The Sagmeister Phenomenon

The graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister is now a kind of phenomenon. In recent months, he’s released a second book, mounted a solo exhibition at the renowned gallery Deitch Projects, and made a splash at Art Basel. And these are just the latest achievements in a career brimming with landmark design solutions and attendant accolades.

All of which has been well-earned. His work is often breathtakingly ambitious in its understanding of what design can be. It takes a certain kind of ingenuity and clarity of vision to intuit that this profession can mean typography carved into human flesh, or charts and graphics rendered huge and inflatable, or hanging out the side of the Empire State Building.

What’s more, his work also possesses a unique sense of whimsy that’s typically scarce in graphic design. Whether it’s a wall bricked with hundreds of bananas or a two actual school buses stacked one on top of the other, there’s a healthy amount of pure mirth present in most of his solutions — you rarely get the idea that he’s weary of his assignments, or that he’s doing anything less than having the time of his life. Indeed, one of the things that makes it so genuinely engaging is that Sagmeister seems to possesses an indefatigable willingness to act upon his playful ideas, to go to whatever lengths necessary to turn them into reality. Contrast that alacrity with the resignation of those of us who, if we can’t conjure up a solution in software or within ten feet of our desks, rule out anything more ambitious entirely. (Guilty as charged.)

Mr. Popular

All of this was made clear to me this past Tuesday when my colleagues at AIGA New York arranged for Sagmeister to give a talk about his recent work at the Haft Auditorium on the midtown campus of The Fashion Institute of Technology. He sold out that venue of 775 seats — among the biggest venues in which you’re likely to see a design event take place — and the crowd had a truly frenzied, star-struck energy the night of the event. And that’s not even mentioning the round-the-block lines reported at his solo show at Deitch Projects. The Sagmeister name brings out the masses.

Aside from his work being so generally compelling, I started trying to understand why it was that Stefan Sagmeister has become ’the Sagmeister phenomenon.’ The superficial answer, I think, is that he’s crossing over from the world of graphic design into the world of art. Even though he insists that his recent, largely self-driven design solutions are still in fact solutions — they use design for specific if unconventional purposes — he has played so fast and loose and for so long with the concept of ‘client brief’ that he seems far closer to the world of gallery openings than client presentations.

Getting Away With It

Even if it were true that we designers, in our enthusiasm for his artistic excursions, are celebrating his ‘graduation’ into a more refined cultural strata, I’m not sure that that’s such a satisfactory explanation for his celebrity. Rather, I think what’s at work here is we’re all enthralled by his ability to get away with it.

Sagmeister, clearly, is a designer who somehow manages to get clients to buy what he thinks is right, or even whatever he thinks is right. This upended economic relationship, in which the vendor calls the shots and the buyer submits, is a kind of holy grail for most of us. We daydream of working with clients who are so beholden to the singularity of our vision that they in turn let us do whatever the hell we want. In fact, I can’t think of a more succinct expression of what most of us strive for, even though statistically speaking a vanishingly small number of us will ever reach that pinnacle. Still, it’s an ideal that motivates a tremendous number of us, I’d wager.

But the novelty of authorship seems like weak criteria for judging real art. Ultimately, I think Sagmeister’s work, while remarkable as high-grade graphic design, amounts to only a low-grade of contemporary art. The works are obvious, not particularly dimensional, and somewhat juvenile. He himself has admitted that the premises upon which many of his self-driven designs are based are quite banal, and I wouldn’t argue the point.

What’s more important about Sagmeister is not so much the fact that he’s somehow managed to hypnotize his clientele into pliability, nor even that he’s successfully established a hyperbolic, Claes Oldenburg-like conceptual framework that appears poised to cross over into contemporary art. Rather, I think it᾿s that his definition of graphic design is far huger than most of us dare to dream, that he’s willing to get his ass out of his chair to act upon it, and that he seems to enjoy every minute of it. Take note, people.

  1. Nice write-up. All the more jealous I got waylaid by a work project and couldn’t cash in my ticket to be there. Tip o’ the hat to AIGA NY for setting sessions like this up.

  2. Two things:

    1. Its all about action
    2. Have the confidence to persuade

    3. Didn’t say there was a three but gotta have a three. I wonder what would happen if those quiet bashful types, that have those truly unique ideas, would come forward with a little bit of will power to express just like those extremists like Sagmeister.

    I bet some of the best ideas never come to light and hide behind a wall of fear…

  3. I’m definitely not on the Sag Bandwagon. Personally, his work doesn’t move me at all and I think a lot of it is pretentious. I’m not really sure what all the hype is about.

  4. I admit I’m so out of touch I haven’t even heard of the man, but is really the ideal that clients “let us do whatever the hell we want”? I have always felt that letting go of your own agenda and stepping into the clients shoes is part of the job – not ramming your ego down their throats.

    I’ll be sure check out Sagmeister. Maybe it’s art?

  5. Having just finished his first book, I definitely agree with you that the spectacle is his ability to get away with it. You’re right — I think he’s gotten to the point today that his clients are convinced before the projects starts, so they just go with it. But I think a huge part of his success is the sheer nerve of his work. He wasn’t always able to convince clients like he is now — it took hard work and a ton of nerve, something he seems to be particularly talented at using to his advantage. It took, as his own “rules to live by” say, “Having guts always works out for me.”

  6. I’ve never really been on the Sagmeister bandwagon, either. He just seems like an egotistical attention whore to me…. (my opinion partially formed by what people who’ve actually met him have told me).

  7. I like the Rule to Live By that Matt McVickar posted – I have also read his first book and think there are some very valid concepts – such as that one (even if you don’t agree with his approach to design “solutions”).

    Somewhat related: AIGA Colorado is hosting a Sagmeister event on March 7 that sold out 250 seats pretty dang quick.

  8. I, too , feel that Sagmeister’s work is pretentious, perhaps because it is so close to art. But I still envy him, just as Khoi does. He gets away with it. And he has the balls to do it. He’s one of the only graphic designers I can think of who has “fuck you” power. (The only other I can think of off the top of my head is Marian Bantjes, because she has such a unique personal style in her work that I imagine people don’t ask her to do anything but that.) We all have the power to say “no” to clients, but not in the all-encompassing, take-it-or-leave-it way that Sagmeister can. “You want those school buses turned the other way? Fuck you.” THAT is power. And I envy it.

  9. When Sagmeister talked thru his work last Tuesday, they seemed a bit more interesting because they were more personal than commercial. Prior to that, I wasn’t THAT big a fan of his stuff, but like you said, the fact that he takes action is inspiring.

    The whole Sagmeister talk reminded me of when I purchased the Adore album by the Smashing Pumpkins and I totally wasn’t into it until I went to go see them play at Radio City for the Hale House charity back in 98. After that concert, there was this rejuvenation of love for the cd and I think in Sagmeister’s case, I’ll probably have a deeper appreciation for his work next time I come across it.

    BTW, I think there are some other factors why he might be popular besides his design skills… i.e. his last name (catchy) / his accent (magnifies his jokes) / etc. I found myself laughing during most of his talk… then again, it could have been bc of the wine…

  10. As much as I like Sagmeister’s work and respect his approach to graphic design, I don’t understand how he has become a “phenomenon”. What happened to simpler adjectives to describe a good designer? Or is it that he’s pushing so hard to become something “more” than just a great designer? And I ask: would “Pathжtique” sound better if we knew that Beethoven stuck his body out the window of a tall building writing it?

    I don’t get why human beings need more celebrities, like it’s some form of addiction.

  11. Although I agree with what you wrote, I have yet to see a design solution by Sagmeister that I like. In fact most of them I HATE!

    I have had more than one conversation with friends over why he is so popular, and I think you nailed it on the head. It’s not really HOW good he is, it is that he get’s away with it, and that he is able to do whatever the heck he wants and get away with it. Not only that but I think he is walking a very thin line between graphic design and art.

  12. The business world in general questions the value of design (with a few exceptions) and has not seen fit to allow designers to participate in the more strategic decisions and debates.

    Pied-piper-types like Sagmeister facetiously lead the up-and-coming designers who idolize them (as well as the old guard that train them) down a self-serving path that marginalizes the value of their skills and contributions and labels them as “primadonna”.

    The myth of rockstar designer is disappearing as those who understand the value of collaboration and service get wise and avoid heralding the egotistical exceptions to the rule.

    It’s no wonder that professionals from other related fields are also steering clear of these unhelpful practices.

  13. He seems to me less a graphic designer turned “artist” and more an “artist” who made it as a designer.

    Still, it’s not like it can’t — or hasn’t — been done. Magritte, anyone?

  14. It might also be that Sagmeister is nothing more than another “modern art” fraud, an aesthetic conman, capitalizing on the intellectual weakness of second-handers who don’t understand a thing about what they are seeing but only know that others are saying it’s “deep” — so rather than feel inferior, they too pretend it’s “deep,” and thus the ruse goes on. Attach a high enough dollar figure to a smear of feces on canvas and it somehow becomes a million-dollar work of “art.” This Sagmeister is putting up his inflatable monkey in art galleries … and laughing his butt off behind the scenes watching people talk about it as if it actually means something — and delighting, as any charlatan delights, in the absurdity that people are actually so duped that they are PAYING him for this nonsense.

    “Modern art” is not art. It is a hoax, at best; aesthetic depravity, at worst.

    Modern design is rather different. There are things you can get away with in design — even some crazy things — that just “work.” But they work only because they are not pretending to be anything other than design.

  15. I’m kind of playing both sides on what Sagmeister is. Ideas on Ideasrecently did another interview with Sagmeister on top of the millions that are available already and I commented i’m getting sort of sick of all the attention.

    On the other side I think some of his design work is genius and though some of it swims to the “art” side occasionally, it’s grounded in practicality. So when his work is judged as pretentious, it seems to be the default opinion, rather than actually understand the man, his philosophy and personality.

    It seems to me that this embittered world where nothing is satisfying to any individual that jealousy actually runs more rampant than understanding. Many designers could achieve the respect and the free reign that Sagmeister has, but if it’s a choice between the almighty dollar or personal satisfaction, 99% are taking the dollar.

  16. Michael, that’s a rather broadly-sketched, specious argument that really has little to do with Mssr. Sagmeister at all. And a seething anger against this strawman demon of the modern artist-as-sneering confidence man does an injustice against an enormous quantity of work produced in the last century.

    As to Stefan Sagmeister and Khoi’s post, it does seem clear that Sagmeister’s personality has been just as important a component of his solutions as his solutions themselves. Perhaps it’s the migration of the author function from writing/aesthetics to the design world? It will be interesting to see whether his somewhat individualist legacy will impact the way designers operate or act in regard to their solutions in the future.

  17. A good example acceptance in the art world today was when I was in college at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. I being a left brained artist was never good at making those uber creative “throw some paint on a canvas” pieces. But was considered one of the best in school at drawing realism. Of course, I would get lines from my teachers such as “realism was out when photography came into the world” and “you need to explore your creative side.” This would anger me greatly knowing that the majority of the students couldn’t draw a realistic image if they spent most of the year practicing. So, to prove a point, for my final project I decided to go all out and show to them that anything could be accepted as art. I left for Lowes and bought a 4×4 board, poured mustard, syrup, sulfuric acid, and all sorts of flammable liquids on it, set it on fire. then to add a “cooless” factor I took it out to the country and has some willing friends take some shots at it. Upon returning to school for my final portfolio review. I just knew they would accept this piece with open arms, as I chuckled to myself. I’ll never forget the foundations teachers response. He said “Daniel, you really broke ground with this project. I think this is one of your better pieces, if not the best.” He
    then went on a schpeal for about two minutes on how wonderfully delightful it was. I should of taken the compliments and glory and then moved on to an easy college career. But being young and having to prove a point. I gave them a line or two about how this project was a joke and how it angered me that by todays standards anything could be accepted as artwork, where as in the past it took true talent to be an artist. It didn’t go well with the true abstractionists and left a chip on the shoulder of a few teachers, including my adviser for the remaining 4 years. But I still thought I proved a point to myself.

  18. low grade contemporary art indeed. which explains his popularity… when it comes to “contemporary artists,” the fame and creditbility are heavily dependent on others HYPE.

    how he gets away with it? simple, a bit of The Emperor’s New Clothes, and a bit of this.

  19. I really can’t say how good his work is because I could not get beyond the horridly designed and dysfunctional Flash website that is typical of a website that is a monument to ego. Nope Mr. Sagmeister, I am NOT going to spend 30 minutes trying to look at your graphics because you think the overuse of Flash is cool. Learn how to design a usable website that can be navigated and maybe we can talk.

    BTW, THIS is one of the most beautiful blogs on the Internet. I’ll take this ANY and EVERY day of the week versus Mr. Sagmeister’s garbage.

  20. I’d have to guess that Sagmeister’s clients are looking for a return on their investment and that they are sure they will get it because he has a successful track record. Sagmeister has a niche that matches a specific type of client (David Carson is in this realm). It’s cutting edge work for cutting edge companies. I feel the bulk of his solutions have been graphic design (brochures, identity, posters) and these solutions are not cookie cutter like an illustrator with one style. I envy Sagmeister’s design range and guts to push forward while the rest of the design field plays it safe and copies each other.

  21. On the idea of Sagmeister’s work becoming art:

    It’s interesting to note how little Sagmeister cares about this issue.
    I think this is overlooked, this not-caring.

    The debate seems to be a clarifying question for people to feel comfortable with what they’re seeing, to help and reform their views, to let them know what they should expect of it and gain.

    I’ve never come across a better explanation than the one Sagmeister himself references from Brian Eno’s diary about design as art:

    “This discussion seems to get in the way most of the time. It doesn’t matter what you call it because art is about triggering experiences, that is all. It doesn’t matter if I have an experience in front of Rembrant, or a Hirst, or a pizza leaflet or a chair, all that matters is the experience. And some people have an experience and some don’t. And when it comes down to design work, all the viewer really cares about is “is it good or not?”

  22. He did very original work by not giving a sh*t about what people thought of it. He became famous for that, and now clients want a part of that fame.
    So today, who cares if what he does is “good” or not. It is something more important than “good”, it is “a Sagmeister”.

  23. His work on lou reed’s album and the first slide is a rip off of te NYC based new york artist Shirin Neshat. she did the exact same work in the 90’s with persian script on her own face and hands.

  24. I think Khoi’s post is one of the most insightful I’ve read about the Sagmeister “phenomenon,” which has always left me mystified because I’ve never been a fan of his work. I find much of it gimmicky and juvenile “shock value” stuff.
    I do think something of value I can take away from the Sagmeister success-express is that it’s always worthwhile to shoot for the moon and see what a client can accept. Sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised.
    On a side note, has anyone noticed how few of Sagmeister’s “clients” are even clients in the traditional sense? Most of his wild projects are self-initiated, self-promotions (like for a talk), or pro-bono work for a friend/relative.

  25. Someone asked Michael Beirut to give a word of advice to students entering the business. (paraphrasing) “Never cease being a student.” or said another way, “Never lose your naivety/ creative spirit”. He has this in spades. He is always true to himself. You can see that in the work he produces. No? Then, you’re blind.

    For anyone lucky enough to have worked with him, seen one of his lectures or partnered with him as a client, you’re going to take something meaningful home with you.

  26. Stefan Sagmeister is a brilliant designer. If you look at his past works, and not just the familiar and popular ones, there’s always a second read or a reappropriation of technique that was used in 16th Century print and book-making. I met with him personally 3 years back, and he is a phenomenal mentor. In the brief 3 hours of visiting SFMOMA, I learned about which typographers that I’ve never even heard of, but he respected (e.g. Irma Boom who did the cover for “Design and the Elastic Mind”). He constantly analyses EVERYTHING albeit art or design. He is a true master at his trade. And in his earlier years worked at a prominent ad agency, where he met with and worked with Tibor Kalman (who was famous for the controversial AIDS and racial pieces for Benetton’s Colors magazine), and they did a lot of witty design work that really ENGAGES people.

    Anyway, I am always mesmerized with his work. From his business card (as you open it, it’s a pop-up of his logo) to even the simple cover design of “Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century ,” (hardback) where the cover is blank over time the sun will discolor the title.

    Nowadays, I see designers just get into a rut, and adopt a specific style, that now I can probably name who designed something, or I see the anonymous aesthetics pushed by popular culture, like WEB 2.0 graphics. I wish that most people who call themselves “designers” actually take a course in the history of graphic design, or even better by Phillip Megg’s book. Sagmeister really know his history of art, design, craft and trade, and I think that’s why you can see it in his works. There are so few designers that I truly admire, but he’s one of them.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.