Stefan Sagmeister's new book, Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far
, (Abrams) has emerged as one of the more talked-about design books in recent memory. The book's unusual format (it comes in a slipcover with five interchangeable covers) and its striking visuals are part of the reason why, along with Sagmeister's offbeat yet inspiring take on life. The book grew out of a list written in his diary during a yearlong hiatus from work, and it deals with essential truths that Sagmeister has figured out for himself—such as "worrying solves nothing," "having guts always works out for me," and "trying to look good limits my life." one.design
spoke to Sagmeister about the book and other things on his mind these days.
This book originated with a break you took from client work. How important do you think it is to get away from that daily deadline pressure in order to be able to experiment and try new things?
Well, there are certain kinds of ideas that actually work great on a timeline and under pressure. But there's another set of ideas that really work best when you can think about them, let them stew for a little bit and come back to them to see how they're doing. In the book, one of the things I've learned is, if I want to go a new way professionally, it's better to try it out for myself first. That's referring back to taking that year free of clients, just to experiment. You can think of different things, or maybe bigger things and new directions. Because while you're working in the studio, if things come at you on a daily basis, you just react to them. The thing is, it's easier to react than to create. So all of us who constantly complain about e-mail—in that complaint is also an excuse, because it's inherently easier to return e-mails than to actually create something. That also goes for reacting to clients; it's always easier to do that than to sit down and think. I find it helpful to be able to think about stuff without anything coming towards me. This is specifically true with bigger questions like, 'What should I do?'
You also feel it's important, on a regular basis, just to get out of the studio?
Incredibly important. Physically creating things outside of the studio can be good. It can be as simple as just being fun. The profession of communication design became much narrower with technology—the average communication designer spends 10 hours in front of a screen. In the past, they might have been doing anything from painting to lithography to sanding stones down to gluing comps together; the craft had much more variety at one time. One of the reasons I think handmade objects play a role in my work is literally to bring some of that back. You know, non-designers find so much of what designers produce to be cold and machinelike that they really think a machine is making it all.
You communicate in some very unusual ways in the book, using everything from leaves to bananas to inflatable figures to spell out your messages.
The tools you use are an important part of experimenting. There are not a lot of graphic designers who think outside the tools of graphic design, or even just outside of the computer programs they're used to using. Even if you're just talking about working outside of the Adobe creative suite, people will say, 'Oh we don't do that.' So we are working with manufacturing techniques and the tools from related disciplines—whether it's injection molding or whatever. And as a graphic designer, we almost have that field to ourselves. But of course, you can only do that if you have the time to think about it and the time to figure out those new tools.
You've spoken about how you use "lateral thinking" to help you create and come up with ideas sometimes – can you explain?
The whole thing comes out of Edward DeBono's ideas—he's a philosopher from Malta, and he came up with the lateral thinking term. He's written a lot about thinking and how the brain works. Basically, his theory is that the brain is an instrument that works fantastically when thinking in repetition. Now when it comes to coming up with ideation, or with a new idea, this whole thing is actually a drag because the brain wants to work in repetition. So chances are, the brain is going to think a thought that it thought before. And what DeBono says is people build their whole careers on that repetition, and it is, therefore, helpful to think about an idea from a point of view that makes no sense whatsoever—it forces the brain out of its familiar path and forces it to come at the end
result using a different path through the brain.
Let's try this out—let's say I have to design a new ceiling light. And now I look around and I see a fish hanging on the wall. So, the idea is, think of that ceiling light from a fish point of view. So okay… can that light be something that you catch like a fish? Or maybe it has scales—that could be nice. I recently swam through silverfish somewhere in Venezuela…maybe we could have a ceiling light that is like a thousand silverfish that are so thin—yes, this is an idea, actually. If we would have extremely thin silver scales that are so thin that they move by heat…so if we have a hot light in the middle and a lot of super thin falls around it and we put that light on, they would move toward the heat. Actually that is not a bad idea, and that one I'm actually going to write down.
A theme that's important in this book and in your work in general is the idea of happiness.
Maybe it has to do with coming from Vienna, where the opposite was so much of a subject, as in depression. There's a reason why Freud came out of there. Anyway, I was surprised that when I created my own list of happy moments of my life, more than half of these were connected to something that was clearly a piece of design. So I think designed objects can bring about happiness in the right context. We recently had a show at Deitch Projects in New York, and the thing that seemed to really make people happy was a wall full of bananas. They were all of different ripeness—there were green bananas and yellow, and the green bananas would spell out a sentence. Throughout the show they would ripen and the sentence would go in and out. The mood in that gallery was unbelievably good, with smiles on most people's face—and I think the banana wall was probably the biggest influence. Of course, we also had gigantic inflatable monkeys, which didn't hurt.