Take one year off in every seven

The graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, famous for iconic album covers, outlines his unique philosophy for staying creative

Every seven years Stefan Sagmeister closes his New York studio for a year-long sabbatical in order to revitalise his creative outlook. He is one of the world’s best-known graphic designers – creating brand identities for household-name corporations, high-profile advertising campaigns and iconic album artworks for famous rock names including Lou Reed and The Rolling Stones. Here, he discusses the need for critical distance. 

How important is separation in creating perspective?
The time frame is less important than the commitment to spend a part of my time doing what I am truly interested in, and just giving myself space to try stuff out. Every designer whose work I admire conducts a version of this: every late afternoon, one day a week, a couple of days every month. I’ve seen almost every version out there conducted in companies tiny and huge.

Have your three sabbaticals changed your perception of time?
I expected it would be joyful. What I did not expect was that these sabbaticals would change the trajectory of the studio, and I did not dare to imagine that they would be financially successful. But they were.

Originally, as with many big decisions in my life, there were several reasons to do it: one was to fight routine and boredom, another was the insight that I could come up with for different kinds of projects when given a different time-frame to spend on them.

Milton Glaser (the man behind the ubiquitous I ❤ NY logo) once told me that his proudest achievement in over 50 years of being a designer is that he is still interested and feels engaged. I myself find that sabbaticals are the best strategy to achieve that.

Has the world forgotten the joy of time off?
It’s less a case of ‘forgetting’ and more of an issue of day-to-day pressure. During the Tokyo part of my last sabbatical, I had rented an apartment in a small skyscraper, surrounded by office buildings. Whenever I got up at night, no matter if it was 2:00am or 5:00am, people in these towers were at work. I very much believe this not only to be unhealthy, but also unproductive. And for sure not joyful. I saw these same people later sleeping in the subway, completely exhausted.

Sagmeister & Walsh Studio, New York

What notable projects have you pursued during these sabbaticals?
My first sabbatical was initially disastrous. I had thought I could do it without a plan, as if the vacuum of time would miraculously generate ideas. It did not. Without a plan, I reacted to little requests, essentially becoming my own intern. But then I made a list of the things I was interested in, put them in a hierarchy, divided them into chunks of time and made a plan, very much like in grade school. The structure allowed me to get really close to design again. I had fun. Basically everything we did in the seven years following that first sabbatical came out of thinking from that one single year.

During our second sabbatical in Indonesia I was looking for something meaningful to design, and The Happy Film seemed to fit the bill: it forced me into doing a whole lot of research and experiments within this field. When we started out, it was supposed to be a general film on happiness. As this quickly proved impossible as the subject was just too large, it became a film on my own happiness (as I’m an expert on it).

When I started my latest sabbatical in Mexico City and looked for a main subject to work on, it immediately became clear to me that it will need to be ‘Beauty’, as it will force me to be in close relationship with many people. The following months have been among the happiest of my life.

Standard Chartered Commercial, Sagmeister & Walsh

What value do you place on money?
In the modern world, many jobs have become so complex that the feeling of ownership for the people doing these jobs has been reduced to such low levels that money turned into one of the only yardsticks for success. In general, jobs where people feel in control (and have ownership of their tasks) are doing much better on the well-being scale. In the US, a giant Gallup poll with 650,000 participants showed that money plays a big role in well-being among the working poor, but after the pay check exceeds $85,000 a year the improvements in happiness become too small to measure.

What aspects of modern day design most disappoint you?
The lack of beauty.

How did beauty fall out of public favour?
Most design-centric professions – be it architecture, product or digital design – don’t take beauty very seriously, with many practitioners seeing it as superfluous, while concentrating on function. I strongly believe that the sole pursuit of functionality often leads to work that does not function at all, the public housing projects of the 1950s and 1960s being a prime example. The goal was to house as many people as effectively as possibly, resulting in projects that were not fit for human habitation – they needed to be torn down again 20 years later.

Lou Reed “Set the Twilight Reeling”, Sagmeister & Walsh

What good design work has stopped you in your tracks?
We recently went to see a concert at the new Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, by architects Herzog and DeMeuron. It was beautiful.

When do you feel at your most creative?
During train trips. The forward motion together with a view out the window and enough space for a sketchbook; this works very well for me.