Noted graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, in an exclusive chat with PRIYADERSHINI S., talks about working with Lou Reed, other major bands and his future projects

Internationally celebrated graphic designer and winner of Grammy Awards (2005, 2010) for album and CD cover design Stefan Sagmeister has worked as artistic collaborator with rock musician Lou Reed, who passed away recently. He has also worked with legendary rock bands like OK Go, Rolling Stones and Aerosmith to name a few. A co-host of the recently concluded INK 2013 conference in the city, the New York-based Austrian designer spoke about his work at Sagmeister & Walsh, of moving away from music, and diversifying into designing for social causes and into interactive art. Excerpts from the interview.

It’s best to begin with your memories of Lou Reed

Lou Reed was a wonderful man who was truly interested in music and not much in the trappings of stardom. This is also why he gained the reputation of being grumpy, as he disliked doing interviews. He was nothing but extra friendly to me and we have done some of our best work for him. He summed up his life already very well in the last sentence of the notes of ‘Metal Machine Music’: “Anyway, my week beats your year.”

Why did you move away from the music industry?

About six years ago, during our experimental client-free year, a sabbatical, I decided to minimise design for music to about a quarter of our workload, not because I smartly foresaw the troubles of the music industry but because I got bored with it on a day-to-day level. About a year ago we decided to redirect to designing for science. As I get older, music plays a lesser role in my life. There are lots of other interesting things out there. But what I do miss is the simple act of visualising music.

What’s your approach to design?

Our goal at Sagmeister & Walsh, my company, which was formed in 1993, is that the things we do should either delight people or help people and in rare occasions we might strive for both. It is difficult to delight somebody to start with. It is also difficult to design something that is helpful. People notice design mostly when it fails.

Can you explain that?

For example, the bad typography of the voting ballot in Miami put George Bush back in power and brought us Iraq War, Afghanistan and the recession. In this case we noticed the design.

How did you enter design and music industry?

Design and music are my two interests. As a teenager I was interested in the design of album covers. I studied design in Vienna and worked in a magazine. In 1993 I entered music industry.

And met Mick Jagger?

Oh yes. I can tell you about meeting Mr. Jagger.

Jagger's assistant Lucy gave me a quick rundown on Mick and I found him to be friendly but busy.

He grabbed my portfolio and said, “So, you’re the floaty one.” “The floaty one?” “Yeah, all your covers seem to float in the plastic box.” He liked the Lou Reed package, liked the attention to detail in some of the others. I asked him about his favourite Stones covers and he mentioned without hesitation: Exile on Main Street, Sticky Fingers and Some Girls. These are my favourites as well, I told him.

Jagger showed me the presentation for the stage designs, labelled ‘The Blasphemy Tour,’ and I got it.

I felt like I had won the first prize in ‘The Big Rolling Stones Meet the Band All Expenses Paid’ radio show contest, I said. And they all cracked up.

How much of the music influences the design of the cover?

Look at the iconic covers - Pink Floyd Dark Side Of The Moon, Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s… and such. A good cover is meaningless if the music is bad. Generally, the musicians and the designers meet and do a visualisation. That’s how it works.

After music you moved

on to…?

Moved on to designing for social causes that are close to my heart. We worked for Move Our Money; a group of 500 US CEOs who wanted a 15 per cent cut of the Pentagon budget to use it for education. We worked for 10 years for their political presentations, logos etc.

What is your latest project?

Right now I am finishing a self-experimental film, The Happy Film. It is about training your mind the same way one trains your body. It is an experimental film assisted by an ecologist, the science advisor to the film. It is about three efficient ways to train your mind - mediation, cognitive therapy and legal drugs. The Happy Show inspired by the same theme is a travelling interactive exhibition and will open in Paris at La Gaite Lyrique by the end of November. Here we look at happiness as an experience and communicate it.

What about design from India?

I find that in India every contemporary piece of design goes for the maximum. I am interested in designs on the trucks here. There is maximum pattern and colour. It is very full, very ornamental. It is human and that’s appealing to me. I would say that if your goal as a designer is to delight then the strategy should be to take the fullness of it all, like the Indian design.