Stefan Sagmeister was conducting an orderly real-life experiment in the nature of happiness, when something unexpected occurred that skewed the whole project. He fell in love.
The Austrian graphic designer, best known for album covers for the likes of the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed, had decided to undergo three-month trials of three different paths toward contentment, as recommended by psychologists who study happiness: meditation, cognitive therapy and psychoactive drugs. He was two weeks into the third trial, taking serotonin reuptake inhibitors usually prescribed for depression, when he fell hard for a woman who came to interview him about the project for a German design magazine.
"The drugs worked quite hilariously well," he says – better than the other two options, though he admits that the short term of the study probably gave pharmaceuticals the edge. But he's pretty sure that his becoming engaged for the first time, at age 50, wasn't just the result of a Prozac high. "My fiancée was as happy as I was, and fell as quickly and deeply as I did, and she was not on drugs."
The incident illustrates one of 20 simple aphorisms Sagmeister had written in his diary, and from which he has built several design projects, a film, a touring exhibition (The Happy Show, which opened Wednesday at Toronto's Design Exchange) and a book called Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far. "Everything I do always comes back to me," reads Sagmeister's version of karma. Sure enough, as soon as he started a research project about happiness, a door opened and happiness walked in.
Design could be defined as a practice of finessing the machinery of happiness, through making tools easier to use, messages easier to read. But most designers view an incremental increase in happiness as an unnamed goal, not an explicit destination.
Combining graphic design and axioms about life is, however, a family tradition among the Sagmeisters. Stefan's grandfather Josef was a typographer and sign painter who fashioned his own nuggets of wisdom ("My house is my world!") into ornate hand-made plaques. Stefan had given talks about design and happiness but really picked up the thread of his grandfather's work when the editor of an Austrian design magazine commissioned him to fill six open pages with whatever he liked.
Sagmeister and his New York design team split "Everything I do always comes back to me" into six sections, and arranged mundane objects – including rubber tubing, sausages and stuffed toy animals – to spell out the words on patterned backgrounds. The results have an unassuming yet richly inventive look.
The pages drew lots of positive response from readers and other designers, as well as another commission to do something similar on five billboards in a Paris suburb. Sagmeister and his team went to Arizona to shoot outdoor illustrations of the phrase "Trying to look good limits my life," with letters made from duct-tape, cactuses and wild grasses. (Sagmeister is a careful dresser; the phrase refers to impeding your efforts by trying always to be liked.) By that time, he had come to a humbling yet liberating realization.
"I had discovered that I'm much less special than I thought I am," he says. "So whatever I find true for myself, other people might also relate to."
He thought that a search for happiness, organized as a deliberate personal mission, might make a good short documentary. The Happy Film is still in production, though 12 minutes are on display in The Happy Show, which combines nuggets of clinical fact with whimsical reflections. There's a lot of writing on the walls, including graffiti, applied by Sagmeister himself to walls in the DX washrooms and elsewhere.
On one of those walls, he notes that our attention is often more easily caught by negative things, and that guides to behaviour often take the form of "shalt nots." Part of the appeal of his visual musings about happiness is that they're playful, not prescriptive. He's not laying down any law, and doesn't presume that design itself can make people happy.
"The best that I could hope for this show is that it will entertain somebody, maybe make them laugh or give them an insight, or at the very best, give them a happy moment," he says. But he's quite sure that bad design has increased human unhappiness, as for example in the poorly designed Florida ballots that may have skewed the result of the 2000 presidential election.
"You could say that bad typography brought us the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, the housing crisis and a good number of other things," he says. Aside from insisting on clarity, he's strongly drawn to design that carries an emotional charge. He's also thoroughly fed up with impersonal modernism of any kind.
"Downtown Toronto is a very good place to talk about the neutrality of modernist architecture," he says. "I'm sure this kind of box-building was interesting in the twenties, thirties and forties, but I think it's absolutely ridiculous to build like this in 2013."
It would be tempting to quote another of Sagmeister's axioms back to him: "Everybody thinks they are right" – but the phrase is really about accepting that society runs on a clash of views. He found that out again after shooting the slogan for the cover of the Japanese edition of Esquire. The editors decided that the source of the fanciful typography – which appears to be sprayed in the air by two men urinating in the street – ran against Japanese mores. They took the photo off the cover, put it inside the magazine, and everyone was happy.
The Happy Show runs at the Design Exchange in Toronto until March 3.