Does depression drive creativity? The myth of the struggling artist & how Stefan Sagmeister stays creative.

by Tobias van Schneider

Somewhere between van Gogh cutting his ear off and Virginia Woolf walking into a river, we got the idea that true artists are tortured artists. Some of the world’s most brilliant minds were troubled, so we might conclude that mental illness must be the key ingredient to creativity.

Stefan Sagmeister is not buying it.

“I cannot relate to the suffering artist,” Sagmeister says. “When I’m doing badly, meaning when I’m down or sad, I do not create good work. I might create good work later on that comes out of some insight [from] that, but while I’m down, I mostly do nothing.”

Sagmeister, celebrated designer and co-founder of New York design firm Sagmeister & Walsh, has long pursued an understanding of happiness through visual projects like The Happy Show and most recently, The Happy Film.

And while the stereotype of the tortured artist suggests we create better work while we are depressed or struggling, Sagmeister has experienced the opposite.

“I find that I’m much more useful to people but also much more productive when I’m doing well. I found this to be true for other people too.”

Rejecting this stereotype can free us to embrace a much healthier pursuit: happiness. And when we’re happy, we create better work.

But why are we so obsessed with the mad genius?

“My guess is that whole image of the suffering artist is overblown, and I think the overblown-ness comes from us as an audience,” says Sagmeister.

He suggests the negativity bias is at play here. By nature, humans are more affected by negativity than positivity. It’s why gossip travels fast. It’s why everything in the news seems depressing — we crave those kinds of stories.

Our obsession with negativity is programmed into us, Sagmeister says. In prehistoric times, our brains had to process that approaching tiger quickly, or we wouldn’t last long. A banana, though, might seem less interesting, because it’s not a threat.

Plus, the stereotype validates our own insecurities. We like the idea that our struggles (and we all have them) might be useful — or better yet, make us special.

But we are mislead.

Depression does not drive creativity

Sagmeister speaks based on personal experience (and he’s had a lot of it), but neuroscientist and psychologist Nancy Andreasen decided to study it on a deeper level.

Andreasen, author of “The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius,” conducted studies and interviews to understand the brains of a geniuses (both of our time and from history), including the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

“Although many writers had had periods of significant depression, mania, or hypomania, they were consistently appealing, entertaining, and interesting people. They had led interesting lives, and they enjoyed telling me about them as much as I enjoyed hearing about them,”

Andreasen writes. “….They were also able to describe how abnormalities in mood state affected their creativity. Consistently, they indicated that they were unable to be creative when either depressed or manic.”

“Of course I suffer. Who doesn’t? But I don’t feel I’ve become a better artist because of my suffering, but because of my willpower, and the way I worked on myself.” — Francis Bacon

Trying to avoid sadness isn’t the point either. As human beings, we will always experience suffering at points in our life. Reflecting on dark times may even add an edge to our art or fuel the inspiration for a project. But we should not seek struggle for the sake of creativity. We should instead find ways to be productive and happy despite our troubles.

Here’s how Sagmeister does it.

1. Don’t let yourself get bored

Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, we are much more specialized in our work than we were 300 years ago, says Sagmeister.

“As little as 20 years ago, a regular graphic designer would use painting, lithography, silk screening — basically tasks that were so smelly they had to be done in different rooms,” he says. “On a daily basis you were forced to change locations and change seriously different tasks, from clean to dirty.”

All of that came together into one machine. And now designers sit behind a screen all day long doing the same repetitive tasks with little variety.

But worse, we are bored. So bored.

Sagmeister’s advice: Force yourself to switch things up. Do projects that require a mix of design and photography. Plan a project or activity that requires you to get away from your computer and make your body and brain work differently.

“The opposite of happiness is boredom” — Timothy Ferriss

It’s why Sagmeister does his iconic naked photo shoots with his team. While these projects aren’t necessarily as provocative as they used to be, they still serve a purpose.

“It doesn’t need any of our guts or any of that, but there is a joy in people who work together but are not necessarily best of friends running around naked in a photo studio,”
“It’s just being basically different from sitting behind a screen that we do six days a week.”

In our civilized world, we don’t have to worry about tigers chasing us anymore. So we have to take matters into our own hands and force ourselves away from the desk.

“I think we don’t do it often enough,” Sagmeister says. “It’s easy to forget it again mostly because the machine is so fantastic. So many things can be done without leaving that we become too lazy and ultimately bored by it.”

And boredom is a killer of creativity.

2. Push Your Comfort Zone (The 50/50 Rule)

“I think that one of the fantastic advantages technology brought is it made the field so much bigger,” says Sagmeister.

Techniques that were previously untouchable, like music or film or editing, are now accessible to anyone with a computer. We can shoot the photography for our designs and edit our own films and produce our own podcasts.

“Sometimes I think somebody has their own little set point of how much you want to lean yourself out the window,” explains Sagmeister. “I think my set point is somewhere in the middle — probably half half. I’m very happy if I know half of my job and I don’t know the other half.”

If it’s an 20/80 ratio, he feels too anxious to be productive. Knowing only 20% of a job makes him so nervous he’s not comfortable on the project anymore. If he knows 90% he’s too comfortable; he gets bored and the work gets bad.

Take his recent project, The Happy Film, for example. The documentary, which explores Sagmeister’s personal search for happiness, is currently being screened across the world. Sagmeister and a small team created it from start to finish.

“It would have been much easier for us to keep the same subject — do a thing on happiness — but make a book. We’ve done many books before, we roughly know how to make a book… [but] it would have been an 80/20 proposition.”

He wouldn’t have pushed himself, and he wouldn’t have felt proud of the finished product.

So he decided to make a film, which he expected to be a 50/50 type of project. Instead, it was more of a 20/80 deal — he was familiar with 20% of the skills and experience needed to do the work, and 80% felt out of his comfort zone.

“There were vast times of the film where I felt incredibly uncomfortable and scared — or maybe not scared in a tiger sense, or scared in an anxious sense — but frustrated that I knew from a viewing point of view that what we just did was not good, but I did not know how to fix it. Which is uncomfortable. [But] I think it’s great in prospect.”

So let’s let the tortured artist go.

Reject the stereotype and the negativity. Instead, find variety in your work. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, but don’t push yourself over the edge.

Pursue happiness.

Isn’t that why we create in the first place?


This article was written by Tobias van Schneider & Lizzy Spano as part of the NTMY show. Listen to the full conversation with Stefan Sagmeister here.

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Tobias is a Designer & Maker + Co-Founder of Semplice, a new portfolio platform for designers. Also host of the show NTMY — Previously Art Director & Design Lead at Spotify & Board of Directors AIGA New York.