The Creators Project: Your work is very different from the rest of the graphic design landscape. It’s more organic and more controversial in a lot of ways.
Stefan Sagmeister: For a long time we’ve tried to make design that’s somehow more personal, possibly more human-centered, more organic, more handmade, less objective, and more subjective. At the advent of modernism in the 1920s, the human being was designed out of design--not just in graphics, but also in architecture and product design. The new machine age was so exciting to designers and architects that they wanted to get rid of everything organic, down to the very essentials. A fellow Austrian even wrote a book called Ornament and Crime, arguing that people like sailors who adorn themselves with tattoos are criminal to begin with, and that the pure soul of course goes for something that’s much more distilled. Now, of course we’ve had almost 100 years of modernism, and like any historic state, it’s become stale and boring. There are plenty of possibilities and areas where modernist thinking makes a whole lot of sense, including stuff we’ve done in the studio here that works quite well. I just think as a overall all-encompassing movement modernism does not have all the answers in 2010.
What are some examples of the prevalence of modernist design in our everyday life?
I think that the regular person on the street--you know, if I talk to my aunt and show her any newspaper--she will likely think that it has been designed by a machine. She will know that it’s written by a person because there’s a byline that says written by so-and-so, but she will think that the whole thing was designed by a machine because it really is so machine-like--so exact, so perfect, without mistakes. Take also, for example, emergency exit seat cards on airplanes. They all have the same look: modernist, iconographic, people represented with a dot for a head, as clean as possible. I think this is not the best way to show how we use emergency exits. As we have all seen, most people are so bored by those cards that nobody even looks at them even though the flight attendant points out many times to look at them. Virgin Airlines has a new approach to them, much more emotional illustration--and you tell. You don’t have to do a scientific study of the other passengers on the plane; you can see people pay more attention to the little films they show, as well as the cards.
What are some of the differences between the way you run things and a traditional design firm?
One of the differences is that we don’t, or have not in the past, shied away from the personal. So many designers when they come out of school have this feeling that, you know, form follows function. It always has to come exactly out of the functionality of the thing. Often, taking a complete reverse approach is very advantageous. I think beauty is not just in function. There is beauty in non-functionality.
When did technology start playing a role in your design process
I think technology always played a role in our work. So many of our ideas were really only made possible by technology. I mean, for one thing, I’m not only an optimist but I also believe now is a better time to live in than it was 100 years ago or 500 years ago. I’d much rather live in 2010 than in 1510. And knowing that, 2110 will probably be a more exciting time.
In recent years, the interest of the general public has become significantly more interested in design. Why?
So many people became designers through technology, in some way or another, and are therefore more interested in it. It used to be a very difficult field to get into, but technology has both leveled the playing field, and created an increased demand for innovative design.