Virtual Q+A with Sagmeister & Walsh

Sagmeister & Walsh are a creative agency in New York City. Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh are a world famous design team. They are extremely versatile, with projects ranging from the Rolling Stones album “Bridges to Babylon” to the 40 Days of Dating concept project.

Stefan and Jessica were too busy for an interview, but graciously allowed us to use some of their material to create this virtual Q+A.
What do you mean by a human approach in design – and why this approach is so important?
Stefan: If you ever called a company and got a machine to take your call, for English press 1, etc., you instantly recognize the inherent utter stupidity of the modernist approach to communication: The Bauhaus wanted to celebrate machines in communication because they were sick of the historicisms of the 19th century and wanted to create something new for new times. In 2018, if you communicate pretending to be a machine (ie. use lots of white space, set everything in 8 point Helvetica next to a bleeding stock photo) you are not just stupid but also a bore. You might as well pretend to be an answering machine when picking up the phone. 
What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve taken?  How old were you?
Stefan: I was the most scared when deciding to take the first sabbatical in 1999. Our design studio was 7 years old, the first internet boom in full swing and everybody was in the business of making lots of money. It just seemed unprofessional to close the studio for a year to try out things.

sagmeister and walsh

Where do you find inspiration?

Jessica: I believe that creativity is all about making interesting connections between things that already exist. I think inspiration for those connections can come from everything we experience as human beings: our conversations, our travels, our dreams, art, a great psychology book, our love lives, etc.  I try not to look within our own field of design for inspiration; that’s when you run the risk of regurgitating styles and techniques people are used to seeing. If you find your inspirations from unexpected places, and vary your inspirations to not be too close to any one source, it’s easier to create unique work. I frequent museums and shows and look at all kinds of creative work, like fashion, furniture design, painting, photography, and sculpture. I listen to music and have conversations with friends. I read books about psychology and science, and blogs about popular culture. The list goes on. 

rolling stones bridges to babylon cover art

How do you go about inspiration/having ideas?

Stefan: The process I’ve been using most often has been described by Maltese philosopher Edward DeBono, who suggests starting to think about an idea for a particular project by taking a random object as point of departure. Say, I have to design a pen, and instead of looking at all other pens and thinking about how pens are used and who my target audience is etc., I start thinking about pens using…..(this is me now looking around the hotel room for a random object)….bed spreads. Ok, hotel bedspreads are…sticky….contain many bacteria…., ahh, would be possible to design a pen that is thermo sensitive, so it changes colors where I touch it, yes, that could actually be nice: An all black pen, that becomes yellow on the touching points of fingers/hands…., not so bad, considering it took me all of 30 seconds. Of course, the reason this works is because DeBono’s method forces the brain to start out at new and different points of departure, preventing it from falling into a familiar grove it has formed before.

appy fizz sagmeister and walsh

What is success? Is it financial? Is success important to you?

Jessica: Success is of course relative to every person’s expectations and goals. As humans, we’re driven by nature to seek security, acceptance, and love. Some of us find this in money, others in a career, others in love or marriage or children, and some others in friends and family. You could seemingly “have it all” to the outside world, yet constantly feel unsatisfied, always wanting more. You can be poor but feel you “have it all” because you have a loving family, a good job, and great friends. It doesn’t really matter how much or little you have, it’s a state of mind. Personally, for me, success means options. It means getting to a place in my career where I can turn down work when a client doesn’t have the proper budget or timeline. It means I can choose how and where to spend my time. It means I can take a month to explore a personal project if I want to, without financial worries.