Stefan Sagmeister talks Design and Happiness

After winning a design competition in her Digital Design class, Samantha Harley was given free tickets to an evening with graphic design legend Stefan Sagmeister’s talk on Design and Happiness.

Last Wednesday I went to the AGDA Stefan Sagmeister talk regarding Design and Happiness at the Powerhouse Museum.

The night began with Jason, Ian and I meeting Stefan briefly before the talk and getting a photo with the abnormally tall designer. You could tell by his presence that anything he said would become words to live by. As the crowds packed in it became clear that we were about to head into the designer version of a One Direction concert, and I was getting excited to hear what Stefan had to say.

IMG_6332Looking at his work, he is quite provocative and his ideas are often thought provoking. His recent partnership with Jessica Walsh has had a vibrant effect on what they produce as well. Knowing this I wasn’t too surprised when I walked in to see a somewhat graphic presentation slide of an Opera House made up of questionable body parts. After some debate they later were revealed to be tongues (I hope I can add therapy to my tax return this year).

The talk was opened by Jason Little, founder of For the People and was one of the people that had organised Stefan’s visit. He seemed like a kid in a candy shop while talking about Stefan; his admiration clearly showing through. Next was the moment of truth, the man that promised happiness; Stefan Sagmeister.

Armed with videos and amusing slides Stefan definitely controlled the room. In the beginning he gauged how people were feeling, with the tone being somewhat positive. He then talked about his exhibitions of Happiness. We were shown an amazingly shot video involving Stefan, Jessica and a third employee with water balloons exploding over and under them in slow motion. Each balloon contained a message which in this video formed “If you don’t ask you don’t get”. It was a great motto, and it’s true; really the worst that can happen if you ask is you get a ‘no.’ But even with that ‘no’ comes the respect you gain from others and yourself for being bold enough to try.

Stefan continued to talk about his exhibition specifically the show in Philadelphia. When he first proposed the idea of a ‘happiness’ exhibition I can’t imagine they ever envisioned what he would do.
Expanding outside the original space, he was given Stefan took use of negative space in the gallery such as stairwells and elevators theming happiness as different types and positions of sex. Not exactly family friendly but mixed with a strong yellow colour palette the exhibition was sure to make you smile one way or the other.

Before entering the exhibition, patrons would choose a piece of bubblegum that linked to a number of how happy they felt from 1-10. At the end of each week they were able to see a visual representation of how happy the general population was which I found quite interesting.

Stefan then talked about the idea of Negative Bias also known as the negativity effect where things of a negative nature have a greater impact on one’s psychological state and processes. He used the example of the news network that aired only positive news and shut down after two days because nobody wanted to hear ‘only’ good news. Psychologically the negative impact of watching the bad things around you can actually make you feel better when things aren’t going your way, i.e., you get fired, but a plane crashed in Asia, so the perspective becomes ‘My life’s not so bad.’

We were shown some of the other videos that were created for the happiness exhibition both with footage and motion graphics that were true art. Stefan then began speaking about his film based on happiness. He has so far devoted 6 years of his life to the project researching the ins and outs of happiness, speaking with experts and trying everything himself to access what does and doesn’t make him happy. From exercise to ‘prescription’ drugs and singing, Stefan gave us his insight into some of the things that have and haven’t worked for him.

About halfway through the talk, we all joined in as a group choir to sing a song as loud as we could (I will admit it was fun). Next Stefan ran us though his methods of six years work, one year play.

In every seven years, Stefan takes a year to himself closing his studio and persuing travel, personal projects or anything else he wants to do. I loved hearing about his freedom to do what he loves and being so in demand that he can choose to work only on the best projects and then use that money to fund his own work. He has a carefree lifestyle but at the same time devotes himself to everything whole-heartedly.

Interestingly this is the first time his design studio will remain open while he is on sabbatical with Jessica running a select amount of projects.

Stefan’s Tips to Happiness:

  • Start your day with 20 minutes of exercise such as a run outside.
    Stefan uses this time to think and comes back home to have a 30-minute brainstorming session before going to the office.
  • Progress through your day with the hardest things first.
    This way when you get to the end of your day, you have a light workload and can focus on relaxing.
  • Do something different.
    Something different is something you couldn’t do yesterday, and you can’t do tomorrow like go to a Stefan Sagmeister talk. Repetitive events dull the mind and create a sense of unhappiness.
  • Learn from your mistakes.
    Failing isn’t a bad thing; it means that you’ve tried. Not learning from those mistakes that made you fail will make you lose confidence in yourself and will become an endless cycle of misery.

Stefan said, “Making a film on happiness has made me completely miserable.” It’s understandable, spending that long on a project when you aren’t sure if it will work or what it will become can become daunting and when you are used to fast projects you can be ready to move on and be left with the feeling of being held back.

Although it has taken Stefan 6 gruelling years to make his film on happiness, every second both good and bad would be worth it.

Knowing definitively what you need to do in life to be happy is great gift, one that I am thrilled to have spent the night hearing about.
Stefan is all about being positive; whether it’s starting your day with positivity or in a brainstorming session “Negative ideas are not allowed in brainstorming sessions. A shitty idea can be built on while a shot down idea cannot”.

The night was truly incredible, and I look forward to seeing him speak again in the future. Stefan will be back in Sydney for the Vivid Festival so keep an eye out.

I’ll leave you with an exercise from Stefan: Write down three things that worked for you that day, before you go to bed each night. This will leave you with positive thoughts to help you sleep and allow you to start your next morning with thoughts of positivity. 

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