Sagmeister: “Variety makes you happier”

Stefan Sagmeister made a decision. It was difficult, it seemed risky, but in the end it was simply a good decision. He left a promising job, closed an acclaimed design studio and, for a year, disappeared from a life in which he had only ever achieved success.

“Taking sabbaticals was the best business idea and perhaps alsothe best creative ideaI’ve ever had.  Although, of course, it’s nothing I’ve invented. At first I thought it was my idea, because I felt like it was, but then I realised it was something very widespread.I decided to close my agency one year out of every seven, but then the Sabbathis exactly the same thing:Rest one day in every seven.Whatever it was, it was something that helped me a lot.”

That intuition by Sagmeister must be some sort of ancestral legacy. Indeed, this Austrian did not invent the sabbatical. This rest period dates back to the time when the Hebrews entered the Promised Land. The Code in Deuteronomy (a book in the Old Testament) talks about this habit of letting the land rest periodically, so it could strengthen and produce new crops.

However, scholars of the scriptures say thatthe sabbatical did not have just an agricultural purpose.It was also meant to have an effect on the Jews farming that land. They would have to leave their settled lives and the wealth provided by their land to return to being nomadic and seeking food wherever they could find it.It was a way of casting off material goods and sedentary comfort.

The Austrian designer is sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Pamplona, which has retained the beauty of a bygone era.  He has just arrived from the USA, and his first conversation is withToni Segarra and Jorge Martínez.The two Spanish publicists have founded a short-lived agency, The Table, which will spend a few months researching creativity. And Sagmeister can give them some clues.All around them are cameras and microphones.They are recording.

The designer starts by telling them that “the first time was not easy.” It took a lot of “guts.” He was afraid that the world he had always lived in might forget about him. He was afraid that his potential clients would not forgive his audacity in stepping away from the wheel of a fiercely competitive market.

“I have a design studio in New York. I thought that, during the time I was away, my clients would work with other companies and, on my return, perhaps would no longer want to return to us. Maybe nobody would even remember us. I also thought that they would believe that it was an unprofessional decision.”

It was the beginning of the 21st century. The internet was inflating a bubble full of companies inventing the new world and turning young newcomers to the workplace into rich and powerful men. Sagmeister felt dizzy when he jumped from this summit into the void. It was 2001 and he was afraid of losing a great opportunity to do something important. Or maybe he was doing something important with that very decision.

“I overcame those fears and, on returning, not only had they not forgotten us,” he says, “but we were under more pressure than before and had a bigger profile in the media.”  “The other great fear, that of seeming unprofessional, never happened either.  The sentiment expressed to us by our clients was very different. They envied us”. 

All of our customers told us: ‘What a great idea.I wish I could do it

During that time, Sagmeister turned his attention to unknown places.   He began to listen to stories of sabbaticals and to investigate what it meant in the life of a person. “It’s like when your girlfriend is pregnant and you start to see pregnant women everywhere,” he explains.  “And perhaps the story that fascinated me the most wasthat of a Spanish chef who worked at a restaurant called elBulli.I did not know him, but I read that his restaurant only opened six months a year.The other six months it was closed.I found it amazing and much more radical than my version of one of every seven years.In my case, the period away from my studio was 12.5% of my time, but in his case, it was 50%.Some time later I managed to get a reservation at elBulli and then I saw with absolute clarity thatcreating this type of food was only possible if you took the model of opening 50% of the time and closing the other 50%.This menu could not be done if you had to serve 80 steaks every night.You need time to explore other disciplines and speak with other people.With engineers, inventors… And you cannot do that if you have to serve 100 meals in the next two hours.”

If you have a lot of time to think about how you do something, the result will be different

“That’s the main advantage of my sabbatical periods or Adrià’s,” says the Austrian. “And if he does it and the rest don’t, it is clear that he will cook differently from the others. Although this certainly doesn’t mean that anyone who takes six months off to research will cook at the level of Ferran. There are many other ingredients in his genius.”

Sagmeister says that returning after his first sabbatical period was much easier than he expected. And with the benefit of hindsight from 2014, he believes that “everything I did at that time was worth it.” “My studio would be nothing if it didn’t close every seven years.”

The studio

Sagmeister founded his studio in 1993 with the intention of mixing the two things he loved most: music and design.“We did well, and within two years we were already working for many groups. But making CD no. 26 did not excite us as much as the first one,” he says. “I read a lot about psychology and sabbaticals. There is a type of person, like me, who loses interest when repeating an activity many times, and others who feel much more secure with repetition.I started to wonder what new things we could do, but after two years the music industry collapsed.We may still have been designing CD covers anyway, but I had to change things up.”

The desire to escape for a time from his New York studio was born of his “frustration with modernity.” Sagmeister harks back to the 1920s and remembers that “idea that anything could be done by a machine and that everything could be objective.” But he liked just the opposite. “Put your soul into what you do, put your subjectivity into the design you are creating, eliminate the machines as far as you can and put a human face back onto your work. It is not a nostalgic view, nor am I suggesting you do everything by hand, but it is necessary to return to the human approach to things.”

Sagmeister says that many of the objects, the web pages and even the buildings around us look like they were designed by a machine.  He was not happy with this and proposed“to bring a human language back to graphic design.”It was during his sabbaticals that he found the time to think about this. The Austrian jotted down his ideas in a journal and, on returning to his studio, many of them became projects. Many of them were even paid for by his clients. “After those sabbatical periods, the studio started moving in that more human and personal direction.Now I know that I needed that time away from the office to turn my studio into what it is today.”

Stefan Sagmeister

Sabbatical periods

On his first stop he did not go very far. Neither in distance (he stayed in New York) nor in results (“I thought I could do something without having a plan worked out, but I couldn’t.”). Sagmeister filled his time with tasks, such as sending emails to Japanese magazines or replying to messages. “It’s easier to send emails and perform small familiar activities than to think about doing something new,” he says. “I reacted to this and wrote down a list of things that I really wanted to accomplish. The most important ones first, and the least important ones at the end, and I organised them into a schedule like I used to do in school. It worked really well and I started doing useful things.”

On his second trip he went further.  He went to Asia. To Bali. Because in the USA and Europe there was not much left to discover.  He knew them well.  And this time he took a calendar full of plans with him.  In one of the lines of his list he wrote:“handicraft”.“One of the reasons I chose Bali was precisely because of its handicraft scene. The village where I stayed specialised in cutting wood, and many places around it specialised in other activities. I knew that by going there I could achieve my purpose of making handicrafts.Before leaving New York I had wanted to buy furniture for my studio.The furniture I liked was too expensive.So I thought I could make it myself in Bali and return with the prototypes and see what I could do with them.And that was exactly what happened.I made a series of furniture pieces in Bali.I still use some of them now and others are singular pieces because they are very expensive to produce.If they were cheaper, I would have considered mass production, but they were not designed to be replicated.”

Sagmeister, however, had no intention of turning into a furniture designer. What he wanted was to investigate what could be learned from three-dimensional objects and then to apply this to his work in graphic design.

Funding

But how is all this paid for? Who funds these sporadic withdrawals? “The finances, in our case, are very simple,” says Sagmeister. “One of my main goals since I founded the studio was to keep my costs as low as possible. We were fortunate to be under the umbrella of an agency in Hong Kong, and my mentor told me not to spend all the money I made so I would not always have to rely on them. I listened to him. I saved money and I was able to buy a studio in New York. I never had to pay rent and I could keep costs low. The animal that had to be fed every month was very small.”

And I never had to pay wages from a distance either. “The first time I closed the studio I had two people working for me. They set up their own studio and it was fantastic. Today we’re still very good friends. The second time was different. One of the designers went to MIT and is now working on the design of Google Glass.”

The rest of the time, when he is working in New York, the financial formula is “similar to other design studios,” he says. “Some jobs are aimed at making money and others are not. Many call it the Robin Hood principle. You make more with clients who have a lot of money to be able to work for clients who cannot pay these amounts. In our case, since we maintain a structure that is very small, artificially small, we always have more work offers than we could handle. This also allows us to choose our clients. We try to work for companies that make products that we like or that we use. This means you don’t need to lie, and that you automatically like and take an interest in the product for which you are working. It makes things much easier.”

Stefan Sagmeister

Happiness

Happiness plays a central role in the philosophy of Sagmeister and being happy at work, ultimately, consists in this premise: “We all want to be useful,” he says. “The writer Alain de Botton says that we find our work useful when someone likes it or it helps them, when we look back and see that it had a purpose. Giving responsibility to your work helps it to have meaning.”

The conversation now floats into a silence that indicates that the end is coming. But just before someone winds up the session with a parting phrase, an intrigued Toni fires off a question:

–What does elBulli mean to you? Is it a restaurant or something else? We are very intrigued to know the difference between elBulli and a classic restaurant. In this time we have learned that they are inventors of gastronomic instructions, rather than producers of dishes.

–I remember that right after eating at elBulli we said that if the rest were to be called chefs, then Ferran Adrià was not a chef. There is a very clear difference. I have read many articles on the art of cooking and that kind of nonsense. Cooking is not an art. It is handicraft. Even when it is done by the best chefs it is a handicraft. What Adrià does, though, is indeed art. I’ve never seen anyone else do something like that. There is a vast difference between the importance that Ferran places in researching, innovating and expressing this new way of thinking, and what others do. And his ideas, brought to a plate, work. Many chefs after Ferran, especially in the USA, tried to do the same thing. But none of them succeeded. They were trying to reflect different ideas in their dishes, but they did not taste very good and they also looked strange. It didn’t work. In Adrià’s case, the ideas are fantastic and the food is delicious.

Sagmeister believes that “to create something amazing there has to be a certain commitment.” In his case, he says, it is not difficult to finance these sabbaticals because his studio is small. But there are also big companies that do it. Google employees spend 20% of their workday pursuing a project that interests them. “It’s a management decision. I’ve talked to many people from Google and they’ve told me it needs to be implemented from the lowest levels, because many employees are afraid to take that time for their own things. You need to try the feeling of having time to sit in a chair and think of an idea you really want to develop. Stopping to think is much harder than sitting in a meeting or sending emails.”

It seems that now the conversation is indeed coming to an end. But just before everyone gets up, a cameraman keeps them in their seats.

–One moment. We need to take a few more shots. Talk about whatever you like. We’re not going to record the sound.

Curiosity has no limits. This time the issue of flexibility arises. “It’s a complicated issue for me,” he says. “You have to find the right balance. On the one hand, I try to improvise as much as I can but, at the same time, when I propose to do something I concentrate on it fully and don’t leave room for anything else. In a company, if you’re too flexible, you go over here, over there, and you can end up lost. All the research I’ve looked at and everything I’ve read about positive psychology says that 40% of our welfare comes from improvised plans and non-repetitive activities. For example, being in Pamplona today is an opportunity to feel happy about the mere fact that yesterday I was not here and neither will I be here in two days’ time.”

Sagmeister explains it again to emphasise the importance of novelty, and this time his argument leads to a gastronomic scenario. “It would be like the difference between eating a dish with small portions of different foods, like the Spanish do, or eating a giant dish made up of one thing, like the Americans,” he says. “Variety makes you happier.”