You pick and choose projects carefully. When considering a new project, what criteria must be met for you to take it on?
Stefan: For commercial projects, we want the product or service to be worthwhile, i.e., have a reason to exist. The project should come with a reasonable timeline and budget. We want to work with kind people.
Did you consider any alternative methods of announcing the partnership, or was this always the lead concept?
Stefan: We show our clients only one concept, so we showed ourselves only one too.
How and when did you first become aware of Jessica's work, how did you first meet, and how long was it before she first came in-house at the studio?
Stefan: I had already seen her 3-D illustration pieces when she came into the studio to show her portfolio. I immediately loved her sunny character and no-nonsense approach to work. Her book was very good. As I recall, she started almost right away.
Was your studio successful straight from the start or did the number of your contract jobs increase only slowly?
Stefan: We started with one client in place and gained two more in the first couple of months. But I had opened the studio to pursue design for music and it took us almost a year before we had completed our first music client.
Today, it is very hard for young designers to find an adequate job after the end of their studies. Therefore, many of them try to establish studios of their own. Is this situation familiar to you or were there more job offerings at the time you started your career?
Stefan: Sounds familiar and I started working freelance, mostly direct with clients. This proofed a fantastic learning ground as it’s very similar to running a very tiny design studio.
Do you think that the big agencies in the creative world are losing touch? Why/why not?
Stefan: There are design projects where a large team is necessary, say car design or hardware design. Graphics are best developed by a small team.
Did you have to invest a lot of initiative or did you have to work without profit to increase the recognition of your studio’s name in the beginning? Could you give us an example of the efforts you made?
Stefan: Sure. The first music client was HP Zinker, a band where I was friends with the singer. We put 220 design hours into the project and got paid $ 1800.00, the equivalent of $ 8.00 per hour. As the cleaning personnel made $ 12.00/hour, this was not going to work in the long run. But the CD packaging was nominated for a Grammy and got us a real foot in the door with the record labels.
What do you think about the so called 'communication consultancy industry'?
Stefan: I am wary of consultants in general, because of their getting compensated no matter if the advice they give is right or wrong.
Who do you think will dominate the design market in the future, small studios or big companies? Are they able to coexist?
Stefan: Yes, both will continue to do work, in the case of large branding projects I could even see a successful collaboration between the two worlds, where the strategic work could be developed by the large studio, the conceptual and design work by the small studio and the implementation by the large one again. This could prove to be advantageous for clients, audiences and the studios themselves, as all could benefit from it.
Do you agree that the bigger an agency becomes, the less inspiring and more boring is gets?
Stefan: Advertising agencies have sometimes been able to avoid this, but there is not a single large design company out there that I respect. No, sorry, I am wrong, IDEO does good work, and Landor manages to pull off a successful project every once in a while. But there is problem with this: Very large clients want to work with large design consultancies, it gives them a level of service and security that smaller places like mine have more difficulties to convey. This leads to the sad fact that many of the most talented designers work for smallish projects in the cultural realm, while the work that really influences the look of this world, the gigantic branding programs for the multinationals are conceived by marketing people who could not care less. This is as much the fault of clients (who find the pseudo-scientific reasoning of the consultancies comforting), as it is of designers (who are not willing to deal with the far more complex approval and implementation process). I have the highest admiration for the person who can pull off a large project in good quality. It’s BY FAR the hardest thing to do.
And is it true some ad agencies boycotted the awards and HK newspapers received numerous complaints, including your reported favorite, "Who's the asshole who designed this poster?" Do you remember your response when this boycotting and complaining happened? Were you simply amused by the conservative response?
Stefan: Yes, I do remember. And yes, it was fun. Specially after the poster itself, because the international judges, unaware of the local controversy, bestowed the gold award on it. Many boo's when I picked up that award.
Has the nature of the work – the kind of clients, briefs and results - significantly evolved over the years?
Stefan: I had originally opened the studio to design for the music industry. Like with almost all other good things in my life I adapted to it and after years of designing CD covers for many of my favorite bands this choice job became stale. So I changed. In the last seven years we spent about a quarter of our time designing work for social causes, a quarter for self-authored projects, a quarter for corporations and a quarter for cultural institutions. Of course briefs and results changed with that.
Customers who go to Sagmeister Inc. know they want innovation in their campaigns. For you, what were the most challenging projects?
Stefan: Any project I don't know and have not done before. Right now we are working on our first documentary (The Happy Film) and its amazingly challenging for me. The amount of things I don't know about filmmaking is staggering.
You mentioned that in Hong Kong you learned all the things you never wanted to do again in your life? What are these things you never wanted to do again?
Stefan: Oh there was so much: Over packaging mediocre products with many layers, printing brochures with precious pieces of vellum in between every french-folded page, the vellum not only silk-screened but also hot-stamped. Accepting poorly thought out instructions and briefs as a matter of course. Redoing the same job over and over again as a result. Rushing as a substitute for thinking, drinking as a valve for letting out steam...
What is it like to work in the context of the USA?
Stefan: Selling is more important here than in Europe (but less than in Hong Kong). I had clients in Europe whose principal criteria when commissioning a piece of work was quality and only secondarily looked for marketability. In the US my clients mostly first check if it works, and only then see if can be good also.
Is it possible to have both, making money and doing good work?
Stefan: I remember a sentence in a Minale Tattersfield book that said: In my experience, every designer whose prime aim in going into business was to make money while at the same time producing good design, failed on both counts. I believe that designing is something you have to do for love. If you are committed first and foremost to producing good design then you'll make money as a by-product because good design is something people are willing to pay for. But that financial reward will be a bonus, a gift." I agree.
What financial advice about running a business would you give to a graphic designer who’s just starting out?
Stefan: Use time sheets. Use job sheets. Stay small. Take in more money than you spend. Work hard during the week but don't work weekends unless there is a real emergency.
How would you define success, in terms of being a graphic designer?
Stefan: Being able to do the kind of work that I find enriching for the audience, the client, the people who work with me and for myself. Being able to change directions so new challenges and growth are possible and utter boredom can be avoided.
Do you think graphic designers care too much or too little about money?
Stefan: I think young designers who open design studios tend to think too little about money. If you don't take the financial health of a new studio seriously (and put systems in place to monitor the finances) chances you're going to wind up with money problems are high. These problems will be very distracting from trying to do good work, many of these studios are subsequently forced to take on jobs they would not do otherwise and the vicious circle has started.... Older designers tend to care too much about money.