die … bigger thoughts … That I didn’t think through while I was meditating … you are supposed to have an empty mind while you are meditating … but I think that the act of meditating opened me up to bigger thoughts afterwards …

Cognitive therapy had the very pleasing effect that it actually works. Specifically now and for the future. If I don’t like something about myself, I can take 10 more hours with Sheena, our therapist [in the movie] and work on it. So I don’t just have to say this is how I am and this is how it is, I can actually work on it. And I know the more I work on it, the bigger the change will be. It seems very sense-making to me.

And drugs definitely work, I guess in my case in the film, I had a too high dosis, but I could definitely see going on with them again in a lower dosis. Just sort of having somewhat higher serotonin levels longer in the brain.

T: Ironically, you mentioned that The Happy Film, made you really unhappy while you were shooting it? How did that happen?

S: I think it came from a gap that existed between my sophistication as a movie viewer and my sophistication as a movie maker. That gap is not a healthy one. It tends to create anxiety, because there were many periods of the filmmaking where I knew it wasn’t good, but I didn’t know how to fix it. I am not really used to that as a designer, because as a designer I learned it from the grounds up. And I think in many areas I do know what I’m doing. And if things don’t work I always have 5 tricks on how to lift it out of the hole … but in documentary filmmaking this wasn’t quite the case.

T: With this experience, would you say that happiness is a sinusoide curve or is it a constant? Is happiness eternal? Can we take it for granted?

S: No! For sure not. Happiness was designed by evolution kind of as a carrot that would hang in front of us … that we would reach here and there, but never constantly. Because, if we would, we would just be eating fatty food and chocolate and would not develop anymore. I think it has been designed by evolution as a compass, to show us the way, and of course a compass that would always point north wouldn’t work. That comes from a British scientist called Daniel Nathal to which I talked to and it made a lot of sense to me.

I am not so hot anymore about the direct pursuit of happiness, even though I do believe that these strategies work. But in general, I find that the direct pursuit of happiness … [long pause] is ultimately an attempt to go after something extremely complex in Life with sort of a single goal.

I’ve also seen different areas now, on a big project we are working on now, where that also didn’t work in other areas.

In the 19th century when beauty was celebrated highly, specifically when I go to a 19th century museum, I find that most artist that’ve pursued beauty as a single goal, ended up as kitsch. 50 years later when it was all about functionalism, people just wanted to make as functional buildings as possible, ironically they ended up with buildings that didn’t work — like this public housing projects that nobody wanted to live in and didn’t function in the very sense … and had to be dynamited 20 years later.

I think for these big things, like happiness, it is helpful to have multilayered goals in it, because the subject is so complex. My good friend, a young and very successful architect, who would always layer multiple goals in their buildings … The Client would want to get the maximum square footage out of it … and let’s also get the maximum sunlight out of it … let’s also get the maximum connectivity in-between the various units out of it … and by adding these various goals … the building ultimately has many more functions, but also ultimately and strangely becomes more beautiful. Because it is more about Life. Because it has to do many more things.

T: Would you say like simplicity and complexity need each other, beauty and functionality need each other?

S: The two always need each other. I would say, beauty needs ugliness to shine. An example, in music, many bands almost as a tactic would hide a beautiful melody in between material that is tough to listen to. And that lets the beauty shine much more. Radiohead would be a good example.

I have nothing against ugliness. Intended ugliness is super full of tension and very interesting, but 99,99% of everything that is ugly in the world is not ugly because someone intentionally would have made it ugly, but because it is laziness. It’s in-attempt. Basically, it’s I-don’t-give-a-shitness.

T: One sentence stuck me in particular in the exhibition The Happy Show … people look at happiness suspiciously, you must be a very shallow person indeed to be interested in it. A deep thinker understands that Life is miserable and lives accordingly … How do you define the suspiciously unshallow thing to explore happiness?

S: When we have showed The Happy Show in Vienna, I braced myself for lots of reviews saying this guy lived in the US for too long, his brain is gone south … that sort of thing … The exact opposite happened, it was by far the most successful show in Vienna, and it was by far the most successful show because of it. It was the most successful show by number of visitors in the History of the Museum [MAK — Museum für Angewandte Kunst] which is 170 years old.

I do feel in these cultures many people would want the opposite of what is normally brought.

When Freud said: All we can hope for in Life is a transformation from utter misery into common unhappiness. I thought one thing: I don’t believe it. I don’t see my Life going from the one to the other. My guess would be, that he was doing quiet well in long term happiness, because it seemed that he really found what he was made for in Life. He was probably doing less well in short term happinesses, which is why he was a coke addict, so he must have done quite well on coke in the beginning, but my guess would be considering that there was not much known about effects of coke in the long term, that in the end he was probably just a regular coke addict, and that was probably not so much fun to be.

T: “Man is his own worst enemy“~ Cicero — Is he also in the way of his own happiness?

S: You can express that negatively or … you make your own luck, which is basically the same thing. And, yes, I do believe that in many cases — specifically if you live in a free western society, where there is a significant amount of responsibility.

T: Before we briefly touched Evolution. Do you think that happiness was in the grand scheme of humanity from an evolutionary standpoint?

S: The Scientist, Sonia Lubawski, from the University of California said that 50% of how good we feel is genetics, and roughly 10% are the given things in Life — e.g. if you are a man or a woman, rich or poor, and 40% is experiences, specifically non-repetitive experiences. But around half is “run the course of a lottery” — basically we are just born in a good mood. I have definitely seen this with my many nephews and nieces, that some are just born like this … like babies, and they are now like this as adults. Some are just born in a better mood than others. [Smiles]

T: You are a graphic design legend in the design World. How did your expertise in design affect your search for happiness?

S: Ultimately, I was drawn to bigger questions. Like, why am I designing this hotel brochure? Should I be designing this hotel brochure? What is the effect of this hotel brochure — on me and on the viewer of the hotel brochure? Am I supporting this hotel?

Ultimately, I found that many of the things that I do leads to this questions: Is it good for me? Should I stay in bed and watch The Sopranos or should I get up and design another hotel brochure?

T: During the movie you mentioned, that you realised, that design is not only a passion. It’s also a calling. It took a movie to realise a calling?

S: Not quite, I think, that if I look at many of my students, they see design as a calling. But when I meet them 3 years after they graduated, many of them deteriorate it into a career and some of them just see it as a job.

T: What happens?

S: I think … Everyday Life, repetition, with that boredom, pressure, with that anxiety … loss of meaning, because they are not connected with what they are promoting … But it happens to me in our own studio, where I can do whatever I want …

T: Even with your degree of flexibility?

S: … Exactly! Now that I have a partner, Jessica Walsh, I have to do it with her. But ultimately, Jessie and I can do whatever we want with the studio. And even there, though the repetition, through the everydayness, through — sometimes — unwillingness to go completely loose, but rather do the same thing over again, being bored with that, it also happens. For me the best cure against it is for sure are the sabbaticals.

T: Which leads me to my next question. :) You are on a sabbatical right now …

S: Yes I am, and I shouldn’t be doing interviews. [Smiles] I should be outside smoking cigars. [Smiles] Which, I’m definitely going to do soon.

T: How is your sabbatical going so far?

S: It’s excellent. It’s wonderful. It’s my third sabbatical. I have started in Mexico City for 4 months, then Tokyo, 4 months and now I am going to Austria to a tiny Village. Three different places, that have very different influences. I am mostly working on my new project on Beauty which, Jesse and I are doing. It’s wonderful. It’s absolutely fantastic.

I have actually now, met so many people who also took sabbaticals. Some of them inspired by a talk that I had given. And I have seen people on all levels — very poor people, very rich people, people who are freelancers, people who have a thousand of employees in the company. It’s really doable for everybody.

T: Have you already started to feel the transformation from the sabbatical?

S: Oh my god, on day one! Yeah! Literally like a light-switch. This time it was surprising even to me — and I know that they work, so that was not a big surprise to me — but this time it was literally the first day in Mexico City it felt like a complete switch.

T: Your next project, is the Beauty project — will the beauty project and the happiness project intersect somehow?

S: Between the subject there is an intersection, yes. [pause] I’m sure it will be in some ways influenced. Of course, things that worked in the happiness project, we will use again. Like we also found that the show that we did — the exhibition we did, was actually extraordinary successful also in comparison to the amount of work and the amount of money it was. The film was significantly more work and cost significantly more money and I am not quite sure yet if as many people will see the film — we will see as we go on — as saw the exhibition.

So we found that the wonderfulness of an exhibition is that you can really design it for all audiences. You can design it for somebody who has 30 minutes of time, and for somebody who wants to stay 8 hours in the show. And they can decide for themselves at what pace and at what intensity they want to see it. In the film, everybody gets the same 90 minutes.

For us it was fantastic to see, that the museum suddenly didn’t attract at all a design heavy audience. And it was literary people with 10 year olds and also granddads. And that is of course … I ultimately think that this is the center of graphic design, because you are taking a very big subject, an unbelievable amount of data and you are making it communicable for a very large audience. That’s the essence of graphic design. So, we were very — no pun intended — happy with how the show came out and the amount of feedback that we got from it.

T: You have tried another direction of design: directing. Is directing a different kind of design? And would you cross another design bridge — say architecture?

S: No, I don’t think so. I might build a house for myself at one point in my life, but I don’t think that I would offer those services to the general public. See, If I would build a house, I would build a graphic-designy house. In the same way that I made it true when I made furniture … that it was informed by graphics, because, If I would have to design, let’s say an old English couch or a modernist couch … I have nothing to say in that … Because there are people out there who have 20 years experience with … form density, material appropriability, seating heights and stuff … And that would bear incredible knowledge and amount of detail and stitching technique knowledge, would always become a more refined culture …

But I probably could have something to say, when it’s a totally graphic piece of furniture that people who normally do furniture, wouldn’t do.

And maybe in a building that could be similar. I definitely have enough hate for existing architecture [smiles] to at least give it a good try. [smiles louder] But I can’t quite see that we would offer architectural services to our clients. The learning curve is too big and I have seen too many books designed by architects who suck so much … and there is I would think, less craft involved in a good book than there is in a good building.

T: In the world of big designer egos you are one of the most humble and most approachable people. On your Instagram you review the work of young designers. When you posted a photo recently of the injury you got in Tokyo, designers started to play with it & design with it. How did this make you feel?

S: Excellent! It was like a project out of nowhere. You know … it was a bad start to Japan to break my arm and my hand at the same time, not in a fun spectacular way, but in a very stupid way, by falling down from a staircase … and that sort of [Instagram] reaction was lovely.

I do believe that … I like being a designer. I like being involved also with young designers and helping out here and I think helping out there is a fine thing to do.