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The Printed Word

The Printed Word

Movable type used to be the printing method of all literature before the inventing of modern methods such as typewriters and computers today.

A man named Johannes Gutenberg made the process possible. Gutenberg was the first European to use movable type printing, in around 1439, and the global inventor of the printing press. He is most notable for printing the Gutenberg Bible, the first mass-produced publication in history.

However he wasn’t the first to use movable type. The Chinese had been using and perfecting their own technique of movable type for more than 400 years.

Bì Shēng (畢昇 990 – 1051 AD) invented Chinese movable type during the Song Dynasty (1041 – 1048 AD). His movable type was made from ceramics, a Chinese specialty. As described by the Chinese scholar Shen Kuo (1031–1095

When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste [at the back] was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone. For each character there were several types, and for certain common characters there were twenty or more types each, in order to be prepared for the repetition of characters on the same page. When the characters were not in use he had them arranged with paper labels, one label for each rhyme-group, and kept them in wooden cases.

Bì Shēng’s ceramic type has been criticized for a number of reasons but there is no doubt that without him, early advances of movable type might not of happen.

The next innovator of Movable type in China was Wáng Zhēn (王禎 1290 – 1333) an official of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368 AD). His contribution really revolutionised the technique forever. While Bì Shēng disregarded wood as a suitable material for movable type, Wang Zhen improved the earlier experimented process by adding the methods of specific type cutting and finishing, making the type case and revolving table that made the process more efficient. In Joseph Needham’s book, Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, he translated Wáng Zhēn’s summary of the process of making wooden movable type;

Now, however, there is another method that is both more exact and more convenient. A compositor’s form is made of wood, strips of bamboo are used to mark the lines and a block is engraved with characters. The block is then cut into squares with a small fine saw till each character forms a separate piece. These separate characters are finished off with a knife on all four sides, and compared and tested till they are exactly the same height and size. Then the types are placed in the columns [of the form] and bamboo strips which have been prepared are pressed in between them. After the types have all been set in the form, the spaces are filled in with wooden plugs, so that the type is perfectly firm and will not move. When the type is absolutely firm, the ink is smeared on and printing begins

In the early 11th Century bronze and metal type was introduced and remained the material used today in moveable type printing. The introduction of bronze also help to stop the counterfeit of bank notes in China, where they were invented in the 7th Century.

Movable type was popular throughout China during the 20th century but is now only practised in Ruì’ān City (瑞安) on the eastern coast of China, in the south of Zhejiang province. They have been using movable type there to record clan Genealogy for over 800 years and have passed the technique down generation to generation. Nowadays there are only two villages in Ruì’ān which still use movable type; Dongyang and Xiqian.

Apprentices had to learn calligraphy, engraving and ink making if they wanted to make a life with movable type. This takes many years to master and doesn’t hold much interest to the youth of China today, who are more interested in making money and modern technology. In the 1960′s more than 70% of Dongyang village were involved with movable type. Where as in the 80′s that was reduced to 12 people and today the numbers are less and all of whom still practice are over 50 years old. So the tradition so sacred to China is in danger.

However in 2004 the Ruì’ān Government realised that this was a Chinese heritage and invested 600,000 RMB to build museums in Dongyang and Xiqian. So the aptly names ‘Movable Type Printing Exhibition Halls’ were opened. A press has been established in the museums and masters of the technique demonstrate the skills to the public. There is also a great collection of ancient printed books on display there. The art of movable type is still being preserved in China and since 2008 has been on the list of China’s ‘National Intangible Culture Heritage’.




28 Jan 2014

Kinetic Typography Tutorial


12 Jan 2014

Kinetic Typography How To


12 Jan 2014

How to Sync Motion Typography to Audio – Adobe After Effects Tutorial


12 Jan 2014

Extrude 3d Letters – Adobe After Effects Tutorial


12 Jan 2014

Herb Lubalin

Herb Lubalin(Photo courtesy of Sahlan Simon Cherpitel). Source: AIGA

Magazine Cover: Avant Garde, 1969



Herb Lubalin


Herb Lubalin was two years old when AIGA awarded its first medal to the individual who, in the judgment of its board of directors and its membership, had distinguished himself in, and contributed significantly to, the field of graphic arts. There has been a lot of history between that moment and the evening in January 1981, when members, directors, friends and admirers gathered in the Great Hall of the New York Chamber of Commerce building to be with Lubalin as he accepted the 62nd AIGA medal.

A lot of that history, at least in the graphic arts, had been written—and designed—by Herb Lubalin. And Lubalin has been recognized, awarded, written about, imitated and emulated for it. There’s hardly anyone better known and more highly regarded in the business. Lubalin’s receipt of AIGA’s highest honor was never a matter of “if,” only “when.”

Coming to terms with Herb Lubalin’s work takes you quickly to the heart of a very big subject: the theory of meaning and how meaning is communicated—how an idea is moved, full and resonant, from one mind to another. Not many have been able to do that better than Lubalin.

Typography is the key. It is where you start with Lubalin and what you eventually come back to. However, “typography” is not a word Lubalin thought should be applied to his work. “What I do is not really typography, which I think of as an essentially mechanical means of putting characters down on a page. It’s designing with letters. Aaron Burns called it, ‘typographics,’ and since you’ve got to put a name on things to make them memorable, ‘typographics’ is as good a name for what I do as any.”

Lubalin was a brilliant, iconoclastic advertising art director—in the 1940s with Reiss Advertising and then for twenty years with Sudler and Hennessey. Recipient of medal after medal, award after award, and in 1962 named Art Director of the Year by the National Society of Art Directors, he has also been a publication designer of great originality and distinction. He designed startling Eros in the early 60s, intellectually and visually astringentFact in the mid-60s, lush and luscious Avant Garde late in the same decade, and founded U & lc in 1973 and saw it flourish into the 80s.

But it is Lubalin and his typographics—words, letters, pieces of letters, additions to letters, connections and combinations, and virtuoso manipulation of letters—to which all must return. The “typographic impresario of our time,” Dorfsman called him, a man who “profoundly influenced and changed our vision and perception of letter forms, words and language.”

Lubalin at his best delivers the shock of meaning through his typography-based design. Avant Garde literally moves ahead. The Sarah Vaughn Singsposter does just that. Ice Capades skates. There is a child in Mother & Child, and a family in Families. If words are a way of making meaning, then the shapes of their letters give voice, color, character and individuality to that meaning.

The shock of meaning, in Lubalin’s artful hands, delivers delight, as well, delight that flows from sight and insight. “Lubalin,” praises Dorfsman, “used his extraordinary talent and taste to transform words and meaning from a medium to an inextricable part of the message? and in so doing, raised typography from the level of craft to art.” And it is in his paper U & lc that a lot of threads in Lubalin’s life and career get pulled together. It is publication dedicated to the joyful, riotous exploration of the complex relationships between words, letters, type and meaning—an ebullient advertisement for himself as art director, editor, publisher and purveyor of the shock and delight of meaning through typography and design. “Right now,” he said, “I have what every designer wants and few have the good fortune to achieve. I’m my own client. Nobody tells me what to do.” And 170,000 subscribers which, with a conservative pass-along estimate, yields 400,000 readers, benefit.

Herb Lubalin’s unique contribution to our times goes well beyond design in much the same way that his typographic innovations go beyond the twenty-six letters, ten numerals and the handful of punctuation marks that comprise our visual, literal vocabulary. Lubalin’s imagination, sight and insight have erased boundaries and pushed back frontiers.

As an agency art director, he pushed beyond the established norm of copy-driven advertising and added a new dimension. As a publication designer, he pushed beyond the boundaries that constrained existing magazines—both in form and content. In fact, some said he had pushed beyond the boundaries of “good taste,” though in retrospect that work is more notable today for its graphic excellence than for its purported prurience. Lubalin helped push back the boundaries of the impact and perception of design—from an ill-defined, narrowly recognized craft to a powerful communication medium that could put big, important ideas smack in the public eye.

And finally, he pushed back what were believed to be the boundaries of design for entire generations of designers who were to follow. For such a quiet, gentle person to have accomplished so much is testimony indeed to the power of ideas in the hands of a master.

Copyright 1981 by AIGA.



infor about The Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography
10 font families by Herb Lubalin

11 Jan 2014

Michael Bierut

Michael Bierut

The Architectural League of New York Light Years poster(1999)



Given one minute to make a provocative presentation about design at the2005 AIGA National Design Conference, 20 designers took the stage, encumbered with elaborate animations, PowerPoint presentations, professional-grade films. Michael Bierut appeared in a suit, strolled to center stage, and performed a self-penned AIGA version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” A capella.

It was the vocal equivalent of Bierut’s work: smart, bold, blissfully on target. He received a standing ovation.

The fact that Michael Bierut will stand on stage and sing before almost 3,000 designers is not surprising—Bierut has built his career on making himself, his work, his personality, his opinions, available. It has worked to great effect. He graciously jets to speaking engagements tucked into tiny towns in corners of the country. He makes a point to advise design students. But this should be of no surprise. After all, Michael Bierut is a Midwestern-raised, impeccably-mannered person-who happens to be one of the most famous graphic designers today.

Bierut was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1957. Graphic design as a career aspiration was not heavily promoted to the young adults of Ohio at the time. Yet his loves of fine art, music and drawing—all converging, to him, in the form of album covers—eventually led Bierut to what were apparently the only two graphic design books in his suburban town’s branch library: theGraphic Design Manual by Armin Hofmann and Milton Glaser: Graphic Design. He needed little more to convince him to study graphic design at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. An internship while in school placed him under the guise of another AIGA Medalist, Chris Pullman, at Boston public television station, WGBH.

In 1980 Bierut landed his first job at one of the most important design firms in the world, working for Massimo and Lella Vignelli in New York City. Working alongside legends for 10 years at Vignelli Associates, eventually as vice president of design, gave Bierut serious industry clout. But it also instilled a keystone tenet of his career. “Probably the most interesting thing I learned is that a lot of the things about design that tend to get designers really interested aren’t that important,” Bierut once said to Steven Heller. Bierut has admitted that there’s no proof people ever really read the annual reports and corporate brochures that designers make. Therefore, Bierut strives to not only make things that people are able to read, he makes people want to read them. “He has a quality that I have much respect for in the kind of work that we do,” says Pullman. “He’s a person who’s very easy to understand, both when you talk to him and when he’s doing his work. He’s accessible, humane, funny when it’s appropriate, and witty almost all of the time. And that’s a very important quality for someone who wants to be a communicator.”

It is this “democratization of design” that Bierut has championed while a partner at Pentagram, where he’s been since 1990; the act of making things digestible is where he excels. His list of clients consists of massive corporations that need to be embraced by the masses: Walt Disney, United Airlines, Motorola, the New York Jets, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Or he lends a voice to complex, intellectual entities that need emotional authenticity: Yale and Princeton Universities, Brooklyn Academy of Music,New York magazine. This aesthetic also informs his work as an author, co-editing the design essay series of Looking Closer and co-writing and designing the monograph Tibor Kalman, Perverse Optimist.

Like Kalman, Bierut has not only made a profound mark on design, but embedded himself in the cultural concrete of New York City. Bierut is a director of the Architectural League of New York and a member of New Yorkers for Parks. He created wayfinding signage for the Alliance for Downtown New York, assisting millions of tourists navigating the streets of Lower Manhattan. Bierut’s pieces can be seen at two New York museums, the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and more around the world. It was also in New York that he became involved with AIGA, initially drawn into the fold when asked to DJ chapter events. Bierut was president of AIGA’s AIGA’s New York chapterfrom 1988 to 1990 and president of AIGA from 1998 to 2001; he has since been named to the Art Directors Hall of Fame and the Alliance Graphique Internationale.

But Bierut’s influence swings far beyond design circles—so far, in fact, that he is one of the very few people the mainstream media turns to for design commentary. He’s appeared on the public radio show “Studio 360” with Kurt Andersen to discuss the design of the Cleveland Indians’ baseball stadium.Dwell turns to him for design book recommendations, Fast Company culls his opinions on corporate branding, and he is the resident design expert for articles in the New York Times. Debbie Millman has called him a “design personality.” In Graphis, Michael Kaplan called him a “design generalist.”

But it is as a “design observer,” more specifically as a founder of the online design journal Design Observer, which has garnered him a different kind of design audience. Here, Bierut can lure the likes of William Goldman and Stanley Kubrick into the realms of collaboration and typography, respectively. He effectively blends music and design when he pens a remembrance of the soul singer Wilson Pickett. He seamlessly, coherently, weaves references from Pulp Fiction to Napoleon Dynamite into the very fabric of design debate, somehow making the whole thing more relevant, more accessible—more fun.

Paula Scher, Bierut’s partner at Pentagram since 1991, says this grasp of pop culture is evidence of even greater talent. “Michael has a brain that is a giant compendium,” Scher says. “He absorbs and retains everything and pulls it out at the appropriate moment and uses it to its maximal effect. Mention a movie and he quotes from it, maybe he enacts a little scene. Mention a book and he recites a passage and relates it to three other books that have the same spirit, that you haven’t read, but you will now. Mention a designer or architect and he knows the most recent project they’ve completed and their first project, how they’ve changed, how they haven’t, who influenced them, who they influence, and he sometimes will make a little sketch or diagram of their work. There isn’t a day that goes by when I haven’t asked Michael what he knows about anything and what he thinks about everything. If knowledge is power, then Michael Bierut is the most powerful person in the entire design community.”

In an essay on Design Observer, Bierut explains that it took him half his career to realize design is really about the ability to make connections to other things. He cautions designers, young and old, to remember this above all else. “Not everything is design,” he writes. “But design is about everything. So do yourself a favor: be ready for anything.”

With Bierut as our lead vocalist, we are.



Article written by  Michael Bierut
11 Jan 2014

Marian Bantjes

Marian Bantjes Moving Forward

July 19, 2013 / By Chelsea Thomas

On July 27, Marian Bantjes will join Stefan Sagmeister on stage at Zilkha Hall for a presentation on their work and a conversation. To register, click here.

Ten years ago, Marian Bantjes’s career began. While she worked in design for 30 years prior—10 years as a book typesetter and 20 as principal and founder of the now-shuttered design studio Digitopolis—Bantjes shot to international stardom after she downpedaled commercial work and asserted herself as a graphic artist. Her work is often called obsessive, futuristic, encoded, cryptographic, or even weird.



 ”Fire” wrapping paper for Hemlock Printers in Vancouver — image courtesy of Marian Bantjes


Known for her personal projects, Bantjes’s compulsive, ornamental style is not only a product of her rebirth as a graphic artist, but also her environment. Bantjes lives on a small island off of Canada’s west coast, near Vancouver. Her isolated, small space allows her to revel in her obsession, giving her ample time to labor intensely on her work. This environment has also given rise to Bantjes’s central adage “I wonder,” which she later elaborated, over the course of 15 months, in her recent book of the same name.



 Image courtesy of Marian Bantjes


With pages of endless patterning composed of complex tiles, ornaments, macaroni, and tin foil, I wonder is an exploration of its theme: how word and image can cooperate, instead of compete. The book features intricate vector art and innovative typography set against comical elements, classical figures, and odd personal thoughts to deliver a rich tapestry of storytelling, philosophizing, and artistry. It’s the perfect display of Bantjes’ one-of-a-kind ability to make design intensely personal and raise it to the level of art.



Cover of The Guardian’s magazine G2: Puzzle Special edition — image courtesy of Marian Bantjes

– See more at:

Written by Chelsea Thomas

Chelsea Thomas is the Chief Blogger for AIGA Houston and a copy editor at The Landing Magazine. She graduated from Emerson College in 2011 with a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing. – See more at:


Events about Sagmeister(learned about him in last post) and Bantjes: Now In Production in 2013
Marian Bantjes's website
11 Jan 2014

Ed Fella

Ed Fella(photo: Lucy Bates)

Polaroid photographs of vernacular lettering, 1990 to 2005 source: AIGA

Ed Fella

In response to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s declaration that in American lives there are no second acts, memoirist Frank McCourt writes: “He simply did not live long enough.” Like the author of Angela’s Ashes, who followed a high-school teaching career by winning the Pulitzer Prize and international fame, Ed Fella’s second act has been more noteworthy than his first. After three decades as a successful commercial artist, Fella, at age 47, entered the MFA program at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1985, opening the door for him to be recognized as a pioneer of postmodern graphic design. From his subsequent position as a professor at California Institute of the Arts, where he has profoundly impacted the design program for the past 20 years, Fella has since presided as vanguard master to a new generation of graphic designers.

Over the years, Fella has created a body of work that’s as compelling as it is unique. Prodigiously mashing up low-culture sources with high-culture erudition, Fella’s work—perhaps more than that of any other contemporary designer—makes visible the postmodern concept of deconstruction, which recognizes that behind every articulated meaning is a host of other, usually repressed meanings, some antithetical. By battering and mixing fonts, engaging in visual puns and generally violating the tenets of “good design,” Fella lets a thousand flowers bloom. His designs don’t cut through the clutter—they revel in it.

“Ed’s work marks a sea change in graphic design,” says Lorraine Wild, a 2006 AIGA medalist. “He introduced ambivalence and ambiguity, the multiple meanings of design as text and subtext, and that graphic designers are really artists.”

On the surface, there is little in Fella’s background to suggest he would become one of the most influential designers of the last quarter century. Born into a working-class family in Detroit, he attended the local magnet school, Cass Technical High School, where he studied lettering, illustration, paste-up and other commercial-art techniques. After graduating in 1957, he went straight to work as an apprentice at a small firm that provided studio services to the Motor City’s vibrant, though hardly adventurous, advertising industry. Fella worked steadily into the mid-1980s, freelancing primarily for automotive and health-care clients. His pieces were included in design annuals here and there. Of his commercial career, he’s frequently quoted as saying, “I was the vernacular.”

Yet behind the portfolio of advertising hackwork was a creative spirit that ultimately came to the fore. From the beginning, Fella read voraciously. As a young adult he took night classes on modern literature and other intellectual subjects. He collected all kinds of music as well as pop-culture ephemera. He was (and still is) a prolific photographer. He subscribed to numerous magazines of art and culture. “He had a curiosity about everything,” says Nelson Greer, a design instructor at College for Creative Studies in Detroit who worked with Fella in the 1960s and ’70s.

Even his high-school-level education, which eventually limited his career path, set the stage for later development. “Cass Tech taught the Bauhaus foundation method, where the art schools at the time in Detroit were steeped in the Beaux Arts,” Fella says. “So I actually got a more advanced education in high school than I would have had I gone to college at that point.” One of those lessons was the Bauhaus credo of eliminating the line between the so-called fine and applied arts.

The work for which Fella is now known has its roots in his freelance days. Like other freelancers in between assignments, Fella created samples of different techniques as part of soliciting clients. Coupling mechanically reproduced material with considerable drawing and lettering skills, Fella created intricate and often whimsical collages for his portfolio. Photocopiers, which had become office fixtures, expanded the possibilities for imagery and composition. Many of these early pieces feature enigmatic messages, a result of incorporating leftover bits of type into the design in a parody of the “greeking” used in font books and in comprehensive layouts. Experimental personal work soon became his true passion.

It was during this period in the early 1970s that the planets aligned and Fella met the two people who would become instrumental in his move toward becoming an “exit-level designer,” his favored term. At Designers and Partners in downtown Detroit, the lives of Katherine McCoy, Lorraine Wild and Fella intersected. McCoy, a 1999 AIGA medalist, recalls how he shaped his situation at the bustling agency. “Ed in effect conducted a daily symposium at lunch, in the break room and after hours in the bar downstairs,” she says. “We all learned an incredible amount.” Wild, who joined as an intern in 1973, notes that while many designers in the studio talked about design and avidly collected it, Fella was the only one making new work: “Ed was already sophisticated before he went to Cranbrook.”

Just how innovative was his work? Even before Adobe had figured out how to kern digital fonts, Fella was deconstructing lines of copy, modifying typefaces (turning Bembo into Bimbo by hacking off the serifs, to cite one example) and jumbling them up. Not for another decade would desktop publishing achieve anywhere near the eye-bending effects Fella was getting with copy-camera photostats and X-Acto knives. McCoy, who left Designers and Partners in 1971 to head up Cranbrook’s design department with her husband Michael, an industrial designer, invited Fella to present his work to her students and offer critiques over a decade before he enrolled there in the master’s program. “If anyone is meant to be a student and teacher in a rigorous educational environment, it’s Ed Fella. He was a powerful influence on our students,” she says.

The burgeoning alternative arts scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s provided an ideal venue for Fella to take his work from the private sphere into the public domain. The posters, catalogs and other collateral he made for various nonprofit arts organizations—especially Detroit Focus Gallery—cemented Fella’s reputation, and to this day form the foundation for his more recent work. Ironically, the presumably more sophisticated art world hasn’t always appreciated Fella’s groundbreaking designs—in fact, many of the artists whose shows he “promoted” have been among his most vociferous critics. Fella may have the last word, since those lesser known artists don’t have their work in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, but he does.


Read more about Ed Fella

Ed Fella's website
11 Jan 2014

Stephan Sagmeister

Stefan Sagmeister (Photo: John Madere) Source: AIGA

Oubey Mindkiss, 2009 Client and publishers: Deutscher Kunstverlagt;
Design firm: Sagmeister Inc.; Art director, concept: Stefan Sagmeister;
Concept: Dagmar Woyde-Koehler; Designer: Roy Rub, Seth Labenz;
Production: Laurence Ng 

source: AIGA




Stephan Sagmeister


Inspirational and intriguing designer Stefan Sagmeister is recognized for his unorthodox, provocative designs that tweak the status quo and question the designer’s role in society.

A cunning trickster turns convention upside down, stretches the bounds of propriety, stomps on mores and taboos and alters popular perceptions. Stefan Sagmeister has long fit this “bad boy” bill. Known for upsetting norms, he tricks the senses through design, typography, environmental art, conceptual exhibitions and, lately, video.

Long ago, Sagmeister, whose motto was “Style=Fart,” replaced style with attitude. His designs are rooted in disorienting images and self-defining aphorisms. With apparent ease, Sagmeister morphs—as tricksters are wont to do—taking on various skins, from graphic designer to conceptual typographer to performance artist. When the mood strikes, he returns to being a designer, and a completely new cycle of transformation commences.

For an AIGA lecture in 1999, he famously had the lettering for the event poster carved into his naked body; for his 2003 “Sagmeister on a binge” exhibition poster, he ate 100 different junk foods, gaining more than 25 pounds, and took “before” and “after” photographs of his semi-nude body. For a short typographic film, he dangled precariously out of an upper-story window of the Empire State Building as police scrambled with nets below. The list goes on.

Born in Bregenz, Austria in 1962, Sagmeister began his unorthodox career at age 15 writing for Alphorn, a small, left-wing magazine, but quickly realized that working on the layout was more enjoyable than writing articles. He earned an M.F.A. at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna in 1985, and received a Fulbright scholarship to study at Pratt Institute in New York. Even as a young designer he was peripatetic: he took a position with the Leo Burnett Hong Kong Design Group in 1991. Surprisingly, the job did not trigger his atavistic rebellion, but it did give him a taste for other worlds.

During his student days in New York, Sagmeister had courted another design bad boy, Tibor Kalman, of M&Co. “Tibor Kalman was the single most influential person in my design-y life and my one and only design hero,” Sagmeister told me. “Twenty-five years ago, as a student in NYC, I called him every week for half a year, and I got to know the M&Co receptionist really well. When he finally agreed to see me, it turned out I had a sketch in my portfolio rather similar in concept and execution to an idea M&Co was just working on. He rushed to show me the prototype out of fear I’d later say he stole it out of my portfolio. I was so flattered.”

When M&Co eventually hired Sagmeister five years later, in 1993, Sagmeister discovered that Kalman had an uncanny knack for giving wisdom-laced advice, which had a deep influence on him as he began cultivating his own career. Perhaps most importantly, Kalman encouraged Sagmeister’s own creative restlessness: “Tibor was always happy and ready to jump from one field to another: corporate design, products, city planning, music videos, documentary movies, children’s books and 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,’” Sagmeister said.

After M&Co abruptly disbanded, when Kalman moved to Rome to edit Benetton’s COLORS magazine, Sagmeister began to specialize in CD cover design. “I get a bigger kick out of meeting some of my musical heroes than sitting in meetings with a marketing director, which I did a lot before I opened my own specialized studio,” he explained in an interview with me a dozen years ago.

I.D. magazine, which in the late ’90s was Sagmeister’s most avid promoter, wrote that his “CD package designs are what poetry is to prose: distilled, intense, cunning, evocative and utterly complete. His intentions have set a new standard.” Designing for his musical heroes—Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, David Byrne and Jay-Z among them—enabled Sagmeister to create unique artworks based on the artists’ personas. He used printing and packaging tricks that involved laser-cuts, die-cuts, model building and more, but the witty, elegant and eclectic concepts were the engine that drove the outcome, and he received two Grammy Awards for his designs.

During the early 2000s Sagmeister was totally invested in this genre and medium. In an interview, I asked him if he wanted to continue with this specialty or enter general practice. He responded in the affirmative without hesitation. I asked if he saw graphic design as a viable practice for future generations: “I personally believe that print is going to be around for a very, very long time,” he replied. “If I’m wrong, future designers will have to be screen-based….I’d rather move to Sri Lanka and build a house than become a website designer.”

But Sagmeister encountered a different vision of the future while on a trip to Seoul, South Korea, in 2003: the MP3 on handheld devices. After returning to New York, he substituted the record-packaging class he taught for the Designer as Author M.F.A. program at the School of Visual Arts with another course, reasoning that in two years or less the CD would be irrelevant—and so would its design.

It was time for Sagmeister to reinvent his practice. In 2008, taking on other types of corporate and media work would have been axiomatic and fruitful, but instead, his next move was an unprecedented act of personal chutzpah: he announced a one-year sabbatical from all commercial work, and retreated to Bali.

Was Sagmeister nuts? Would clients who relied on him remain loyal? Was this a trickster’s trick? True to form, he took the leap not knowing what the consequences might be. In return, he experienced one of those precious “aha” moments. It was during this sabbatical when, after deciding against learning how to direct film out of fear “I might devote a lot of time learning this new language and wind up having nothing to say,” he recalled, “it occurred to me I should try to stick with the language I do know how to talk, design, and see if I’d have something to say in it.”

Thus was born Sagmeister’s text-based artwork, which fits nicely alongside the work of artists like Lawrence Weiner and Jenny Holzer, who use aphorisms and text fragments to express, either through poetic nuance or commanding declaratives, ideas designed to foster individual thought and group action. Sagmeister included a personal touch, building letterforms that both spell out and illustrate maxims pulled from his own diary: “Worrying solves nothing,” “Low expectations are a good strategy” and “Trying to look good limits my life.” Some were published in his second monograph, Things I have learned in my life so far. (Abrams, 2008), while others have appeared in magazines, videos and commercials.

In 2012, four years after his time away in Bali, Sagmeister made another major professional life change: He replaced the “S” with an “&” in his studio’s logo. The addition of the then-25-year-old Jessica Walsh as his business partner was announced with an update of another classic Sagmeister shocker. Nearly two decades earlier, Sagmeister had posed totally naked on a postcard touting his new firm, Sagmeister Inc. The updated announcement riffed on that image, showing a naked portrait of the duo (Walsh standing on a pile of magazines next to Sagmeister) with the caption: “Nineteen years after the founding of Sagmeister Inc… We are renaming the company to Sagmeister & Walsh.”

Formerly an associate art director at Print magazine, Walsh had emailed Sagmeister, who is known for his generosity, to elicit feedback on her portfolio and career. After five minutes of flipping through her book he said, “When do you want to come work for me?” She quit her job at Print the next day.

After his 2008 show at the prestigious Deitch Projects gallery in New York, Sagmeister had fixed his focus on the broader impact of design—to change perceptions and possibly behavior. Clients have afforded him opportunities to expand his visual language, but exhibitions and videos allow him the freedom of authorship. “The Happy Show,” Sagmeister’s 2012 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, was the evolutionary result of this shift away from the commercial. He did not design someone else’s ideas; instead, he offered visitors the experience of “walking into the designer’s mind as he attempts to increase his happiness via meditation, cognitive therapy and mood-altering pharmaceuticals” through interactive digital and analog typographic investigations of his “rules to live by.” This seems to be the path he is taking, at least right now.

“I follow the direction that seems juicy, and has the right balance of newness and familiarity,” Sagmeister told me. But “follow” is an interesting word. If Sagmeister followed he wouldn’t be ahead of the pack, or the trickster personified, or the man of many maxims. He is not a follower, but a leader, if only to satisfy his own restlessness. “If it’s too new I get anxious,” Sagmeister once said, “if it’s too familiar I get bored.”

Stefan Sagmeister will be presented with the AIGA Medal at “Bright Lights: The AIGA Awards” on April 19, 2013, in New York City.


Interview video
Stefan Sagmeister's website
11 Jan 2014