1 June 2015

Why Sagmeister & Walsh Works: An interview with the renowned design duo about their partnership


1 June 2015


The first eight pages of Stefan Sagmeister’s 2000 book Another Self-Indulgent Design Monograph is given over to a diagram called Timeline by the German designer Franziska Morlok. Art directed by Sagmeister himself, it begins with the Big Bang and uses a simple combination of lines and circles to chart the world from then onwards. Earth is formed on page six, jellyfish evolve near the end of page seven and neanderthals appear almost right at the bottom of the last page, just before a circle which represents “The entire history of graphic design.” In actual fact, as explained in a footnote, this last marker throws the whole scale off and it should be drawn as one ten thousandth of an inch.

It’s a remarkably self-deprecating introduction to a man many would see as a conceptual maverick, individualistic provocateur, even “the rock star designer” as the biography on one of his three TED talks describes him. They’re perhaps not appellations Sagmeister would apply to himself but there is no doubt he enjoys a different kind of profile to most graphic designers. Patrick Burgoyne, editor of Creative Review, once wrote about him: “Stefan Sagmeister has always understood the power of getting naked,” tracing a lineage that starts with his first naked mailout to launch his New York studio in 1994, through his infamous poster for the AIGA Detroit chapter in 1999 when he cut the information into his body, and ending last May when he and Jessica Walsh announced her elevation to partner with another nude portrait.

Stefan (it seems odd to refer to him as that) says he was surprised at the “massive reaction” to the latest publicity stunt: “I would not have thought that simple nudity still has that much power.” But Jessica, just 24 when she accepted his offer to become a partner, was less taken aback. “I expected the negative reactions, no surprise there. I was surprised by how quickly the news spread and how much the nudity helped with this. We had actual postcards printed but by the time we got them it seemed like old news, so we never sent them out.” It’s worth pointing out that Stefan’s initial concept for the shoot had Jessica fully-clothed – it was she who insisted that equality in the studio meant equality in the photoshoot too.

His rise to the top has been well-charted – from his first job at Austrian youth magazine Alphorn through Leo Burnett and M&CO to founding his own studio and working with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed and David Byrne. Jessica’s career is less well-known – after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design she interned with Apple (and was there to see Steve Jobs give the presentation at the iPhone launch) before working with Pentagram and Print Magazine, joining Sagmeister’s studio in 2010.

As simplistic as this sounds in redux, it did in fact only take Stefan five minutes of flicking through her portfolio to offer her a job. “Initially, when we first met, what I was really impressed with, apart from the obviously smart book containing well executed work, was her enthusiasm for design,” he says. For her part she had long admired him: “His work always touched me or evoked some emotion, whether through the message, beauty, wit, personality, or shock value. Not much design does that for me.”

After just two years, Stefan invited her to become a partner. The idea from the start was for Jessica (or Jessie as he refers to her) to oversee the client-based work and for Stefan to concentrate on the self-generated projects. In reality both have helped each other when the need has arisen although the distinction remains broadly intact. “Stefan will often look at what I am doing and gives opinions and direction, and I often help him with concepts or design execution for his film. At the core we are both interested in coming up with the strongest concept for any design problem, and then executing it in the best, smartest, most beautiful way possible,” Jessica says. “So far it has been going exactly as I had hoped,” Stefan says.

Day-to-day, the partners take the lead but everyone in the studio can have an input. “In general on our larger commercial projects we do often start out by having the whole studio brainstorm ideas,” Jessica explains. “While concepts do mostly come from Stefan or I, sometimes a designer or intern will have a great idea which we’ll run with. That’s what is great about working on a small team, everyone has their voice heard, and we can make decisions and push work forward efficiently without layers of approvals or egos getting in the way. We find this strategy does seem to produce better work."

Jessica’s move to partner clearly surprised some and she admits to some nerves when it was first announced. “Sure, at first I did feel a little pressure or anxiety as a result of perceived expectations, but the pressure was mostly internal. I know worrying is always counterproductive, and the feelings didn’t last long. All I can do is continue to do the best work I can, keep challenging myself, and enjoy the process as much as possible. Hopefully people will continue to enjoy the work I create along the way.”

But should it have been that much of a surprise? Stefan has always been impulsive, and is a big believer in the power of mentors, crediting the legendary Tibor Kalman with much of his own inspiration and design intelligence. When he first arrived in New York, he finally secured a meeting with Kalman after ringing his office every week for six months, but his persistence paid dividends.

“Tibor Kalman was the single most influential person in my design life and my one and only design hero,” he says. There were probably a number of people around who were as smart as Tibor (and there were certainly a lot who were better at designing), but nobody else could sell these concepts without any changes, get those ideas with almost no alterations out into the hands of the public. Nobody else was as passionate.

“As a boss he had no qualms about upsetting his clients or his employees. I remember his reaction to a logo I had worked on for weeks and was very proud of: ‘Stefan, this is TERRIBLE, just terrible, I am so disappointed’.” His big heart was shining through nevertheless.

“He was always happy and ready to jump from one field to another; corporate design, products, city planning, music videos, documentary movies, children’s books, magazine editing were all treated under the mantra: ‘You should do everything twice, the first time you don’t know what you’re doing, the second time you do, the third time it’s boring’.”

Perhaps Stefan saw something of himself in the talented young woman who herself is no stranger to the benefits of being a mentee. “I think having a mentor is very important,” she says. “I very much looked up to Paula Scher as a strong woman designer in our industry, and was very lucky that I was able to have the chance to work with her straight out of school. She helped me get my first job at Print Magazine, which I am forever grateful for. Stefan has undoubtably been a huge mentor as well, especially in shaping my philosophy on how to run a design studio.”

But that alone does not explain why Jessica was invited to become a partner and form Sagmeister & Walsh. Stefan had worked with strong, talented people in the past – from Veronica Oh, to Hjalti Karlsson and Jan Wilker (who would go on to join forces as karlssonwilker). It’s when the two talk about the way of looking at and thinking about design that it is possible to discern some of the foundations on which their professional relationship is built.

Firstly, they both believe in the importance of risk-taking (it will come as no surprise that some of the highest praise Stefan gives Kalman is that “He had the guts to risk everything”). Jessica says: “I think taking risks and constantly challenging yourself is extremely important in the process of creating something new – even if that means failing. I heard this quote recently from a J.K. Rowling talk which I loved: ‘It is impossible to live without failing, unless you live so cautiously you might as well not have lived at all. In which case, you fail by default’.”

Stefan agrees. “I think risk-taking is paramount. Having said that, after all this time, I still get scared and have many days where I would much rather walk on the safe side of the street.” Perhaps Jessica helps with these doubts; certainly both agree with the flip side of risk-taking which is learning from your failures as well as your successes. The Sagmeister monograph is subtitled Practically Everything We Have Ever Designed Including The Bad Stuff which is there because: “a) It could be valuable for students of graphic design b) Not enough good stuff and c) Admitting to bad work might be good.” There is also a rating system through which readers are invited to compare their reactions to the work to what the the studio feels about it.

Secondly, both have backgrounds that mix scientific and creative thinking which must inform the way they approach projects. Stefan studied engineering for two years in Vienna, while Jessica is a self-confessed geek who enjoyed coding as a teenager. “I think it’s fantastic when you can merge these types of thinking,” she says, “and push the limits of what is possible graphically, in web, interactive animation and installations, printing, etc. I don’t think one needs to master both skill sets – I’ve only rarely seen people be very successful at both simultaneously.”

“I used to do a little programming when I was young, but realised I wanted to focus all of my energy into the creative side. However I still greatly enjoy collaborating with programmers and engineers to make the ideas we have come to life.”

Similarly both have a belief that design cannot exist in a vacuum and are committed to causes of social justice, although as Stefan puts it: “I don’t think that designers per se have an obligation to do work for social causes, but there might be such an obligation for people in general.” His studio has worked with the Move Our Money campaign for 10 years, an organisation which calls for money to be rerouted to education through cuts in the US defence budget (one fabulous manifestation was a mug comparing the fall in Russian military spending compared to the sustained levels of similar spending in the USA). Misplaced monetary priorities clearly dismay Stefan – as he points out: “The four state theatres in Vienna receive more funding than the entire US cultural budget.”

Jessica too feels this kind of responsibility. She’s talked in the past about using “design as a tool to affect the bigger picture” and recently the studio provided some work for the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Clearly there are deep-seated similarities which explain why the Sagmeister & Walsh partnership makes so much sense. In January the studio’s new identity was unveiled, built around the ampersand as if to underline the new direction for an agency so long referred to by the surname of its founder. There were also more naked photos (this time of the whole studio) as well as pencils that measured out average penis sizes and CDs depicting fellatio (cue another publicity binge, full of moral indignation, accusations of misogyny and even racism).

They knew what they were doing; they always do. Jessica sums up the culture in their studio as such: “We all work our ass off to do the best work we can, without taking ourselves too seriously.” That sentence could equally have summed up the Sagmeister book produced 12 years ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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About the Author

Rob Alderson

Rob joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in July 2011 before becoming Editor-in-Chief and working across all editorial projects including, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.

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