08 November 2006
Jeff Carlson
Jeff Carlson

You've dreamed about ditching your customers to follow your creative muse. Stefan Sagmeister actually did it. See how he made it happen and what he did with his time off.

The next time you're feeling squeezed between a press check and a client deadline, put this into your planner:

Monday 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Free Thinking

Taking short breaks is good for your creativity not to mention your sanity but what if you were to extend that break? Not just by a couple of hours, a few days, or even a week, though. What if you took an entire year off?

Realizing that his work was becoming repetitive, and feeling inspired by experimental design he saw from students, New York City-based designer Stefan Sagmeister cleared his schedule to undertake a self-described 'year without clients.' Starting in October 2000, Sagmeister filled his days with free thinking, quick projects and the freedom to pursue concepts detached from the day-to-day strings of running a studio and meeting external deadlines.

'It dawned on me slowly it took a couple of years,' says Sagmeister about what made him temporarily shut his doors to outside work. A workshop that Sagmeister taught in February 1999 at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI, was one factor that convinced him to do it. The experience, Sagmeister says, brought him in contact with students whose work exhibited 'flexibility and experimentation going on at a level that was very interesting. I got quite envious of those students.'

Making it Happen
Yearning for a sabbatical and preparing for it, however, are two different things. A year without clients also means a year without income. 'I didn't have a lot of savings, but I had some, and I think that being very good and efficient and keeping the studio small kind of helped with that,' says Sagmeister, who owns his studio space, further reducing overhead.'Ultimately, if you have 15 people on staff, you can't really do such a thing because it impacts so many lives. In my case, it's me, a designer and an intern that changes every three months.'

The designer, Hjalti Karlsson, seized the opportunity to launch his own studio, Karlssonwilker inc. 'I think that my decision to do this year kind of gave him the little bit of kick that he needed to open his own studio,' Sagmeister says.

Sagmeister didn't want to leave any of his clients hanging, so he notified them a year in advance. 'That was also good for me,' he says. 'It closed the door for me chickening out of it. I would have to say no to absolutely everything, no matter what.'

Craving Discipline
Untethered from specific projects, Sagmeister quickly discovered that his days threatened to drift away from him. 'In the beginning, I left it completely open. I consciously didn't make any plans, looking forward to this massive amount of free time in front of me,' he says. 'Then, very quickly I think a couple of weeks into it I noticed that all I was doing was chores.'

Ironically, Sagmeister ended up creating a schedule that was more rigid than his normal studio routine in order to enjoy his free time. 'I looked at the list of the things I wanted to accomplish, and I made an hourly plan out of them, very much like a school plan or a course schedule,' Sagmeister says. 'I divided them up depending on how important I thought they were and assigned a time slot to them.' This structure led to a schedule that included appointments like 'Monday, 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., Free Thinking,' or entries like 'The Big Idea.'

'The truth was that without [the schedule], I just did absolutely nothing or worse, I felt really busy but got nothing done,' Sagmeister says. 'With the schedule in place, all the stuff that came from outside, all the little demands, they just had to wait.'

Discovering a New Path to Creativity
The newly adopted structure often dramatically affected how Sagmeister worked, which in turn manifested itself in the style of projects he created. 'My regular way of working is that I look very much at the project, then develop ideas out of that, and then have the idea dictate the form and the style of the project. I would have a very exact picture of how the end result should look, and we would work exactly to that end result,' he says.

'This year, every once in a while I put this kind of method totally on its head I literally started working at almost a random point to see what came out of it. If you had asked me a year ago if such a process would yield anything, I would have doubted it highly.'

In some cases, Sagmeister used exercises from Edward De Bono's book, De Bono's Thinking Course, while other experiments arose out of his free-thinking periods. Examples include: a milk carton that notifies you when the milk has expired; a chair covered in removable paper sheets; and an airport in the shape of a large airplane, so that when viewed from above it appears that the planes are nursing from a mother airplane.

'There were some Monday mornings when absolutely nothing came out of it and I pretty much wound up staring at the ceiling, or my mind wandered without any results,'Sagmeister says. '[Other times,] different things emerged than I had ever thought about before, simply because I could think about projects that I would never think about. If you're a graphic-design company with graphic-design clients, you think about graphic design, and this year my mind strayed quite a bit.'

Although most projects rarely progressed beyond sketches, a few exercises appear almost finished. Sagmeister has gained acclaim over the years for CD covers designed for clients such as Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones, so one of his exercises was to create a CD cover for a fictional band in just three hours. The resulting work looks ready for client presentation, but Sagmeister doesn't intend to offer these experiments for sale. 'They look very finished, but they are, in my mind, meant to be an exercise for myself,' he says. 'I thought that spending my time with concepts would be time best spent.'

Sagmeister was surprised to find that sticking to a strict time limit for his creative exercises proved more effective than working over large blocks of time. 'I think there are some advantages to time pressure, as much as I hate it when I'm in it. Some things you just won't do without pressure,'he says.

Sagmeister's year off concluded in October 2001. He considered adding another year to the timeline but 'left it at one year mostly because I felt that I did what I set out to do,' he says. Now, it's time to see if any of the working methods he tried out can be applied to his returning clients.

'The ultimate test, of course, will be a year from now,' he says, 'and then I can really see how much the experiments I did here actually influenced the work that I've done.'

About this article

Reprinted with permission from HOW magazine, February 2002.

About the Author
Jeff Carlson divides his time between Web design, through his Seattle company Never Enough Coffee Creations, and writing and editing. He has written for publications like HOW, Macworld, PalmPower, and Handheld Computing, and is Managing Editor of the weekly electronic newsletter TidBITS. Jeff is the co-author of Real World Adobe GoLive 6 and author of Palm Organizers, 2nd Edition: Visual QuickStart Guide (both published by Peachpit Press).

About HOW Magazine
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