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Thoughts from Stefan Sagmeister’s Workshop

This past Friday, I was given the rare opportunity to take part in a workshop with Stefan Sagmeister. I learned four valuable lessons during this workshop. 1) Don’t put your heroes on pedestals. 2) Don’t be a babysitter. 3) Get uncomfortable. 4) Address People

Of the 100+ applicants, only 45 were accepted in, and so I was not only honored to be among those who were selected, but I was really excited to talk to a designer with so much experience and insight. Last year Stefan also made it down to Savannah, but during that visit he was only giving a talk followed by a book signing. Although he has given that talk in other places, it was one of my favorites.

Being a part of this workshop was a rare and amazing opportunity, however, the structure of it and the people I was surrounded by made the experience less enjoyable. I did enjoy the workshop, but if given the choice I would substitute the 6 hour workshop for a simple 15 minute conversation with Stefan. He is a genuinely interesting person with lots to say, but I wasn’t really able to experience that. Here are my thoughts and lessons learned from Stefan’s workshop.

Don’t put your heroes on pedestals

Stefan is certainly an iconic figure in graphic design today, and I admire both his work and his way of thinking, but I disagree with placing my heroes on pedestals. When I last saw Stefan speak here in Savannah, I learned just how normal and down to Earth he was, and by going to Creative South for the past two years I’ve learned that everyone I look up to is just another person like me. They’re human. The problem is that so many designers, and especially students, get wrapped up in the idea of being defined by a body of work, and then they project that mindset on to the people they look up to, but the reality is—we are not a body of work.

Although I look up to Stefan and see him as an inspiration, I choose to see eye to eye with him. I don’t see him as someone greater than me because when did this become a competition? We are equals in the sense that we’re both ordinary people that are interested in design. Stefan has a ton of experience and a unique point of view that I can learn a lot from, but I’m not submissive to his presence. I found myself super uncomfortable in the workshop because everyone around me was drooling over the sight of him. My biggest struggle with school is finding others I can surround myself with who treat themselves as design professionals.

My brother is also a very talented/hardworking artist and designer, and I 100% look up to him, but it’d be weird if I treated myself as subordinate when I’m around him. I look to him for advice and conversation, but I don’t put him on a pedestal. Now imagine if your hero was your older brother or sister, how would you then address and look at them? The point isn’t to be totally casual and not recognize their accomplishments, rather you shouldn’t be overly glorifying these people.

Lastly, you don’t have to be constantly trying to sell yourself and pitch your portfolio to every person you meet, especially your heroes. The point of this isn’t to have this person like you, and if you think it is then perhaps you’re doing this for the wrong reason.

Don’t be a babysitter

Allow yourself to be influenced by people and things outside of your immediate world. It’s easy to sense a genuine originality in Stefan’s work, and I would largely attribute this to his ability to remain uninfluenced by current design trends. Although I’ve brought up this issue numerous times on my blog, very rarely do I hear professors advocating for this. In fact, I would suggest that many professors are at the source of students becoming overly influenced, and hearing Stefan not only bring up this issue but to also call out our professors was extremely refreshing.

As Stefan put it, don’t be a baby sitter of your work. If you’re continually looking at design blogs and design inspiration then you’re more likely to steal work whether it’s intentional or not. When you put yourself in this situation, even when you’re subconsciously influenced by other work, you are putting yourself in a position of being a baby sitter—never sure if what you’ve produced is actually original. Stefan doesn’t suggest that you never look at design blogs ever again, but rather don’t look to these sources when you’re looking for inspiration. As he states, “It steals the joy from creation.” Instead draw inspiration from other fields, practices, and out in the real world.

Get uncomfortable

Immediately after Stefan arrived to the workshop, he quickly introduced himself and put us right to work. We turned to the person sitting next to us and had 3 minutes to draw each other. After completing that sketch we were given another 3 minutes to draw that same person again, but this time in a style we’ve never tried before. For me, I got fed up with trying to figure out what “new” style to try and instead started scrawling away at the paper. As soon as the 3 minutes were up, we took the two drawings and taped them up side by side. With the entire wall covered portraits, Stefan walked through and would call out either 1, 2, or both to note which he thought was better or more innovative. There was nothing scientific about the end tally, but it was quite evident that 80 – 90% of the responses were for sketch 2 which was done in a style we’ve never tried before.

The moral being, we convince ourselves to remain inside our level of comfort out of fear of failure, but by stepping out and trying new things we’re more likely to produce more innovative and interesting work. Considering this workshop is composed entirely of college students, Stefan really hammered this point. He argued, if we aren’t trying new things and experimenting while we are in school then we are cheating ourselves. Try something new because it doesn’t matter whether or not it works, the point is to experiment and learn.

Address People

Who are you addressing? If you need to, put their name on it. If you don’t know who you are addressing then you need to figure it out. If you are addressing a larger group of people then learn how to address those people. When you’re targeting a wide range of people, it’s difficult to give the audience any specificity. By targeting a small audience, as small as just one person, you’re able to truly address them and make it personal.

During the discussion of everyone’s work at the end of the workshop, Stefan was extremely adamant about continually asking who we were trying to address. Even after we introduced whom the work was designed for, he would poke and prod with more questions to actually find out who we were addressing. What I found most interesting was his continual advice to add the person’s name to the work for whom we were creating it for. Although it sounds simple, we convince ourselves not to do it because it seems so straightforward and sometimes cheesy, but Stefan argued on behalf of the personal touch that it delivers.

We love seeing things with our name on it. Have you ever been to a gas station with the spinning rack of keychains that are sorted in alphabetical order with generic names on it? If so, you’ve most likely searched for your name in it, and whether it was there or not it shows that we are interested in seeing our own name.

In closing, the workshop was an interesting mixture of fun and stress. I always enjoy hearing Stefan talk because of his sense of humor as well as his unique perspective, but I wish I could have been able to experience more time with him. Although I didn’t completely enjoy the workshop, I learned a few things and that’s what this was about. I don’t enjoy being around that many people, especially if they’re going to stress me out, but as Stefan would argue, it was an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and learn from it.