Artist Spotlight – Stefan Sagmeister

Stefan Sagmeister drawn by Rama Hughes

Stefan Sagmeister is an Austrian graphic designer who lives and works in New York. He is best know for his work with AIGA and musicians like David Byrne and Lou Reed.

Stefan was born in Bregenz, Austria. His parents own a retail fashion business. He went to an engineering school before an illustration project inspired him to study graphic design. He hoped to attend the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, but “just about everybody was better at drawing than I was.” So, he enrolled in a private art school and was accepted to the University on his second try. While there, he created posters for a local theatre and for a campaign to save a music hall from demolition. He graduated with a first class degree and a prize from the City of Vienna.
Sagmeister earned a Fulbright scholarship to study design at the Pratt Institute in New York. Humor emerged as a powerful strength in his work. When a friend from Austria came to visit, Sagmeister postered the neighbourhood with a picture of his friend under the words “Dear Girls! Please be nice to Reini.”

Sagmeister returned to Austria for its compulsory military service. As a conscientious objector, he was allowed to work in a refugee center. Upon completion of his service, he moved to Hong Kong to work for the Leo Burnett ad agency. Then back to New York to work for Tibor Kalman at M&Co. It was Stefan’s dream to work for Tibor. He called and wrote the designer persistently until Tibor sponsored his green card application. When M&Co. closed a few months later, Stefan used a pair of nude self-portraits to announce the launch of his own studio, Sagmeister Inc.

To pursue work that he enjoyed, Sagmeister followed Kalman’s advice and kept his firm very small: just himself, a designer, and an intern. His first clients were himself, his brother, and a girlfriend for whom he created one dollar business cards on one dollar bills. He earned his first Grammy nomination designing a CD cover for his friend’s album, Mountains of Madness. He was soon hired to design albums for Lou Reed, David Byrne, and the Rolling Stones. He also created powerful pro bono work like his posters for AIGA.

Throughout his career, Sagmeister has courted controversy with his use of sly, shocking images. For an award show in Hong Kong, he rankled conservative ad agencies with a traditional Cantonese image adapted to include four naked butts. For an AIGA poster, he carved the text for the ad into his own torso. When he partnered with Jessica Walsh, they announced their new company (Sagmeister & Walsh) with another pair of nude self-portraits. His response to controversy might be summed up by one of his beautiful visualized maxims: “Trying to look good limits my life.”

In 2000, Sagmeister took a year off to work on experimental projects and a book, Sagmeister: Made You Look: Another Self-Indulgent Design Monograph (practically everything we have ever designed including the bad stuff.) The bad stuff included some CD-ROMs for which he chided himself, “Don’t take any more bad jobs.”

Stefan Sagmeister’s first museum show, The Happy Show, can be seen now at the MOCA Design Center in Los Angeles. The show uses installations, infographics, sculpture, print, and film to communicate Sagmeister’s discoveries from his own compelling pursuit of happiness. He also shared his wisdom in a series of TED talks title “Happiness by Design,” “The Power of Time Off,” and “7 Rules for Making More Happiness.” They are viewable online at

Photos of Sagmeister's Happy Talk

Stefan Sagmeister’s images are a little too racy for my conservative school, but I’m excited to share his work with YOU as our first master of the month of the summer. My wife introduced me to his videos after she heard him speak at Alt Summit. It turns out that she, he, me, and Illustration Friday founder, Penelope, are all included in the same book, An Illustrated Life. I like his work, but I didn’t LOVE it until I saw his Happy Show here in L.A. If the installations didn’t include so many sexy diagrams, I would certainly send all my students there. In lieu of that, I recommend it to you. The show promises NOT to make you happy, but that’s a calculated introduction “because low expectations are a good strategy.” If you have the opportunity, do enjoy.

Portrait of Stefan Sagmeister drawn by yours truly, Rama Hughes.

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Thomas James

Thomas James

Thomas James is an Illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, WIRED, Pentagram, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. You can see his portfolio at
Thomas James

Posted by Thomas James on 06/16/13 under artists,master of the month


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