Stefan Sagmeister
Photo by Victor G. Jeffreys III

Stefan Sagmeister: “Function alone is not doing it”

Short Profile

Name: Stefan Sagmeister
DOB: 6 August 1962
Place of birth: Bregenz, Austria
Occupation: Graphic designer, artist

Mr. Sagmeister, as a graphic designer, why is it important to talk about beauty today?

At our design studio Sagmeister & Walsh, we discovered that things look much better when the audience that we are designing for thinks that it is beautiful. And something that I recently came across that I found amazing, was that if you look up the single most translated word into English on Google Translate around the world, it is "beautiful." But what’s even more astonishing, is that a wide part of the design world would then respond to this by saying, "Oh, we don't care about that. That's not really important to us." Beauty, during art school, was a completely banned term. You'd be laughed out of a room if you started to talk about beauty!

How come?

It was just something that many teachers, but also colleagues, thought of as irrelevant, kind of old-fashioned or maybe even possibly commercial — for sure, something not really worthy of a serious person's contemplation. But the more research we did on the topic, the more we found out how that sort of thinking came to be. Because if you look at the first tools or the first creative signs that ever emerged in human history, beauty was very much at the center of it and continued to be at the center of all of our endeavors, I would say, all the way until the mid 20th century.

“Things just don't become beautiful all by themselves. Function alone is really not doing it.”

And then it was replaced by functionalism.

Through different historical developments, a very large part of the design or architecture world seemed to think that all we really need to achieve is function. And if we achieve that, then that will somehow, magically, become a good project by itself. Or even worse: that if it functions properly, it will be beautiful automatically. And we found that this is just not the case! Wherever beauty manifested itself from the human hand, it was part of the goal. That was the case throughout art history.

Beauty is purposefully imbued, rather than a happy coincidence.

Exactly, things just don't become beautiful all by themselves. In fact, it turned out that many of the original modernists, once they had worked within that role for a while, discovered that function alone is really not doing it. Even in graphic design, someone like Jan Tschichold, who is the father of the modern typography and layout, which all social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are still banking on — even he thought that his seminal book, The New Typography, was too narrow-minded, he even called it “fascist.”

Would you say the pursuit of beauty is coming back into popularity in our current culture?

That's very much my expectation. I am sure that in 20 years from now, we will look back at this time of functionalism, let's say roughly 1950 until 2000, as a time that we’ll sort of roll our eyes about and say, "Yeah, those were 50 years of human development where we thought we could do without beauty." (Laughs)

Having grown up in the former Eastern bloc surrounded by functionalist architecture, I would even add, without comfort or quality of life…

Right, and of course, there are many gorgeous minimal buildings out there, like the Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building in New York, for instance, or Richard Meier’s MAK Frankfurt building. But take the subway systems. Most subway systems built during the period of functionalism had a very stringent identity. Every station looked exactly the same as the other one. And for a long time, that was believed to be the best way to transport someone from point A to point B. But this was exactly the wrong strategy! Because if every station is different from each other, we can even intuitively feel when our station arrives.

“Almost all of these things that many of us find ugly, it’s because somebody didn't care...”

And your experience of the trip itself is infinitely better.

Exactly, we feel more cared for. If you look at the new subway stations built now, they are significantly better, because form plays a significant role. I think, ultimately, beauty is connected to care, to take form seriously.

Is that how you would define beauty?

I do believe, I'm convinced, that beauty is not connected to ornament, nor connected to minimalism. I would say that almost everything that is ugly in our world, like the strip malls, the areas surrounding our cities, with fast food places and gas stations, and so on — almost all of these things that many of us find ugly, it’s because somebody didn't care. And I'm convinced that one of the reasons that people behave so badly on Twitter, for instance, is exactly the same reason as people behaving badly in 1970s social housing projects. In the social housing projects, crime rates went up to such a level that many of them needed to be demolished, because they really didn't work. They made people aggressive. The problem is, I think, that ultimately function, in many cases, is extremely easy to achieve.

What do you mean?

If you design something that's been around for a long time, let's say, a chair — the function of it is extremely easy to achieve. If I know the ideal sitting-height and the angle of the backrest of a chair, I can design a dozen or two dozen chairs in a day, no problem! Now, if it has to be beautiful, and I would limit it further: if it has to be beautiful in a way that makes sense in our times, this becomes truly difficult. Because what that means is that I'm suddenly in competition with the entire history of chairs. I think the same is true for a teapot, or for a website. Specifically in graphic design, most designers call themselves “problem-solvers.” And that might be true, but I point out then, that most of these problems are really easy to solve. (Laughs)

You often talk about how important it is for you to be gutsy. Is designing something beautiful a gutsy act these days?

I think that it is closely connected to it. And if you look at the more “gutsy” architects, for example, Jacques Herzog and Renzo Piano, they now openly talk about beauty. But you know, I spent two months in Rome last year, and so many of the regular 19th and 20th century Roman buildings — they seem to be able to work in any stage of decay! They work when they're newly renovated, but they also work when they are full of graffiti, and they work when they are almost falling down. They're built so that any stage they are in, they seem to uphold a quite pleasing aesthetic. If your design is not able to age by its design, then it's not able to have any patina.

Does that idea of longevity also apply to graphic design?

In graphic design we would employ very different strategies, because plenty of it is basically created to be short lived. It's very ephemeral by its design. A poster is supposed to be good for the two or three weeks it's up, for whatever it's advertising, and then it's down. So is a website that's constantly renewed. Among the few graphic design projects that would be aimed at long-lasting things would be branding projects, like company logos, that you could expect to last for decades at least, and these we would need to design very differently. You wouldn't want to design anything that is, let's say, surprising or jokey because, by design, that will become an old joke. You would have to design something that will be able to stand the test of time.

“I think that there is a built-in necessity for empathy with your audience, and that is very much a basic requirement of what it means to be a designer.”

What kind of strategy are you employing when designing exhibitions? Your previous large-scale exhibition, The Happy Show, travelled around the world.

As a designer, I think if you just put a lot of work and love into a project such as an exhibition, it can have such an impact. But you know, if you would have talked to me when I was 25, I was not a big gallery or museum goer at all. I actually remember that the idea of designing an exhibition seemed utterly boring to me when I was younger! Even Tibor Kalman, my big mentor at M&Co — the fact that he was interested in designing an exhibition for Keith Haring seemed mysterious to me. And it just changed over time. In fact, with Tibor, it was sort of uncanny, because many of his early interests that I found not so interesting, became very interesting to me later on.

Would you say you became more curious over time?

Well, there’s still a good number of artistic directions, or even whole fields, that I don't find very enjoyable, but I'm convinced that if I would set my mind to it and find out more about them, that I actually would find them enjoyable. Because I think, as designers, by the absolute definition of the profession, we communicate things. Our job is to communicate larger pieces of information down to a point where they are understandable to a specific audience. I think that there is a built-in necessity for empathy with your audience, and that is very much a basic requirement of what it means to be a designer. By design, you will have to be able to care about the audience.