This was my third year to attend Alt Summit – a conference held in Salt Lake City for design bloggers. Just a few months prior I was hemming and hawing over whether I wanted to go or not but I ultimately decided to show up and be seen. And when I received an email saying that my design idol Stefan Sagmeister would be giving a keynote, I knew it was meant to be.
If you’re not familiar, Stefan Sagmeister is a legend in the design community for his packaging and design work for amazing musicians like Lou Reed and David Byrne. He’s notorious for carving event details into his own skin with an Xacto for an AIGA event. And more recently he sparked some attention for posing naked with Jessica Walsh to announce their new business partnership. Needless to say, I have a huge crush. Through college I used to fantasize about moving to NYC and working 80 hours a week for Stefan Sagmeister but then I got overwhelmed, scared, and tired. It was much easier to stay put.
I first saw Sagmeister speak at my alma mater a few years ago. He shared lots about his approach to graphic design and an inside glimpse to his creative process – which pretty much involves lots of hand crafting and endurance. He’s a genius at creating from this place rooted in curiosity and exploration. Oh and he’s Austrian, which makes him that much more fascinating to listen to.
This year when I saw him speak at Alt it was about so much more than design and the creative process. It was about intent and purpose. It was about finding happiness.
THE TALK: WHERE STEFAN SAGMEISTER BLEW OUR MINDS WAY, WAY OPEN
Stefan Sagmeister opened his talk with a couple of naked photos of himself. The clinking of cutlery went silent and a the minds of a thousand design bloggers adorned in top knots and blunt bangs were blown. The images weren’t distasteful or pornographic – they’re kind of ordinary, yet honest. My Mighty Summit friend, Jordan Ferney, later shared a theory that blowing our minds way, way open was the whole point. Because after that moment everyone was that much more receptive to everything Stefan had to share. And he pretty much changed all of our lives with what he had to say.
From there Stefan shared how he’s documenting, shaping and sharing his own personal journey to understand and achieve happiness, avoid burnout, and the tactics he uses to keep his work a calling (versus a job). He shared how he grew up where critical, and often times cynical, thinking was valued, but later in life he turned that notion on its head and challenged himself (and us) to not just point what’s wrong in the world but to seek out ways to improve it. He challenged himself to be happy.
He started by listing some of the things that make him happiest – including:
• Traveling to new places.
• An open road and a motorcycle.
• Working on projects that matter to him.
• Designing a project that feels partly brand new and partly familiar.
I can relate. You too, right?
Then Stefan shared his weapon against serious burnout. A year long sabbatical taken every seven years. He presented us with an infographic as follows:
The idea is that you spend ages 0-25 learning. Then from 25-70 you work. At 70 you enjoy retirement until you die. Instead of waiting until the end of life, Sagmeister has committed to peppering some of those golden years into his working years to increase productivity, pursue passion projects and experiments, and ultimately to avoid burnout. You can imagine the fear and uncertainty that comes with taking a year off – no money, missed opportunities, and annoyed clients. But Sagmeister didn’t just escape burnout – he found a kind of productivity and creativity that informed his work for the next seven years – which led to a long term financial gain. At this point I was on fire.
The closest I’ve ever come to a sabbatical was taking the month of October 2010 off to fly to the other side of the world and trek to Mt. Everest base camp. I spent the following month of November 2010 shaping and sharing the experience on my personal blog. For two whole months I was my own client. And like Sagmeister, it completely transformed the way I not only viewed the world but the way I shaped my work (you can see the influence of the graphic treatment I developed then on my work now). Stefan got me thinking about how I could continue to incorporate daily discipline as well as structured and extended lengths of time off in order to bring curiosity and growth to my work.
Stefan Sagmeister went on to share some of his projects that came from a place of authenticity – unmolested by Pinterest, Dribble, client orders and whatever everyone else was doing. He shared snaps from The Happy Show, a traveling exhibit that explores happiness and utilizes the often overlooked spaces, nooks and crannies in museums. He also shared clips from The Happy Film which highlighted his endurance and attention to detail when it comes to bringing typography to life.
My mind was blown way open. It’s scary enough to be a creative entrepreneur, much less to have the kind of courage it takes to work with creative abandon. But Stefan Sagmeister made me feel brave enough to create from a place of almost child-like authenticity – and to remain diligent in being my own number one client. It’s the kind of work that pays for itself, emotionally and financially.
THE AFTERPARTY: WHERE I BECAME A GIDDY FANGIRL
Years ago I was too shy to ask Stefan Sagmeister for a picture or an autograph – and I was still too shy to approach him directly after his talk. But hours later during the evening mini-parties I saw Sagmeister sipping a cocktail (or was it a beer?) and in the split second that he was by himself I knew it was my moment to swoop in and say hello. I fangirled out when I told him how much his work means to me. I asked for a photo and he obliged – but only if he could give me a kiss. PLEASE AND YES.
We took our photo (I’m still blushing) but I had to know more about sabbaticals. He made it clear that it’s not just about taking an extended amount of time off at once but finding sacred time, and discipline, daily or weekly to work on your own projects. He explained that the artists, designers, and even chefs, who are dedicated to working on their own projects and experiments are the ones he respects the most. They’re also the ones who seem to find the most success, and perhaps happiness.
I went on to compliment him on his design tenacity, particularly when it comes to executing and filming some of his typography work – including a house of cards stacked in the middle of a dance party to spell out the word “ME”. He explained that nobody would ever have the patience to rip off his work – it would just be too exhausting. Which is another compelling argument for the kind of passion needed to create from a place of authenticity.
I’m going to be exploring more on the themes Sagmeister presented throughout the year – probably throughout my entire career. I’ll be sure to share my findings. But in the meantime, check out Stefan Sagmeister’s TED talk on The Power of Time Off here. And his TED talk on Happiness By Design here.
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