08 November 2006
By Daniel Karczinski and Peter Martin

Together with Peter Martin and Daniel Karczinski, we decided to ask around: this month our interview candidate is Stefan Sagmeister.

METK: How do you see yourself? As an old hand or as a young creative?

SS: Somewhere in the middle. Two years ago I would have counted myself among the young creatives, because for a long time nothing came. But in the last two years a lot has changed and very fast. I was in Singapore recently at a congress and I felt really old and out of it. In every way - in terms of work and attitude. A whole new generation has arrived.

METK: What did you see there?

SS: They are all into interactivity, but in a new way, one I didn't know about before. Look at the crap the market leaders did in the boom years of the 1990s - the Web pages for the clients of 'Razorfish' and 'march first' were at best professional CI pages, but at worst simply crap. This new generation is all small firms, who do quality stuff with great energy and enthusiasm. For them it's not about the money at all really. Sometimes they do something for Sony, and then the coffers are full again and they can experiment for another six months. The conference I was at was called 'fresh', and the theme was interactivity. The organisers were in their mid 20s - Hong Kong Chinese - and extremely active. Ten years ago there was nothing there, except for two established Chinese designers who did China revival stuff, and an older Western designer. It s great to see how the youngsters there have just created a brand new design scene out of nothing, and can organise a conference for 1200 people that only costs $80 dollars to take part. At that price students from Vietnam, India and New Zealand can also take part - in those countries such conferences normally cost anything between $500 and $4000. It's crazy!

METK: Did you touch on the subject of CD at all at the conference?

SS: Not really. Well, Nakamura, a Japanese, does end-titles stuff for Sony, and Tomato is very active in that area, but otherwise it didn't really focus on the corporate side. It was more about exploring what is possible with this medium, and if there is beauty in it.

METK: Do you see a connection there between what is possible with the medium, and a 'basis design'? According to the text books you have to have that because you can't do anything which doesn't stand on a foundation.

SS: Our modernist thinking says if you don't start where the client is at, then nothing can come of it. At the beginning that may have been right. But in fact what came out of that was really boring stuff. It may have fitted 100% to the product or the message you're trying to sell, but nobody looked at it. It's often more productive - and we find this, too, in our studio - if you don't start with the client, but somewhere in the middle.

METK: So when you don't start out with the theme, you can create something special which a traditionally conceived solution can't achieve?

SS: Yes, that's it. Take this example from Debono: Imagine you want to design a car. The normal approach would be to say, it s got four wheels and a steering wheel. Debono says, you should start with a sentence that is pure madness, like 'my car has no steering wheel'. Perhaps it has a joystick or an eye scanner. And that's how you start to think differently. This method applies to all other projects as well. Neurologically it s true that our brain always thinks in the same patterns - it s a survival mechanism. But when you want to think up something new, this method is absolutely bad. So that's why the exercise. When I start where the client is, I always come up with four wheels and a steering wheel.

METK: I see you also as a kind of brander. Let's take the Rolling Stones story.

SS: Yes, that was a tough branding story. Of course you can't compare the Rolling Stones with AEG. But Mick Jagger was adamant that he wanted a cover which fulfilled two quite different branding conditions: synergy with the stage design and the development of a symbol which would look good on the merchandising. The Stones earn more with merchandising than with their albums.

METK: What did you do?

SS: I found it a bit sad, as I don't think it's good for a rock band like the Stones to orient themselves so much towards branding. Long-term I think it's even bad for such a band to be so clearly concerned with the money side. But that was the situation.

METK: Now Madonna and Prince are doing the same.

SS: With them it fits better. The term 'Material Girl' after all suits Madonna down to the ground. With the Stones it doesn't sit so well, because they are from the 68 generation, with 'Streetfighting Man' and 'Satisfaction'. The content of their songs is quite the opposite. I asked Mick Jagger what his three favourite album covers are. Like me, he chose 'Sticky Fingers', 'Some Girls' and 'Exile On Mainstreet'. On none of these three is there a cover that can be used on a T-shirt. There the goal of producing the best-possible album cover was easier to achieve. As soon as you impose conditions like 'reflects the stage architecture', the cover can't be as good.

METK: That's the often used concept nowadays of integrated communication. The idea being 'one song - many voices'

SS: I think it's all totally exaggerated. It fits more or less and makes sense for those companies where the branding comes from the inside out. Like with Nike, for example, who firstly have the products for it and secondly the company culture to match. But for all the rest... Just look at all those stupid identity manuals, big fat tomes that nobody bothers to look at. When I talk privately with most of the branders, then I often hear that much of it is all about getting more money out of the pockets of the client.

METK: In your opinion is Mr Zintzmeyer, who does BMW, also in that group?

SS: It makes sense for BMW. It's a big enough firm with only one product really. In cases like that I think a rigorous identity is good. An example of the opposite is the annual report for Zumtobel we are doing at present - they are a big Austrian producer of lighting. Each year they have their annual report done by someone else. Their identity lies in the variety. In the standard case they would probably have a manual in which everything is set out down to the minutest detail. I don't think that the maxims that Landor or Interbrand want to impose on us are the rules to which everything should operate.

METK: Nowadays you realise that almost nothing any more has anything to do with graspable material, but with the brand. SMEs in particular are keen to invest first of all in this non-tangible value, so that they can at some time profit from this brand. How can this be done if not through rigour and clarity?

SS: That depends on the firm. The influence of brand specialists on the brand itself is overestimated tremendously. I think the brand is still as much as 95 percent of the product.

METK: But up until the decision to buy, people are guided. Your watch is an Omega, I see...

SS: This watch belonged to my father when he was alive, and it suited him perfectly. And also, because it s a mid-range brand, it's a good one, but not so in your face. It's the steel version and not the gold one, and it lasts longer. The brand is regarded as one you can trust, not one that's all about advertising. As with all established brands, that is in principle a seal of quality. Made in the industrial revolution when the manufacturers got too big to get to know them personally. Do you know of a brand that has a good standing, managed well in terms of marketing, but where the product itself is bad?

METK: I can't think of anything at the moment Do communication designers have to be good corporate consultants as well nowadays?

SS: No - Look at what individual people did in the past for amazing brands, from UPS to IBM. For example Paul Rand, who had no idea whatsoever about marketing. It seems to me that many marketing directors who report to the CEO have tremendous fear of doing something wrong. This fear is pandered to in pseudo-scientific analyses. When things then go wrong, you can always point the finger at the analyses. With someone who does something out of pure instinct and gut feeling, the risk is much greater. Also, big firms like to work with other big firms. The 'save your ass' strategy. A section of the creative scene has always been annoyed that they've studied just as long as the lawyers, but earn less. So this pseudo-scientific approach was peddled, so that we, too, can demand $450 per hour. I think it's o.k. that big firms push money in the direction of other big firms. I could do it, too, if a Ferrari was that important to me. But it isn't, other things are.

METK: What was it actually that Spiekermann predicted?

SS: I came across an old interview with him when I was sorting out my magazines. He talked very openly about the conflicts within Meta and of the fact that a certain section wanted to go much more in the consultancy direction, which he rejected. He believed you had to stick with what you could do. And so he wanted to stay with identity and graphic design, and not become a general consultant. It was very funny to read that now, looking back. Because it happened 100% the way he predicted: the companies who expanded and moved in the direction of consultancies, are not around any more. O.K. 'Razorfish' is now very small, but 'march first' is gone.

METK: Now we've talked about company branding. But you, too, have an image. Where have you positioned yourself?

SS: It changes. Until recently, as a studio, we were firmly into music. It was also on our card: design for music. In that year without clients, I thought about moving away from this a bit. It was just becoming too boring for me. Plus the fact that packaging in music has just lost a lot of its meaning. That started with music online and goes through to the videos.

METK: What do your clients like about you apart from your work?

SS: For one the fact that we are very well organised. So far we have always found that at some point in our dealings with a client he has said how easy it is to work with us. They had had this idea it would be a bit chaotic.

METK: Do you also talk about budgets with your clients?

SS: Of course! All the time, like everybody else.

METK: Kurt Weidemann has often been accused of not doing anything really new with DB. Apart from the argument that he has increased legibility and saved on printing costs, what do you think to it?

SS: Hard to say. I know too little about the applications in Germany, and nothing about the 'before/after' story. And I can't check the better legibility claim. The point about the printing costs seems a bit thin. It's o.k. but this whole ideological thing, like with Otl Aicher, I find a bit naff, to be honest. I like the fact that it is extreme, because I like extremes. It's great that there are these people, and the whole scene would be all the poorer if it weren t for them, but I am also glad that they don't dominate our lives and dictate what we do.

METK: Yet it's noticeable that this rigour still successfully dominates the market, and that these word-picture marques work. The experimental that we want for ourselves, only takes place at the fringes. Take Ruedi Baur and his CI for the Pompidou Centre.

SS: Dreadful. I like Ruedi and his work very much, and I have a high regard for him. But I didn't like that at all. In the book presentation it's very nice. But in Paris in the museum, I didn't like it at all.

METK: Does it work as a CI?

SS: Perhaps, but as an orientation system, it comes across like a supermarket in LA.

METK: I'm glad you said that. Ruedi thinks that our arts centres are actually in competition with the supermarkets - the supermarkets are full while the museums are empty. Yet the centres of arts and culture still hold back, while the supermarkets have flashing lights and are loud and colourful.

SS: That's where Ruedi went a bit too far, because people don't go into the supermarket because of the flashing lights, but because of the products. Our influence is much less there then we think. I think Ruedi made a praiseworthy effort, and it s an interesting start for the identity of a museum, but it didn't work.

METK: Do you think it enhances the image of the museum or harms it?

SS: They will change it again at some point. Then it won't matter. Of course it's part of the identity of the Centre Pompidou to take risks. That began with the building itself and continues through to the collections. If I compare it with the dead-boring collections of the Tate Modern in London, where the same morons hang out that you find in all contemporary art museums around the world, then I can really appreciate the Centre Pompidou. When I'm there I find I'm always writing down new names, people whose work I've never seen before. So a museum like this will certainly survive this too.

METK: Our idea of corporate design is to consult with a company and try to implement an ideology. We tell a story and link this with a symbol that gives recognition.

SS: That sounds good if the story has value and isn't imposed from outside. I can't imagine a consultancy from outside developing the ideology of a company. If there isn't already one there before the consultants come in, then you can forget it. Otherwise it will always look like an add-on. Like this ideology culture in the US with these really stupid statements about what the firm is all about in just two sentences, mission statements etc. That's really the limit. All those idiot Internet companies, where you even see the ideology of the firm when you re on your way to the loo. How can employees take that seriously. Impossible! If it doesn't come from inside, then it can t work. It seems to me that firms that shout out their ideology so loud, don't really have one at all. Those who do have, don't have to force it down people's throats.

METK: What about IBM?

SS: O.K. IBM does have a corporate culture, of course, which is quite close to the mission statement. So you can't regard it in quite such an extreme way as I just described.

METK: McDonalds, for example, lives only from the handbook of the company philosophy.

SS: Well, more from product monitoring.

METK: For our clients we want to create a differentiation in the form of an ideological platform. We let a story be experienced, and this is then perceivable as the corporate image. We did it just like that with Viadee

SS: In purely formal terms, I like the symbol. I also think it's good that there is a strong concept behind it, even though it most probably won't matter a bit to 98 percent of those seeing it. But perhaps 2 percent will see what it s all about. I think the idea of putting a strong story behind a logo is wonderful. We once did a logo for the organisation 'move our money'. Their aim is to use 15% of the defence budget of the US for education. The logo was simply a pie chart, divided up according to the allocation of the entire US budget. It looks like a sun, with the upper part the budget allocation of the Pentagon - coloured red. We made a lapel pin out of it. The idea worked amazingly well. Everybody asked what it was. Nobody in the US knows that 51 percent of federal expenditure in the US goes on the military.

METK: We also think that's the direction CD is going in. A sticker like that is a real subject of discussion and it promotes communication. Not just on the visual level, but also on the content level.

SS: That can also work well in graphics. Do you remember the Animals cover from Pink Floyd? You see a power station with a small pig flying over it. The designers at the time wanted to just superimpose the pig on the picture, but the band insisted that it had to be properly photographed. So they had to built a giant, inflatable pig, fill it with helium and then photograph it over the Battersea Power Station. But the ropes broke and the pig just soared off and flew as far as Wales. A farmer there suffered a shock and the whole story got into the press. But it had an amazing advertising effect, because people kept telling the story. I think things like that are not done often enough. We are too lazy to be brave and do something from which a good story can develop.

About this article
This article was first published in novum World of Graphic Design and is reprinted with permission. Visit the forum and have your say to this topic.