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HOW Conference: Stefan Sagmeister “All the Stuff That Keeps Me Awake at Night”

stfsag.jpg[This talk took place yesterday. It's been my favorite so far.]

If the HOW Conference has a requisite bad boy in the speaker lineup, it’s Stefan Sagmeister. But he’s too baby-faced and self-effacing in person to really live up to the scars the work behind that infamous AIGA poster failed to leave.

“I’m going to talk about print production,” he warns the audience at the beginning of his talk. And only print production, he says. “Mostly because Print magazine asked me to do it.” He then proceeds to talk about mostly print production and some stuff that’s tangentially related.

My notes (which I tried to clean up with the aid of Sagmeister’s book, Made You Look, but should not be considered a direct transcript):

On M & Co., which he referred to as his favorite design company in the ’80s : “I think M&Co.’s success had less to do with the quality of their design than the unbelievable salesmanship of their founder.” He says that Kalman’s ability to sell a specific idea to a client kept M&Co. from having to dilute, modify, etc., that idea to placate the client.

SS displays a business card Sagmeister Inc developed in 1994 for the studio. The card has a slipcase that reveals the contact info for the studio when the card is removed. “The first thousand pieces were glued by myself,” says Sagmeister. “The third few thousand were done by the intern. The rest were done by the printer.” (Efficient use of interns is apparently a key tenant in the Stefan Sagmeister doctrine and will be reiterated several times over the course of the talk.)


SS then talks about his love of laser cutting and displays a few examples. A former girlfriend who was observing his other work and wanted him to do business card, said, “Oh my god, this shit looks really expensive. Just make sure it’s not going to cost more than a dollar.”

“So,” says Sagmeister, “we went to the bank and got a bunch of one dollar bills.” Then they made the business cards out of the dollar bills, folding them to biz card size and stamping them.

The next item was a piece for Truemajority.org, a pen that had a little flag that scrolled out of the barrel. Sagmeister didn’t design the pen. “It was a stock item we found in Germany… A commercial made with that pen. There were pictures in the New York Times of a presidential candidate showing someone the pen.”

Sagmeister begins reviewing his CD covers—the original raison d’etre for his New York studio. “I think the CD cover is dead,” he says. “It’s an absolute goner. I will not be surprised if we never do another one in my lifetime.”

He displays a cover with a dark blue jewel case. The interior booklet was yellow, but the outer display still seems to be dark blue. If the color came out wrong, the blue transparent plastic would combine with the yellow to form an ugly brown color. “They refused to have me there when they mixed the plastic,” says Sagmeister, who says he wrote to Warner Brothers anticipating the problem and explained that if the color was not right, he would wash his hands of it. Naturally, the color didn’t turn out right, but luckily a European manufacturer had been commissioned to do part of the job and some of it turned out okay. “[The guy who did the first version] is still sitting on 175,000 brownish ugly jewel cases.”

Sagmeister says it costs approximately $1 to produce a jewel case with a regular booklet. “If you do something special,” he says, “you can normally go 5 – 20 cents over, but not much more. In this case, [a cover with die cut holes,] we went 50 cents over.”

“It very much helps to have a friend of the record company,” says Sagmeister. “In this case the whole stamping was 18 cents. They knew they weren’t going to have the money, so they went to the promotional side of the company and talked them out of running a few ads and we got our holes.” Sagmeister wanted the lyrics on the cover (the company didn’t necessarily feel that they needed the lyrics.) So they printed the lyrics in reverse , so you could only read the lyrics when the CD was in the cover and the CD itself reflected the lyrics and made them readable.

The bar code one the CD was round. “I think I had a stack of faxes like this (Sagmeister demonstrates the width of ‘this’) [from Warner Brothers] because they were scared that they wouldn’t be able to read the bar code.”

The next project on display is a CD cover for Jamie Block. It has three cigarettes on the booklet against a black background (the singer told Sagmeister that he “really loved to smoke) and for promo copies, an actual cigarette in the spine of the jewel case. The in-store versions didn’t have the real cigarette because, Sagmeister explains, “we would need FDA approval if it were actually sold,” as putting them in a CD jewel case isn’t an approved way to sell cigarettes.

The next cover was for a band called Ok Go that had a white car on a colorful background. “I sent an email to singer asking if your band would be a car, which car would it be? And he said a 1986 volvo, and that was that.” Sagmeister wanted to do something with the window of the car where the band could be seen inside dancing. Once again, budget was a problem. “This cost 3 cents to do,” says Sagmeister. “And the record company would not do it, and I offered to pay for it myself. It was a small run so it was either 300 dollars or, uh, 3000 dollars–and it was not possible!”

He then displays a couple of invitations he designed for friends and family—including a wedding invite that invitees had to put together and a little birthday party invite for his 10 year old nephew that had cutouts of his family. Once again, interns did most of the work in assembling them after they were printed.

“We’re actually booked out for interns three years in advance—but we don’t tell them this is what’s waiting!” he says with a mischievous grin.

The next item up is an invite for the New York studio’s fifth anniversary. Sagmeister’s mantra at the time was “style = fart” so they printed the invite on whoopee cushions. They wanted it to look badly printed, like most whoopee cushions do, so rather than screen printing them, they put the design on a giant rubber stamp and stamped them. “It was difficult to get a rubber stamp pad of that size,” says Sagmeister. “Intern!”

He then displays a record playing postcard. “This was a pain in the ass to produce,” says Sagmeister, “because at that time, this is a flexidisc and there are only two or three flexidisc producers in the world.” The card also needed precise positioning of the needle and a staple holding the two primary pieces together was the weight on the needle and also had to be precise, or the it didn’t work. Sagmeister used the concept in a Christmas card for Aerosmith. “Then it got caught in customs,” says Sagmeister, “because customs thought we were infringing on Aerosmith’s copyright, not believing they were our client.” (He says the ordeal was eventually resolved and the Christmas cards arrived in time for Christmas.)

The next few items were pieces he did for fashion designer and then (and possibly current; I don’t know) girlfriend, Anni Kuan. She had a budget for a postcard but it couldn’t cost more than 550 dollars. Sagmeister found a printer named Mr. Kim, “who has a newspaper print business that prints tiny little newspaper like the Brooklyn Communist Sentinel” and they printed within the day. “They don’t accept files because they don’t have computers, and you have to actually give them artwork.” For one piece he bought a shrink wrap machine and shrink wrapped the paper around a plastic horse. He did the same thing with some newspaper that he had used an iron to burn through.

“It takes five minutes to burn a hot iron through 36 pages of newspaper,” says Sagmeister. “And the burnt smell was preserved in the shrink wrap!”

More laser cuttings. More shrink wrapping.

Then he displays an intricately bound little red notebook, with what looks like an asian-influenced design on the front. He was working at Leo Burnett in Hong Kong when he designed this piece. It was a notebook for a creative meeting in Bangkok. “We had shitloads of money and could blow it freely,” he laughs. “So we actually found out everybody’s eyecolor and had actual glass eyeballs manufactured by a medical manufacturer.” When you opened the notebook, the glass eye was staring at you, buried in a circular hole cut through the pages.

“[My boss said] Stefan you’re out of your fucking mind,” says Sagmeister. “‘What are you doing?! This is like a 300 person company!’ But that very year Apple came to Asia and created the Apple prize and this thing won!” They donated computers to company, “so this thing paid for itself and I looked good again afterwards.”

The next project was a photobook about American photography that, when you fanned the pages, formed a photograph. “You print a sliver of an image, cut it into how many sheets, stretch it, see that you don’t fuck up the sequence and when you fan the thing, [you have the photo]. We had such a great client who said the printer always told him, ‘it’s not gonna work, it’s not gonana work…’ I said, ‘I think it’s going to work, it should work, but you never know until you have the actual thing in your hand.”

He then talks about the Sagmeister studio book, Made You Look, which uses the same technique. When you fan it rightward, the pages opposite the spine read “MADE YOU LOOK” and when you fan it left, there’s a photo of three bones, presumably for the dog that’s pictured on the cover. The photo of the dog is red and green and the book has a red slipcover. With the slipcover, the dog looks peaceful and calm, but when you remove it the dog is snarling. Sagmeister says he got the idea from a math book he saw on the NY subway where all the answers were printed in red-on-green and the student used a red filter to see them or block them out.

A few more examples, and Sagmeister displays an annual report for a lighting company, a project he describes as having the easiest client he’s ever worked with. “‘When are you going to present?’ they said. I said, 6 weeks. They said, ‘that’s fine.’ And then client said, ‘I am pre-approving your design, and whatever you do, I’m going to print it!’ And I thought, what an idiot! I’m going to put waving penises on the thing!” And it turns out, says Sagmeister, it was much better because he wasn’t going to submit anything that I wasn’t perfectly happy with, knowing that the client wasn’t going to make any changes. The report has a plastic cover that’s a relief of five flowers. (English is not Sagmeister’s first language and I spent a good fifteen minutes thinking “rel-ly-ef” was some technical design term with which I had no familiarity. Relief. Right.) The relief was heat molded into three quarter inch plastic, and all the illustrations in the report are photographs of the cover under different lighting conditions. “We edited them down to 60 and I called the client and said, I need 40 more pages and the client said ‘sure!’” he says. “And it paid a lot!”

The next piece was an art book for a single piece of sculpture. “Initially I wanted to make three books that held together by a slit, but the artist hated it. We wanted to do something with felt. She despised it.” Sagmeister displays a complicated graphic. “This would have been okay, but I had no clue how to produce it. Then we went into plastics. This was technogel, was too expensive…” The sculpture apparently measures your brainwaves and makes an animation that hovers above you. “So we have an oversized slipcase with the book hovering inside.” And then after three months of back and forth, it was approved. They needed the injection mold. “We tried to cost this in the US and the mold cost was $75,000. For an art book with 3000 copies, this is not going to fly. So we found a producer in China who could make the mold for $7,500 and that was definitely more like it.” But, says Sagmeister, “time management is just something that with a big outfit is not going to happen. Particularly in China” It takes time to get the materials shipped and through customs. An earlier speaker advocated waiting till the last minute to do projects in order to maximize creativity. Sagmeister says he disagrees and thinks that guy never did any complex print production.

He then displays a poster he did for a theater that was slated to be demolished and then moves on to some work he did for a week of fashion show in Vienna that involves dressing the city’s advertising columns in fabric. But the media buyers failed to reserve the entire columns, so Sagmeister made large fake columns and dressed them instead.

“Then we placed students inside and have them roll around the thing!” says Sagmeister. “They were on the major news program. The students had a lot of fun. The people would look them and they would suddenly move. Dogs would try to pee on them.” But, he says, they were difficult to handle them in windy conditions. “We had a press conference. The wind catches the first one and it rolls down. I was literally mesmerized and nearly had a heart attack. And the press didn’t think it was a big deal that students would roll down the street. The incident convinced the manufacturer that they needed some sort of safety seat belt system in there and the students were safer.”

The next project was a series of inflatable graphs for TrueMajority.org and a set of oversized piggybanks that could be driven around. “It’s a lot of fun driving those pigs down Broadway. The reason we did that was to be on local TV news and because of the shape they forced the anchorman to explain our project. The cost of the pigs is roughly the same a single page in the NY Times.”

A few more images and he gets to the infamous poster, which he doesn’t want to talk about, other than to say, “It hurt much more than I expected.”

Then the phrase “extreme anal penetration” appears on the screen and Sagmeister declares that he’s sure this is the only design talk in history where that has ever happened.

He then moves on a project for the Gay and Lesbian Task Force in New York City, which he describes as the second worst project ever. It involved an invite that contained a banana and a plum wrapped in pink tissue paper. “We hired a fulfillment house to put it together because 5,000 is too much for our interns. We had the box, we had printed pink tissue paper. We had bananas and plums. The bananas came in first. They wrapped the banana and the plums were two days late and by the time the plums came in the bananas were bad.” By the time the replacement bananas came in, the plums were bad. This happened several more times and by the end, they used a total of 25,000 plums were needed. “When they were the bananas and plums were there at the same time, it was discovered that we ran out of tissue paper. By the time we printed them, the bananas and plums were bad.” Fortunately a gay entrepreneur with a messenger company agreed to messenger them once all the components were ready and the invites got to the intended destinations on time.

Which brings Sagmeister to the Number One Biggest Catastrophe of All Time:

Aerosmith’s Nine Lives cover. They used a die cut for the cover, and as you flipped through the book, the cat on the cover would reincarnate every time you turned the page. The band loved it, the recording company loved it. Then Sony rejected the album. A new manager came in and said, “who is paying for the die cut? We are not paying for it!” “And the end result,” says Sagmeister, “was you go and redesign the new cover. Now nothing worked. We presented about 50 different covers. Finally an idea went through, which was a zoo idea. It came out of Indian mythology, an image of Krishna dancing. It was not a new idea. It had been explored in children’s books.” One aspect of the cover involved some intricate type work and Sagmeister thought this would push the record company to give the designers final copy. But it didn’t. “They asked for dozens and dozens of changes. Pages were reglued.” The only thing that kept him going was the assurance that at some point, he’d be able to plunk down $14.95 for the CD at Tower Records and he’d have it in his hand and the project would be done. “That moment did come,” says Sagmeister. “And that’s when the trouble came. Turns out there was a radical Krishna sect that was offended by the cover and even though the image was 2000 years old and the sect was 50 years old, they claimed that they had a copyright to that image.” Sony settled with the sect then attempted to sue Sagmeister for whatever they paid out. Sagmeister flew to Bombay to research, and came back with images. Sony dropped the suit. “We never heard of it again.” Then, says Sagmeister, a more radical group decided that this settlement was not enough and bomb threatened Sony and Walmart and Kmart, both of which were carrying the CD. Walmart and Kmart dropped the CD.

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