The day Stefan Sagmeister came to town

I was connecting earlier this week with legendary New York-based graphic designer and typographer asking about his well-being when I realised what an impact he made on our local audience some years back when he visited. The whole visit was made possible by a mutual friend John Merrifield, himself a multiple Cannes Lions Gold winner.

Anyway Stefan is well, and his reply was: “So very good to hear from you. Our measures here in NYC have reached some severity again, and it might well go beyond the usual social distancing in the near future. Please do take extra good care of yourself! 1000 greetings from 14th Street”.

At his KL event that was sponsored by Commercial Radio Malaysia (CRM) and supported by TM Malaysia, he packed the hall of the Eastin Hotel Ballroom with over 300 industry players and students.

Austria native, Stefan Sagmeister formed the New York-based Sagmeister Inc. in 1993, and has designed for clients like HBO and the Guggenheim, while creating album covers for The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, OK Go, David Byrne, Aerosmith and Pat Metheny.

Stefan has exhibited his work around the world, and teaches in the graduate department at the New York School of Visual Arts (SVA) lecturing there extensively.

In 2012, Jessica Walsh became a partner and the company was renamed to Sagmeister & Walsh.

But before his event in Malaysia, tragedy struck our office in KL….

More than 5 years of artwork disappeared one night when the office got ransacked as the world watched the UEFA Europa League Final on TV!

But we prevailed…

“I think the results are more authentic and the process more interesting (and painful) this way.”

Shock Show

His show began with all eyes staring at a full screen photo of a naked man and women. The audience howled with shrieks (I am not sure of delight or shame).

It was Stefan and his business partner who had posed for an emailer talking about their new company name, as Sagmeister Inc changed to Sagmeister & Walsh.

The audience was awestruck at his boldness. But what a shocker: using the human body as the message is the strongest form of communication.

He is clearly one of the most provocative Graphic Designers of our time and his designs are characterized by an overpowering honesty and raw feelings.

Stefan then spoke about his research covering the Happiness Index, and how he takes one year off for every seven years he works…

Research also showed that the ideas manifested in the seven years he worked were actually germinated during his year of leave!

But if you want to know what extremes designers go to in the name of design, consider this: Stefan’s 1999 AIGA Detroit lecture poster. 

For this, he asked his intern Martin to cut the lecture details on his body with an X-acto knife, photographed it and used it for the brutally honest AIGA poster. 

When asked why he had to go through all that pain especially when there was always Photoshop, he replied, “I think the results are more authentic and the process more interesting (and painful) this way.”  

While most design lecturers talk about the beauty of design, Stefan prefers not to hide the painful truth about the ‘anxiety and angst’ that accompanies a designer’s life.

… While most design lecturers talk about the beauty of design, Stefan prefers not to hide the painful truth about the ‘anxiety and angst’ that accompanies a designer’s life…

One year off for every seven years he works!

Stefan also played bits from his documentary called The Happy Film. Showing how he pushed his own boundaries to get attention and talk to strangers in public areas in New York. Some were friendly but some just ignored him. After many hours of standing and walking, he managed to get a better response when he carried a large sun flower.

WIRED magazine said of the film, “it will trigger rushes of insight, empathy and voyeuristic pleasure…highly entertaining.”

Stefan is probably the world’s best graphic designer.

In 2005, he won a Grammy award as art director of the ‘once in a lifetime’ Talking Heads boxed set packaging. Among his many projects, he continues his work on ‘20 things in my life I have learned so far’ which is a series of typographic pieces inspired by the work of his grandfather.  

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