I’m a little embarrassed to say that after seven years of living in Washington DC, Monday night was the first time I’d ever visited the Corcoran. Perhaps subconsciously I was waiting for just the right event to make my inaugural visit; Monday night was certainly that night as the Corcoran Gallery presented graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister on the topic of Design and Happiness.
Stefan Sagmeister has worked with clients including the Rolling Stones, HBO, AIGA, and the Guggenheim Museum; to say he is a design idol is an understatement. And while Monday’s lecture touched on some of the amazing work he has produced for his clients (this is by far my favorite piece from his CD cover work), his lecture focused on finding happiness in your career. (We like happy clients.)
First, a bit of background. Sagmeister founded his studio in 1993, with desire to focus on the music industry. After working with clients such as David Byrne, Aerosmith, Lou Reed, and the Talking Heads, Sagmeister realized that he was doing work he liked, with clients he liked, and he was bored. So, Sagmeister did what every logical designer would do: He closed his studio. (!) In fact, Sagmeister, Inc. closes its doors for one year every seven years. If you happen to call or visit their Website in this time, be prepared to see the following greeting:
“Hello. You have reached Sagmeister, Inc. We are conducting a full year of experiments and will be back September 1, 2009. Please call us then.”
Surprisingly, the justification behind this plan is quite logical. Traditionally, age 0-25 is considered the “learning” years, 25-65, the “working” years, and 65-80, the “retiring” years. By readjusting this schedule to “retiring” at age 70, Sagmeister has five extra years of “retiring” to intersperse throughout the “working” years. Or, roughly, one year every seven years. Genius, right?
So what does one do with a year off? Besides “practice for retirement,” as Sagmeister puts it, he reads (especially psychology), designs, and plays. A lot. One study that Sagmeister spoke about is the “Giggle Twins” — two twins who had lived such parallel lives (including marriages, miscarriages and eventually, children at the same age) that when they were separately asked to write the first sentence that comes to mind, they not only wrote the exact same sentence, but you they made the exact same spelling error in the exact same space. Oh, and these nearly identical twins were separated at birth.
When Sagmeister is not studying the works of great psychologists, he’s making lists, and it is these lists that lead Sagmeister to realize his personal correlation between design and happiness. To start, he made a list of every moment that made him happy and then divided it into categories. In more than half of these happy moments, design played a major role. His list ranged from everything from a motorcycle ride through mountains to a Stones meeting in New Jersey. Sagmeister was able to find design in almost all of the moments that made him happy.
Like any good designer, Sagmeister also looks beyond his own work and life to find happiness in design. Three specific examples of design that made Sagmeister happy:
- James Turrell’s “Skyscape” exhibit — Turrell creates a transparent ceiling above a seating area that essentially creates a frame for the sky directly above the viewer. Sagmeister’s reaction to the exhibit: “I’ve never seen the sky the same way since.”
- Ji Lee’s “Bubble Project” — Lee placed blank adhesive speech bubbles on corporate advertising throughout New York City. As viewers filled in these speech bubbles, Lee would go back and photograph the results to document the dialogue between the corporations and the public.
- Anish Kapoor’s “The Bean” — The now famous Cloud Gate, or Bean sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, was inspired by liquid mercury and allows the viewer to distort the reflect skyline as they walk around and through the sculpture.
So how can the average person find happiness? Sagmeister suggests we start by “doing more of the things we like to do, and fewer of the things you don’t like.” Here are eight of Sagmeister’s ideas to get you started:
- Thinking about ideas and content freely — and with deadlines far away.
- Working without interruption on a single project.
- Using a wide variety of tools and techniques. (ie. Get off the computer!)
- Traveling to new places.
- Working on projects that matter to you.
- Having things come back from the printer done well.
- Getting feedback from the people who see your work.
- Designing a project that feels partly brand new and partly familiar.