Interview: Stefan Sagmeister tells us the key to happiness & looks back on naked postcard

Stefan Sagmeister tells us about The Happy Show, the possibility of it coming to the UK, and that naked postcard.

This week, at the Reasons To Be Creative event in Brighton, designer Stefan Sagmeister of Sagmeister & Walsh took to the stage to talk mostly about his exhibition, The Happy Show, which is currently touring the world.

We sat down with Stefan after his talk to find out more about the exhibition, the reasoning behind it and the accompanying documentary. Of course, we couldn't leave without throwing in a question about the naked postcard, too.

AA: The Happy Show is all about what makes people happy. Why did you choose to explore happiness? 

SS: “During my year in Bali, during my experimental sabbatical year, we made a whole bunch of furniture. The furniture idea was to explore something outside of graphics. Something that's more three dimensional, and we needed furniture for the studio in New York.

“A very close friend of mine came to visit, and he looked at all the furniture prototypes and he basically thought this was a waste of my time. 

“He thought that I should do something that's somehow more useful. That I have a little platform and there is a responsibility that comes with that. And doing this furniture for our own studio was not a good use of my time.

“At the time I didn't really want to hear this, but after thinking about it I thought, yeah he has a point. And I was thinking what could it be that I would love to do but might also be useful to somebody else? 

“At that point I had given a talk quite a lot on design and happiness that always generated a whole bunch of great feedback. I thought maybe making a film about this would be juicy, because it would force me to do the research, it would be a challenge because I've never made a film, and there might be the possibility that if I make it personal, other people might be able to relate to it. 

AA: As part of your research, you found that happiness is based 40% on doing new activities, 10% on the state of your life and 50% in genetics. Where did you get your statistics from?

SS: “I read roughly three dozen books and met many, many psychologists.

“The stuff that I quoted comes mostly from three people. One is Jonathan Haidt from NYU. The second is Daniel Jacob at Harvard, and the third is Steven Pinker also at Harvard. But neither the film nor the show are really about the statistics. I am not a psychologist and I am not an expert on what makes people happy. Not at all. But I can talk quite authoritatively about what makes me happy, because I'm a pretty damn good expert on myself. There is nobody better. 

“So the statistics basically are the icing on the cake and I very much cherry picked it. It's very much from a personal point of view because the stuff that spoke to me, I quoted. The stuff that didn't I happily ignored.

“Even though I myself feel very comfortable leaning towards the scientist point of view rather than the self help section, neither the show nor the film are strictly scientific. It's very much a personal project.”

AA: During your talk, you mentioned that doing new activities is one of the factors of happiness, and for you, the film and The Happy Show were new activities, as was the research. How much was the show about making yourself happy? 

SS: “It made me measurably happy because I did measure it. 

“While doing the research, I found that whenever a scientist did personal research, I found it so much more interesting than when they talked about a study that they commissioned. Which logically makes no sense because of course the study is going to be better or more exact information than their own single experience, but noticing this in myself, I thought I'd do the same thing and just talk about my experience. 

“I've seen that, in the past, and this is not the first time I've realised it, by and large I am mainstream enough if I find something interesting other people do too. So I didn't have to make a survey on is this interesting or not. If I think this is juicy other people do too.”

AA: For The Happy Show, you tried three strategies (meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy and SSRIs or antidepressants) to improve your own happiness, looking at techniques that make a 'sane' person happier rather than helping someone with mental health issues such as depression. How were you sure that you are a good example of a 'sane' person? Is there even such a thing?

SS: “In psychology there are tests to see if you're sane or not. And so from a purely scientific level yes it can be measured and yes I did do those tests and yes I was sane. 

“Words like crazy are overused to the point of meaninglessness. For example, Salvador Dali, not one of my favourite artists, apparently said: “The difference between crazy people and me is that I know that I'm crazy.” 

“But I know of course the craziness in Dali was a branding and marketing gimmick that he used very deliberately because he was a fairly meticulous person otherwise he couldn't paint those extremely ridiculous and carefully planned out paintings. In that space, craziness has a similar sort of annoying overuse as creative and it's just that kind of terminology just loses everybody's interest because it's used so broadly.

AA: Which method did you find was most successful at improving your personal happiness? Which would you recommend to creative people? 

SS: “I would say that, strangely and unexpectedly for myself, I was probably the most creative on antidepressants. A lot of people have come up to me and told me they're on antidepressants and I've literally heard every possible answer, negative and positive. 

“Nobody really knows why or how they're working. We don't even really know if they do something. There is authoritative research in the UK that shows the entire group of antidepressants has such a little difference from placebo.

AA: Many of your paths to happiness involved being in other countries. Do you think true happiness requires a separation from the mundane?

SS: “My own experience is that variety in everything works. For example, a total eclipse is really exciting for me. But if I look at it from a design pizazz point of view, a sunrise is much more exciting, and is much better looking than a total eclipse. 

“The eclipse is ok but the eclipse is special only because of its rarity. If we were to have an eclipse every morning, and a sunrise every couple of years, oh my God people would go nuts for that sunrise.

“It's also the reason why, measurably for me, I've been travelling heavily for a very long time now, and it surprises me myself how much I still like it. And of course the main reason I still like it because I very carefully select the destinations and I don't go to the same places repeatedly and I extremely avoid anything that's max of a commute and that's why it works. 

AA: How long did it take you to create The Happy Show?

SS: “We've been talking about the subject for about 10 years. We've been working on the film for about three and a half and the show itself was sort of an outcome of the film. And the first one was happening two years ago and it's been travelling ever since. We've adapted the show depending on where it goes. It's going to Paris next.”

AA: Is it coming to the UK?

SS: “If it could I would love it. I mean right now since it's going to come over from Chicago to Paris that might make it easier, because of course shipping is a big part of the cost.”

AA: Are you pleased with the outcome after all your hard work? 

SS: “Yes, on all fronts. We've got unbelievable feedback. Among my favourite was a 15-year-old boy from Toronto who, on account of seeing the show, kissed his first girl because he finally got his shit together.

“Also, I know that in Chicago I just found out that it's going to be a new record for the museum as far as attendance is concerned. In Philadelphia they tripled their average time spent in the museum. It's clearly something people are interested in.

“That's the main reason we do it. If the feedback would have been zero we wouldn't have done it.”

AA: What are you working on now?

SS: “Right now I'm very engaged in trying to get The Happy Show filmed up. It's odd, even though we're not really exhibition designers and there are many areas of that new to us too, the way a narrative is told in a show is still more similar to a usual graphic design narrative. It's shorter, leaves the viewer free to make the decision whether they want to take the design in or not, so we are more familiar with it and it is easier.

“The film I find is much more difficult because we are dictating the pace, we're dictating the beginning and the end, and ultimately there's such a sophisticated medium where we've all seen so much good work. I definitely feel out of my depth and find it very difficult.”

AA: To announce your partnership with Jessica Walsh, you sent out a postcard of the pair of you posing naked (warning – nudity, obvs), and for you it was the second naked postcard you had shared with the world. You joked in your talk that you get sick of seeing yourself naked all the time. Looking back on it now, how do you feel about it? 

SS: “I'm not embarrassed about it, not at all. It's a piece of design that truly worked. And now I am of course very aware that pieces of design do much more than being functional, but the function part of it, it fulfilled beyond anything that you would normally expect a simple little card to do.

“You can look at it from a formal point of view, where it's not a great piece of design. Or, you could look at it from a stylistic point of view: I'd say there's two things going on. There's a mediocre looking guy and a very pretty woman on there. But people saw its point of view afterwards.

“I think overall the feedback was overall very, very positive. I for a second was worried because I read a couple of comments that went down the line of, “Oh, they probably fuck each other and she got only the job because she's good-looking and young.”

“I was actually less worried about me because I can handle myself, but I was worried about Jessie. As soon as I checked with Jessie she didn't give a shit whatsoever.”

“She basically said I'm not naive, I knew from the beginning that some people might think that, and she didn't give a shit. Right now she has a fairly successful project going on about dating and it is very clear that we are not dating. It's all fine.” 

The Reasons to be Creative conference in Brighton brought together the likes of Stefan Sagmeister, Jon Burgerman, Geri Coady, Erik Spiekermann, Naomi Atkinson, Fabio Sasso, Mr Bingo and more to discuss topics dear to most creatives' hearts: from finding happiness and creative success and failure, to how to motivate yourself and change what you do for the better. It even got attendees singing in unison.

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