Creative Types: Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh
The creative fuel behind the most powerful duo in the design world today is simple: Boredom.
For Austrian-born Stefan Sagmeister and native New Yorker Jessica Walsh, designers and creative directors of New York-based firm Sagmeister & Walsh, that shared creative restless has led to a collaboration based on the ethos that you can—and indeed, must—be free to follow your interests wherever they lead.
For both Sagmeister and Walsh, creative partners-in-crime for nearly a decade now, jumping from writing books to producing films to curating interactive installations to designing brand identities is just their natural way of keeping things interesting.
“We’re the type of people who are always coming up with new ideas,” says Walsh. “I have a whole list on my computer of different things I want to explore. The hard part is picking out what to work on.”
So far that’s led to The Happy Film, a chronicle of Sagmeister’s journey to becoming a more joyful person; Let’s Talk About Mental Health, an online platform for sharing mental health stories; Ladies, Wine & Design, a creative meetup for female designers in over 250 countries; 40 Days of Dating, an online project and book about Walsh’s personal dating experiment with Timothy Goodman (now being turned into a movie); and 12 Kinds of Kindness, a 12-step prescription for becoming a nicer person, to name a few.
And that’s just their self-initiated projects. In their ongoing client work, Sagmeister and Walsh have created bold new brand identities, campaigns, and commercials for the likes of MOMA, The New York Times, The Guggenheim, Levi’s, Atlantic Records, HBO, and Adobe. Recently, Walsh led her design teams in a rebrand for the fashion brand Milly, crafting an edgy, feminism-inspired new visual identity for the retro-inspired womenswear label.
“Doing one thing, you get bored easily,” says Sagmeister, who launched his design career creating album covers for Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and others. “The thirtieth CD cover isn’t as fun as the first one.”
A CASE STUDY IN THE CREATIVE PERSONALITY
Boredom can be good for creativity—if you do it right. The upside of a restless mind is the fertile ground for creative exploration.
Sagmeister and Walsh embody a personality trait that psychologists have found to be at the very heart of creativity: openness to experience. Psychologists say that openness is the strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement in the arts and sciences.
Openness to experience speaks to our motivation to engage with ideas and emotions: to seek truth and beauty, excitement and novelty. The act of exploring often provides the raw material for true innovation.
People who are high in openness tend to be imaginative, curious, perceptive, artistic, introspective, and intellectual. They’re driven to explore their internal worlds of ideas, emotions, sensations, and fantasies and, outwardly, to constantly seek out and make meaning of new information and experiences. Research has shown that those who are high in openness to experience actually benefit creatively from the experience of boredom—it leads them to generate more and better ideas—while those who are less open don’t experience the same creative benefits of boredom.
“I love learning and doing new things,” says Walsh. “That keeps things fresh and constantly evolving.”
Free creative exploration gives them a constant source of inspiration for new projects, while having their hand in multiple different kinds of creative projects at the same time helps ward off creative blocks, according to Sagmeister. “I like to work on a good number of projects simultaneously,” he says. “I get stuck with one I can switch over to another,” he says.
A key to keeping things fresh, for both designers, is allowing themselves time. Time off. Time to experiment. Time to fail. Time to play. Time to dream.
For any project the firm takes on, Walsh builds plenty of time for trial and error into the process. “The trouble comes when you don’t have enough time. That’s when you end up just ripping off existing styles or repeating things that have worked for yourself or someone else in the past,” she explains. “It takes a lot of time before you can discover something fresh and new… We don’t just create something amazing in the first week that we’re on a project.”
Sagmeister takes an even more radical approach to giving himself the time to create: Every seven years, he takes a year-long sabbatical to travel, explore, and try out new things. He cites the three sabbaticals he’s taken so far as the source of his most meaningful creative work.
“Looking back on my life, basically everything I’ve done that was really worthwhile was connected to ideas and work that I started in the sabbaticals,” he says. “If I had not done the sabbaticals, without any doubt, my design life would have significantly less meaning. Design would likely remain work as opposed to a calling.”
A VISIONARY AND A DREAMER BUILD A DESIGN EMPIRE
The differences have been just as critical to their partnership as their similarities. Walsh, who tested as a Dreamer type on Adobe’s Creative Types creative personality test, is the perfect creative counterpart to Sagmeister, a Visionary.
At the age of 11, Walsh’s mother introduced her to the graphic designer at her office, and Walsh started experimenting with web design. Within a year, she had created a website that taught other kids to build websites and use graphics—and she started turning a profit from it.
“It was amazing!” says Walsh. “I was like ‘Wow, I’m doing something that I enjoy doing. It’s fun and creative and I can make money off of it.’ That was the beginning of this career.”
Walsh went on to study graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design, land a coveted internship at Pentagram, and then a job as associate art director of Print magazine.
When Walsh met Sagmeister in 2010, he looked through her portfolio and immediately offered her a job at his studio. Two years later, at the age of 25, she became the first person to make partner at the studio.
As a Visionary type, Sagmeister is charismatic, full of ideas, and relentlessly driven to make the world a better, and more beautiful, place. While they shared a love of beauty and a desire to change the way people see the world, their divergent personal backgrounds and personality types allowed them to learn and evolve in their work together.
“Jessica and I ultimately have very similar goals, but we are different people, both in age and in gender,” says Sagmeister. “We have different ways of going about things, which is a nice complement.”
“Stefan is very different from me!” Walsh laughs. “He’s much more extroverted.”
Like their Dreamer and Visionary types, Walsh and Sagmeister have emotion-dominant thinking styles, and their action style is ideas-oriented, meaning that they have a natural inclination for generating and exploring ideas over production and execution. What makes Walsh a Dreamer is her introverted nature—which creates a greater focus on her own inner world—while Sagmeister’s extroverted focus on other people and the external world makes him a classic Visionary (although he says he wouldn’t feel comfortable calling himself that).
It makes sense that for these two emotion-dominant thinkers, the concept of emotional connection runs through the topics and projects they choose to explore. That’s given rise to work that addresses universal human experiences—happiness, mental health, kindness, the search for love—with fresh eyes and a design-oriented sensibility.
“We always strive to make beautiful work and emotion-driven work,” says Walsh. “We want to make work that touches people on some level emotionally, whether that’s getting people to think about things in a different way or starting a dialog about certain topics, or using humor or wit, so that when someone sees it they feel something. That’s what we strive for across all the different work that we do.”
Their effort is a conversation on the importance of beauty. After years of watching their profession become increasingly concerned with functionality, Sagmeister and Walsh are on a mission to restore the role of beauty in every realm of design and human life.
“I’ve heard a thousand times at design conferences, 'We’re not about making things look good. We’re about solving problems,’” says Sagmeister. “It’s actually born out of laziness of designers because function is so easy to achieve. To create something that works that is beautiful is infinitely more difficult to do.”
So they set out to prove that not only is form not secondary to function, but that in many cases, form is function. They make the case in their new book, Sagmeister & Walsh: Beauty, published in November by Phaidon, and in a traveling exhibition of the same name. The museum show is a multi-sensory, immersive invitation for guests to delight in the experience of beauty, while also exploring such questions as why we feel drawn to beautiful things and how beauty can create positive change. In the fall of 2018, the show opened at Vienna’s MAK museum to 150,000 visitors. In May of 2019, it opened in Frankfurt to sold-out crowds.
“We discovered in the studio that whenever we took form really seriously, it seemed to work much better,” says Sagmeister. “When we took a lot of time and effort to work the form out carefully, then the results of whatever we did, the function of that thing, seemed to improve.”
Consider an example that will be intimately familiar to any New Yorker: The awe-inspiring, classic beauty of Grand Central versus the drab and decrepit functionality of Penn Station.
“You will completely and utterly feel the difference of mood of those two stations,” Sagmeister insists. And that difference has a real impact: Tweet-mapping has showed that exponentially more negative tweets come out of Penn Station than Grand Central at any given time of day.
“In any environment, online or offline, if beauty is absent, then the human beings who inhabit that environment feel worse and they behave worse,” says Sagmeister. “Online, in purely functional environments, people are more aggressive.”
For the foreseeable future, this exploration of beauty will be the main focus of Sagmeister and Walsh’s self-initiated work. “This idea that beauty will have to come back as a goal in our professions is an important and a strong one,” says Sagmeister. “To me, it feels like this is what we’re supposed to be doing right now.”