Beyond branding

Imagine an ‘experimental year’ without briefs, with total freedom to create what you like and design something truly worthwhile. Daunting for some, maybe, but Stefan Sagmeister rose to the challenge. Oliver Bennett admires his latest book project

Sometimes, pure graphic design projects cross over into a more general public domain – and Stefan Sagmeister’s new book, Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far, seems to be one of them. ‘It’s apparently the bestselling book on graphic design in the US, and people who aren’t designers seem to be interested in it,’ says Sagmeister from his New York studio, clearly gratified that this is the case. Perhaps after it comes here this spring – the 15-pamphlet boxed edition launches this May in Edinburgh’s music venue, The Hub – it will perform the same magic in the UK.

But why? Perhaps because it is the kind of book that encourages thought, rather than merely being about good-looking pages. Also, it underlines a trend for aphoristic or formatted books, such as Roger Pol-Droit’s Astonish Yourself: 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life and Ben Schott’s Miscellany series. And yes, there is something that hooks the reader about Sagmeister’s ‘maxims’, which include such edifications as ‘Trying to look good limits my life’, ‘Everything I do always comes back to me’ and ‘Material luxuries are best enjoyed in small doses’. As well as being rendered in all manner of ways – with words variously made from sausages, tape wrapped around trees, floating duct foil in a swimming pool – they plug into public morality.

Sagmeister says that the germ of the book goes back to the ‘experimental year’ that his studio took in 2000. ‘We didn’t take on any clients for the year,’ he says. ‘It gave our projects an incredible amount of freedom. There were no limitations, no briefs, we didn’t have to sell.’ Instead, he made a list of the maxims that have informed his life, which have now become the core of this book.

It was a case of ‘what to do when you could do anything’, as Sagmeister puts it – a situation peculiar to most designers, and the point at which design dissociates from the client’s brief and moves towards an autonomous domain, more akin to being a visual artist working with the medium of graphic design: Barbara Kruger, for example.

This might raise the fear of the blank page, felt by any designer who has to develop their own brief. But Sagmeister says the idea became ‘self-propelling’. ‘I think the central idea was to show that it is possible to speak the language of graphic design and not the language of selling and promoting. I have nothing against that, and I think it’s important. But I do think it’s worth explaining the other things graphic design can do. We come to the attention of our audience for a short while, and we can bring different reasons for them to look,’ he says.

One of the maxims, ‘Everybody always thinks they are right’, has already featured in Scotland as part of the Six Cities Design Festival, when six huge white monkeys appeared in the cities, each bearing one of the words of Sagmeister’s saying. It proved highly accessible. ‘It’s a good example,’ says Sagmeister. ‘The public loved the monkeys, and many more experienced them through the media of local news.’ Sagmeister adds that the monkeys are due to go to Jerusalem, where his saying will take on an additional political poignancy.

Another of the pamphlets shows stills from a film Sagmeister made in Singapore, where he shot the words from the maxim ‘Keeping a diary supports personal development’ made from bamboo at various locations around the statelet, including being punted along a canal.

Sagmeister is known for his branding, graphics and packaging for clients – most notably, his CD covers for the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed and David Byrne. As well as showing his work at Deitch Projects gallery in New York and teaching, he has gained a certain eminence. But the point of this book is that Sagmeister is moving into a world of ‘creating significant things rather than cool things,’ as he puts it. It’s a world that is not as dependent on clients and many designers won’t recognise it: many in the design blogosphere have poked fun at the book, highlighting one of his more questionable maxims: ‘Money does not make me happy’. But in Sagmeister’s hiking of graphic design to personal philosophy, few could argue that he isn’t doing something fresh.

Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far, by Stefan Sagmeister, is published in the UK by Abram Books in May

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