03.03.15 / Stefan Sagmeister / Design and Happiness Review

Stefan Sagmeister Keynote, Friday 20 February 2015

CAT WALL

Stefan Sagmeister is famous. Hardly any graphic designers are famous.

But as far as words describing the design legend go, ‘famous’ is at the lower end of the spectrum. Stefan Sagmeister is unfathomably creative. He is a captivating and inspired speaker. He is irrepressibly human. And Stefan Sagmeister is unconventional. And the thing about unconventionality is, regardless of knowing you’re about to cop a dose of unorthodox extraordinary, it never really fails catch you unaware.

So as a sold out Deakin Edge hung onto every word of Stefan’s opening yarn, it should have come as no surprise that it unfolded into an anecdote about a sea manatee giving itself a blowjob. Or that it had very little relevance to the rest of the keynote. Or that, upon seeing the sign language interpreter on stage, Stefan turned to her and said, “I just need to try something quickly”, before repeating “blowjob” five times. But there we were.

Famous? Okay. Unconventional? Without doubt.

Stefan closes the studio every seven years to take a year-long sabbatical – a year’s worth of experimenting with things that there is no time for during regular studio hours. On his second sabbatical six years ago, while in Indonesia, the idea for The Happy Film came about.

Six years later, there is still no film. But Stefan has learned two valuable things since he began work on it.

“Firstly, I think I vastly overestimated the similarities between graphic design and documentary filmmaking,” he says. “And I have proven, without any doubt, that working on a film called The Happy Film can make me utterly miserable.”

A rough cut of the film is ready and he hopes it will be finished by May.

 

If I don’t ask, I don’t get

In the last six years, the film has produced some side projects – the most notable of these being The Happy Show, which came to fruition when The Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia asked Sagmeister & Walsh to create a show about graphic design. Because they already had a show touring through Europe, the idea didn’t seem very interesting, so Stefan asked if the show could be about happiness. It could.

They went to look at the space. It was a standard gallery environment – lots of big, white spaces with concrete floors. But Stefan noticed a lot of non-spaces – staircases, wheelchair ramp, elevators. With a single question – “Can we use these spaces, too?” – they doubled their exhibition square footage.

“If I don’t ask, I don’t get,” Stefan says. “It’s not a bad life motto.”

 

The terminology of happiness

Stefan touches briefly on some definitions. He says the terminology of happiness is gigantic. One way to divide happiness is using “length of time”. On the overhead screen, a slice of cake appears. It’s cut into three layers of happiness: 1. Short periods of time (short bursts of pleasure, e.g. orgasms); 2. Medium-length satisfaction and wellbeing (reading the paper on the couch on the Sunday afternoon with the dog in your lap); and 3. Life-long things (fulfilling one’s potential or finding that thing you’re good at in life). Three things that have very little to do with each other yet all sit under the term ‘happiness’.

 

Be more flexible

The cake switches angle. Stefan discusses other ways happiness can be divided based on a poll of 600,000 people. Basic life conditions – the thing we assume matters most – account for only 10 per cent of our overall happiness. We get used to them, we take them for granted. He gives examples. Climate makes no difference to happiness. White people are as happy as black people. Old people are a little happier than young people. Ugly people are as happy as pretty people. If you are outgoing and sociable, if you have friends, you will be happier than if you are a loner. If you are religious, you will be happier than if you are not. If you are married, you will be happier than if you are single.

Income plays a giant role up to $85k a year, with its role becoming more significant the lower you are. If you are homeless you will be significantly unhappier than someone who is not. But above $85k, the differences become too small to measure. The advantages equal out the disadvantages.

“Yes, you can fly first class, but that shitty cousin asks you for money all the time.”

Genetics account for half of our overall happiness, yet we can’t do anything about them. Which leaves ‘non-repetitive activities’ to, rather surprisingly, make up the final 40 per cent.

The fact that non-repetitive activities are so important mean there is a large degree of spontaneity to happiness. Stefan says he’s very plan-oriented but is trying to change that. Being more flexible does people well.

 

The Happiness Hypothesis

The Happy Show is based Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. When discussing the conscious and unconscious mind, Jonathan uses the metaphor of a small rider sitting on a giant elephant. The rider (conscious mind) thinks he can tell the elephant (unconscious mind) where to go, but the elephant has his own ideas. It’s only through training (meditation, cognitive therapy and legal drugs) that the two have a chance to learn to work together and elevate your overall wellbeing.

Stefan shoots through some US statistics to demonstrate just how powerful the unconscious mind is. A guy called Dennis isn’t sure what to do as a career, but somehow becoming a dentist sounds best. A lady named Paula isn’t sure who to marry, but somehow a guy named Paul seems appealing. As ridiculous as that sounds, and though we think we make those decisions ourselves, there are more Dennises who are dentists and more Paulas married to Pauls than is statistically viable.

When he saw those numbers, Stefan thought, “Those stupid Americans, they’re clearly being guided around by their elephants and making big, life-changing decisions for reasons that are semiotic.” Then he looked at his own family. His mother Carolina married his father Carl. His grandmother Josefine married his grandfather Josef.

“So I, of course, am still on the look out for a Stefanie.”

 

A negativity bias

There are six basic emotions: sadness, joy, disgust, surprise, anger and fear. Only one of them is positive. This contributes to what psychologists call a ‘negativity bias’.

Stefan notes, from an outside point-of-view, that Australia’s press is particularly nasty. On his first visit to Australia, he blamed it on Rupert Murdoch, but he now think it’s human nature’s fault. Every attempt to make a news organisation that presents positive news has essentially failed because nobody is interested. For example, on a blog there can be 100 comments, 98 of which are positive. Yet we automatically zoom in on the two negative ones. Why? Because our brain contains a shortcut that allows fear to process much faster than joy. It’s a prehistoric instinct. Our bodies can feel fear before the eye can send back the information to the proper parts of our brain.

He briefly touches on the philosophy of presentism. When you go to the supermarket hungry and buy too much food – that’s presentism. Or, more seriously, if you’ve ever been depressed and found it too difficult to snap out of because the entire world looks the way it does because you’re depressed, that’s presentism.

Six playing cards appear on screen. Stefan asks the crowd to pick a card and remember it. He goes on to discuss The Happy Show for a few more minutes before the playing cards re-appear on screen.

“Do you remember the card you picked? I removed it from this line.”

He did. The audience looks baffled. How did he know? In fact, it’s just an entirely new set of cards. When we only focus on one thing, we fail to acknowledge our surroundings. Presentism.

 

Do the things you set out to do

One of the personal discoveries Stefan made during his experiments with happiness was that he is better off doing 20 minutes exercise everyday than doing 40 minutes of meditation. He wanted to represent this in The Happy Show, so they installed an exercise bike that, when ridden, powered a neon piece of typography that read, “Actually doing the things I set out to do increases my overall level of satisfaction.”

If we see something and think, “I should do this”, then fail to do it, it leaves residue in our minds. And if we do it multiple times, that residue clumps together and really brings us down. For a long time, Stefan says he would put aside the time but then a seemingly more important deadline would come up and he would put off the “I should do that” activity.

“If I really think about it, the reason I let the design projects kill my personal ones not because the client one had a deadline attached but because the personal one was new and potentially a lot more difficult to do than the client one that I’d done numerous times before,” he says.

It’s a fear thing. An example of this is The Happy Film. Stefan says he could have made a book. He knows how to make a book. It wouldn’t have been easy, but he’d have known roughly 80 per cent of what he was doing. The film wasn’t like that. It made him miserable. He’s more comfortable now they’re at the rough cut stage because editing it down from four hours to one and a half is a very design-oriented process. You have a lot of information and you need to work out what’s essential. But it’s still a pain in the arse, he says. Everything is so time intensive. If nothing else, it has made him appreciate bad film and television a lot more.

He strongly advises that you take a note of the “I should do thats” and actually do them. Put them in your calendar, put aside the time and just do them.

 

Uselessness is gorgeous

On a trip to Indonesia, Stefan a discovered a repeatable way to reach bliss.

He took a scooter. He found a traffic-quiet road, so he didn’t have to wear a helmet. He put 10 songs onto an MP3 player that he knew he liked but hadn’t heard much. He rode around with no reason, purpose or function. Every time he did it, he had shivers down his spine – biological proof of a happy moment. It worked every time without fail, until the day they filmed it for The Happy Film. Until it had a purpose.

Something that has no function whatsoever can be absolutely beautiful. Ultimately, a very anti-design message.

Look at it in this way: a commute to work has a super high function but is not enjoyable. An aimless meander through the park serves no function, but provides an extremely high level of enjoyment. Stefan is still trying to work out if he can do a piece of design that doesn’t have a function. He thinks that once you remove functionality from design it becomes art. One of the core reasons galleries across the world are doing so well is because art is one of the very few things that can just be. It’s one of the few spaces in our lives that doesn’t need a function.

 

What makes us happy

To summarise, Stefan runs through what makes us happy. Many friends, good friends, a sense of accomplishment, non-repetitive activities, religion and singing in groups.

“You guys know what’s coming.”

He asks the crowd to stand. Deakin Edge rises to its feet as Stefan begins another story. Seven years ago, his sister joined a choir. Every time she comes out of practice, she is elated – even if they sang a song she doesn’t like. He brought a German song that he re-wrote the lyrics for. It’s a “complaining” song.

“The only way this works is if you completely project from the bottom of your heart – I want to hear you guys at the back, loud and clear.”

The music begins. It’s Ode to Joy. Apt.

The screen fills with lyrics, Stefan conducts from the front of stage with vigor that puts Beethoven to shame. And, in arguably one of the world’s most niche displays of karaoke, the whole audience starts to sing: All my clients drive me crazy / never show no guts at all. / For the peanuts that they pay me / they get logos 10-feet tall.

After a few more verses, the song finishes. The crowd is buzzing. His sister’s recipe clearly worked.

“I think the chances that you’re going to be happier from listening to me talking about happiness are about the same as if you would become skinny by watching me exercise,” Stefan says.

He’s very aware that it’s not possible to put yourself in a situation where you will be permanently happy. Professor of Behavioural Science Daniel Nettle suggests evolution designed happiness as a carrot on a stick to show us the way. If you were permanently happen, the carrot wouldn’t work as a compass. We want it, we want to reach it, but, ultimately, it’s not the goal of evolution to let us become content and grow fat. Happiness just shows us the direction in which to go.

“But there is one thing you can do,” Stefan says.

He concludes with a tip. The last thing he does each evening is write down three things that worked that day. It’s super easy. It takes a minute. It has a huge reward for how little work it is. Because in an instance where his thoughts would normally turn to the things that didn’t work throughout the day, this fights his desire for negativism.

And if you think this is all crap? He advises you go see this guy.

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