words Alex Wiltshire
Stefan Sagmeister likes to be in his own work. For one infamous poster, the Austrian-born, New York-based graphic designer cut the copy into his torso with a scalpel. Here he talks to icon about his work and methods.
“I have no problems putting myself into my work because I feel that it should be shown from a personal point of view. Our CD covers are not objective visualisations of the music but our points of view on it. This applies to anything, from music to peace in Palestine. I think that modernist pseudo-objectivity in graphic design is complete crap – you know, solving a problem without the designer being able to be in it or have an opinion. We’ve had 80 years of that stuff and at least 50 years of it being the official language of the corporate world.
Having said all that, I’m sure two completely cheap reasons came into why I’ve put myself into my work, one being ego and the second repeating it because it worked the first time.
In 2000 we as a studio took a year without clients to experiment because I didn’t want to concentrate solely on music design. We’ve now branched into four directions: regular corporate design, design for art, design for music and social design – for groups that I think have a great remit and would benefit from good graphic design.
In the last three or four years we’ve been designing sayings out of my diary. I have an idea for a new series: whenever a portrait of mine is shot for a design magazine, it will be in front of a sign of one of the words in ‘Travelling alone is helpful for a new perspective on life’.
So far, we’ve done ten projects that show phrases from my diary. They’re paid client projects – these are clients who [let us] do what we want – and they’re definitely graphic design, I have no art pretensions. A few things inspired me: my granddad was a sign painter so I grew up with wooden signs hanging in our hallways. It was in a very touristy Alpine area in Austria. There are loads of souvenir shops selling sayings like ‘my home is my castle’ and stuff like that. There’s some Jenny Holzer too.
I recently heard Brian Eno explain why he thought the electric guitar was the dominant instrument of the 20th century. He said that it gets blasted into the dust by other specialised instruments or computers but that these limitations really make people fight against them and in the process create incredible pieces of music. I think that print is the electric guitar of all media. It has a good number of possibilities but compared with film or computers it’s unbelievably limited. But you can do all sorts to try to increase the possibilities.
One of my pet questions is ‘is it possible to touch someone’s heart with graphic design?’ So much of what designers do is technically very good but leaves people cold and has little meaning in their lives. It’s a pity that the majority of what we do is to promote ourselves. I don’t hate that – I do it too – but we could be doing other things, from agitating to entertaining, from raising money to informing.”