Sagmeister & Walsh - Answers

Sagmeister & Walsh


Running a Studio, Sabbaticals

Why did you feel you needed to take a sabbatical?

Stefan: Outwardly our last year with clients had been the most successful to date, we had won the most awards in our brief company history and the then booming economy had filled our coffers. But actually I was bored. The work became repetitive.
 At the same time I went to Cranbrook giving a workshop and actually got rather jealous of all the mature students there being able to spend their entire day just experimenting. Then Ed Fella came into the studio and showed me all the notebooks with his freewheeling typographic experiments.
That did it. I settled on a date a year in advance and I called up all my clients.


What is your approach to work/life balance?

Stefan: Seven years of work (with plenty of living) vs. one year of living (with plenty of work). I might change that into the future though to 9 months of work (with plenty of living) vs. three months of living (with plenty of work)


In your own work you play with various forms - there is never a single stylistic underpinning - do you foresee a new aesthetic emerging from your travels?

Stefan: Today I copied a page from an 18th century Turkish Quran I had seen in the Museum of Muslim Art in Kuala Lumpur. I hope this has an influence, as typography rarely reached the kind of absolute pinnacles of total gorgeousness as it did in Islamic culture (as they were not allowed to show any imagery all the creative juice went into type and ornament).


How do sabbaticals expand what you do as a designer?

Stefan: Everything that we designed in the seven years following the first sabbatical had its roots in thinking done during that sabbatical.


How resolute are you about the seven-year cycle?

Stefan: I understood that if I let some extra-juicy projects intervene during the sabbatical, its just not going to happen at all. I will used those projects as a welcome excuse for not having to do any new thinking.


This is your second in a seven-year cycle of "sabbaticals," what gave you the idea to make this a regular part of your life?

Stefan: The original impulse for the first one had many fathers, among them Ed Fella visiting the studio and bringing a number of his fantastic type experiments executed into a sketchbook with a 4 color ball point pen.
When he self mockingly called it exit art I felt what a pity it is that one does this sort of stuff only with 60, it would have had a much bigger impact on a working life when it would be interspersed regularly throughout ones life. Tibor's early death played a role as any death reminds us that our time here is finite and that we better use it a good as we can. As I did the first year when I was 38, the second with 46, I have only two more years to go before the retirement age of 65. I think its much more useful to take those years early, divided up throughout my working life rather then pinning them to the end of it. Ferran Adria, who is considered by many as the best chef in the world, closed his restaurant north of Barcelona for 6 month every year while keeping a full kitchen staff in order to experiment. That's 50% of his time for experimentation, compared with my paltry % 12.5%.


Can anyone restructure their work life in this way?

Stefan: Yes. Everyone whose job description includes 'thinking' or coming up with ideas will benefit from this tremendously.


And how important do you think it is to engineer more recreational time into our lives?

Stefan: I suspect that the reason the bible recommends to take Sundays off as well every seventh year is grounded in social (rather than religious) reasons.


Was the open-endedness of the year intimidating? Was it difficult generating your own content entirely?

Stefan: No. I discovered fairly quickly that my initial desire to conduct this year without a plan ("a vacuum of time") was ill fated, and I came up with a very tight hourly plan. I looked through my diary and wrote down all the instances where I had complained about how busy I am and that I would really like to do "X" if I would not be so busy. I added to this list, ordered them by importance into three, two and one hourly segments and wound up with a schedule, just like in grade school.


Do you find yourself putting more or less phalluses into your work "post-year-off"?

Stefan: Now that you mention it, much less, in fact I think we did not put a single penis into any of the work after the experimental year. Maybe I did grow up.


Even if it was a spontaneous decision, how much forward planning was required to actually make this feasible?

Stefan: Lots of planning. This was at least two years in the making. Our clients were warned a full year in advance.


And the oddest thing you’ve ended up doing on a sabbatical?

I managed to get my Iphone stolen and held for ransom during a cockfight.


So, what have you learned so far?

Stefan: When attacked by hollow eyed Balinese dogs, you can make them all scatter by pretending to pick up a stone.


How important do you think a sabbatical is for replenishing creativity?

Stefan: On a scale from 1 - 10, 12.


Was there an experience in your life that particularly influenced you to take a year off? (events, books?)

Stefan: Sure. Like with many important decisions, there were numerous reasons behind this one too. I was slightly bored with our everyday jobs, Ed Fella had come by the studio and shown his incredible experimental sketchbooks, and I was conducting a workshop at Cranbrook and got jealous how much time these very mature students got to spend on pure experiments.


Exactly where have you been exploring? With whom?

Stefan: I rented a small house with a studio in Sayan, a village outside of Ubud, the craft and spiritual center of Bali, Indonesia. A changing group of designers worked with me, up to four at a time, with various backgrounds: Motion designers, architects, graphic designers.

Design is a Process, Sabbaticals

How intuitive was your process? (Were there some sort of constraints that you set up for each personal project, and were they invented to solve particular problems for yourself, or just set up for experimentation?)

Stefan: This schedule read: Monday morning 9:00 - 10:00 a big idea, 10:00 - 1:00 design a CD cover including a 12 page booklet, etc...


You've done what many only dream about. But how easy is it to put your client-driven work on hiatus for an entire year?

Stefan: I had all sorts of fears before the first year (that we will lose all clients, that we will be forgotten, that we'll have to start from scratch). As none of these fears seam to have been warranted, I started the second one with few worries.

Being a Design Student, Being a Designer, Sabbaticals

You've made several efforts in the past to share your creative process openly to students & young designers in particular. Did you make an effort to document the year as a whole?

Stefan: Yes, I kept a diary during the entire year. It even got published as a little for free paper promo by Appleton. A heavily edited version appeared in Communication Arts.


You've spent the last year or so -since the book came out-on sabbatical/design exploration. What's the importance of a sabbatical to you? Do you see sabbatical/exploration as necessary to your creative development?

Stefan: Yes. There are just so many things for which there never seems to be enough time for with the studio running at full speed. Sabbaticals insure that I can continue to see my work as somewhat of a calling instead of a 9-5 job.