by Fernando Capeto and Jossue Velasquez
photography Karolina Majewska
“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” – Albert Einstein
Sagmeister is not only extremely talented but also carries the passion and curiosity to match. It’s these three forces that have driven him to become one of the best Designers alive today. I asked this master of Design to reflect on his life before his professional career took off. This is what he had to say:
Originally, the real draw was album covers because I was always connected to music. People who were born in the 60s like myself—albums and album covers played an incredible importance in finding out who you were. The cover part seemed incredibly interesting to me even as a 15 year old, and I think that the main impetus to design came from that.
I had no interest in becoming a designer when I was five, and I was not particularly great at drawing. Basically, once I knew, “I’m going to be a designer,” I put effort behind it, and it was more the desire to be good at it than the fact that I was good at it.
I knew that I wanted to be in a certain art school in Austria, with a professor who would only take students who could really draw. After being rejected in the entry exam, I went to a small private art school that was not very good, but one of my teachers there was an assistant to that same professor, so with her help, I basically trained myself to draw, and it turned out that drawing is very trainable. You can learn how to draw in the same way that you can learn to ride a bicycle.
After drawing every day, I got much, much, much better and I made it into the school the second time. This, incidentally, was the same art school that also rejected Hitler, so if Hitler would have tried a second time, maybe we could have been saved of World War II.
[Laughing] Maybe. Could you talk about a major moment early on when doors really started opening?
Okay I had a very pretty sister who was a model, and there was a German-Austrian musician who was quite famous, medium famous, and he wanted to get into the pants of my sister.
I made an album cover for him that I still think was pretty good but difficult to produce, so the record company refused to produce it. He felt that he kind of owed me, so he introduced me to a theater director to do a poster for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. We did those for free, and the theater director loved them, and from there on, hired us to do all the posters for the theater.
That was a really good gig because all of the work that we did was mass printed and prominently displayed in Vienna, and as a 22-year-old student, I was in rehearsals with Elfriede Jelinek, who later won the Nobel Prize in Literature. So it was suddenly a very different environment than being in school doing stupid posters for the zoo that never see the light of day.
It was a very forming experience, and ultimately was the reason why I won a Fullbright Scholarship to New York. I didn’t know at the time, but The Fullbright commission were all theater goers, and they were impressed by the fact that a student had done all those posters that they knew.
That’s really great. So right after your undergraduate, you came to New York—to Pratt. You got the scholarship, but did you already know what you wanted to do here? “Okay, I’m going to work for the music industry.”
No, no, no, no, no. I was just happy that I had the next two years paid, that I didn’t have to work in Manhattan, to do whatever I wanted basically.
I did schoolwork on the side, but tried to see exhibitions. I went to a lot of concerts. On the side, again, I started some freelance stuff for—I had a photographer friend who did some jewelry. He photographed jewelry for some jewelry store, and I ended up doing a logo for them.
It turned out that the husband of the jewelry woman was a real-estate developer who then turned out to be one of those guys who moved to Miami Beach to buy up Miami Beach. He started a hotel and other businesses, so he needed logos for those restaurants and all that stuff. I did them all for a very low price—they paid 300 dollars, and 500 dollars, but he ultimately wanted good stuff. I could use those restaurant logos. They were all portfolio pieces.
This meant that by the time I graduated from Pratt, I didn’t have to take on a junior designer’s job. I did some freelance work for clients and for some design companies, but really my first job working for a company was as a creative director. Everybody assumed that I must have worked for five years because my portfolio was all printed, and I didn’t really go out of my way to correct that assumption. I felt that working while I was studying was very positive. It was very helpful.
And that creative director job was in Hong Kong correct?
Yeah, I went to visit an old friend of mine—a high school mate in Hong Kong. She had just gotten a job, and was busier than she had thought she would be. I didn’t have much to do in Hong Kong, so I thought, “I’m going to look at the design companies.”
At first, the design companies that I called up all said, “Go away. We have no interest in you coming by,” but one of those design companies misunderstood me and thought that I was looking for a job. They immediately said, “Oh, come in,” I had my portfolio sent over. Then I called everybody else back pretending that I was looking for a job.
In that process, one of the companies made an offer, and I told them a very high number, and they accepted that very high number. That was literally the first proper job that I had, meaning the first on-staff job, and then almost, immediately—initially I was hired as a typographer, but then even after a month, they asked me—after two weeks, they asked me to open a design studio for them. Then pretty soon thereafter, I became official creative director, but that’s a Hong Kong thing.
I was very opportunistic. I can say—I didn’t plan New York. I didn’t plan that I’m going to do this scholarship thing. I didn’t plan Hong Kong, even. It all fell into place.
The first time when I really sat down and thought “what is it that I want to do?” was after M & Company, when I opened my own studio.
It’s safe to say you had a different academic experience than most, so I thought I’d ask for your opinion on when or if one should go back to school? We have a lot of people that despise school and say you learn more while working. After undergraduate some people work for a bit then pursue a masters, others do it right after graduating. What’s your point of view on that?
Everything is possible. I know great designers who did Masters and PhDs. I know great designers who never even went to school, so it’s what fits you.
I myself, loved design school. I was very comfortable. Definitely for a while I thought I might stay and just teach because I liked art school so much. At the same time it felt a little bit wimpy for me to just stay with what I know and not go out there, so ultimately I did go out there, and I’m very glad that I did go out there, but I very much liked art school.
“(…) the ability to make things happen. An unstoppability. A way of saying, this is what I want to do, and I’m going to do everything to make that happen. Yeah. That’s a total part of it. Being unstoppable.”
Sagmeister: Made You Look, Stefan Sagmeister
To continue on this sort of train of thought, what else would you do differently in your student days besides pursuing a PhD? What else?
Probably in student days, I would try to work even more with other departments. I remember teachers pushing that. Go work together with illustrators, or work together with coders, or whatever. I didn’t really understand. I was so concentrated on graphic design that I didn’t quite see what the advantage of that would be. Now I see this very strong advantage.
Yeah. I agree with that. And I don’t want to blame everything on time, but we really have a hard time just delivering projects in a timely manner. To also work on collaborations would be very time consuming.
I think it’s not a timing issue, I think it’s an issue where you feel that if you do it yourself, you’re in charge of it, and you have the oversight. While if you collaborate, you’re less in charge of it, and you don’t quite know what’s going to come out. Ultimately of course, it’s going to be much faster if have other people helping you than if you do everything yourself.
That makes sense. I think it’s good advice. Another question: Who did you look up to while you were a student?
I think when I was in Vienna, it was Ralph Steadman, who is a UK illustrator. Then when I came over here—when I was at Pratt—definitely M & Company. Tibor Kalman. Definitely Hipgnosis throughout. That was a record cover design company in London, the main guy is Storm Thorgerson. They did the most famous album covers. They did all of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, those kinds of bands.
Yeah and do you ever get tired of designing?
Sure. Even when I was in Hong Kong there were times when I thought I was going to quit because I hated it so much. I don’t think there was a week in those two years when I didn’t think, “Next week I’m going to quit this shit.” Then when I opened my own studio, it was different, but I also have frustrating days, for sure.
Ultimately, I overcome them when I give it a little bit of a thought in the evening. Afterall, this is what I really want to do. It’s not like I can just let this lay around. Also discovering myself during sabbaticals, how much I work in the sabbatical when I don’t need to work, and even when there is nobody around to impress.
On the first day in Indonesia—there’s nobody around—I was sitting at the desk working. I had a beautiful pool, and I had bought many books, and there was nobody around. I had more fun sitting at the desk coming up with ideas than hanging out at the pool. I did not know that about myself. I did not expect it at all. I was like, “Ah bullshit!” but I needed to be in that situation to have that thought.
My final question: What do you consider to be the top three qualities a student should have?
Common sense. Number one. Understanding of things, but common sense also means social competence. How are people? What do they react to? If I do this, what will they do? Common sense. I think that that’s super important.
Then, the desire and ability to make something look good. It’s super important for me as a student, also for me now, from an employer point of view. If you actually want to double or triple your hireability, increase your formal promise. Really learn how to make something beautiful.
Third, the ability to make things happen. An unstoppability. A way of saying, this is what I want to do, and I’m going to do everything to make that happen. Yeah. That’s a total part of it. Being unstoppable.
Just as we imagined, Stefan’s journey to SVA has been filled with many personal adventures and insights for the rest of us. We would like to thank Stefan for his time! To see more of his work with Sagmeister & Walsh, visit their website.
Please let us know, via comment, what you would love to discover about SVA’s faculty. We would also love any feedback on this series so that we may continue to improve it for you, our dedicated audience. Till next time!
– SVA MFAD
Post by Fernando Capeto and Jossue Velasquez, 1st year students at SVA MFA Design: Author as Entrepreneur.