Sagmeister's tips for the student designer

Aug 16, 2014 1 Min Read
Stefan Seigmaster
Learn Design Tips From The World's Top Designer

I had the opportunity to hear and interact with one of the top designers in the world. Stefan Sagmeister’s work is loaded with good ideas for the design students to think about. I would like to highlight a few of these gems that are inspiring. Most of these ideas apply not only to the work of designers, but to virtually all occupations.

The Designer Sagmeister

As a designer, Sagmeister has delved into interests as far detached from graphic design as you can imagine. From meditation, chairs, psychology, films to looking at what makes us happy. These interests have allowed him to travel the world, meet people, experience new things, and read loads of books. His quest to find out what makes people happy led him to read about three dozen books on that subject alone. Most design students I know won’t pick up a book unless it is well-illustrated.

Sagmeister reminds us that the education of a designer begins with the written word, rather than the image. The ability to research the product or project and understand every part of it, as well as being able to communicate it is crucial. It is what makes the clients sit up and listen. It is what transforms an FA artist into an actual designer-partnering with the client instead of just receiving instructions from the client. Knowledge about design history, art history, culture, and society is the treasure trove from which our designs should emanate. Reading broadly and widely is critical to success in almost all professions.

Get your hands dirty

Much of Sagmeister’s work is “hand-made”. He points out that in terms of technical tools, he always tries to move away from the screen and from digitally-produced work to manual work. He described the process of having to be in different rooms, handling different media and the tactile and sensual qualities of materials being a plus point in the design process. When I look back at my college experience, I sometimes regret that I didn’t get my hands dirty enough.

Today, many design students are far removed from the tactile qualities of paper, inks or paints. “Technical skills” (meaning computer skills) are overrated both by the clients and students. The result – similar styles in design based on clichéd illustrator stock icons, overused typefaces, and photoshop effects. Technical skills are a must, but we need to move beyond that. The solution Sagmeister gives is simple; he uses the objects around him to create type and design. Oranges, leaves, coffee or even monkeys! Anything can be turned into a creative project. An example is his website:

Design for passion

If you look at designing as a job rather than as passion, then take some advice from Sagmeister. He tells us exactly how to do what we love, and how to keep loving what we do. He says that 80% of his students are totally motivated as designers. However, once they start work they tend to lose this passion, and design becomes more of a job than a calling. This is true in Malaysia where many design students become disillusioned with their jobs as designers. They quit and become account executives or insurance agents. Some find a way back to design while others are still searching to reconcile their “hobby” with their job. How do we remain passionate in our jobs as designers?

Sagmeister says:“So much of what we do is centred on ‘purpose.’ Function is at the centre of everything we design.” In other words, design must always have a function otherwise it wouldn’t be design. As opposed to design, art doesn’t need a function. “Art can just be.” And this is why he takes time out to create designs that have no function. By doing this frequently, he says “we can make our job become our calling again.”

His sabbatical, which he takes with his design team once every seven years, shows his belief in the power of taking time off from the usual routes, schedules, commitments, and environments to explore and rediscover the love of designing. His sabbatical is planned in such a way so as to gain experience that will ultimately contribute to his designs later. As design students, it seems like a silly thing to point out that you should enjoy designing and exploring but his advice is just that. Many students I know produce work to please their lecturers or choose a tried and tested method to get an “A”.

Most students may subconsciously have a final solution in mind before sketches have been explored. This may seem like a time-saving effort, but in reality, you’ve missed out the opportunity to realise the fullest potential of your idea and your abilities. It is a sure-fire way to lose passion in design. Instead, take risks with your projects and experiment with different techniques to expand your skill set. You will soon earn a reputation as a great designer.

Choose your clients

As a designer, Sagmeister is particular about those with whom he works, what products he advocate and how much freedom and flexibility he has on the project. He says:“We have had to say no to many jobs because we didn’t like what they are doing.” It makes perfect sense to look for jobs you believe in and thrive on. It’s what makes you more authentic as a designer. His advice reminds us that just as much as clients pick us to design for them, we also have the freedom to pick our clients. We can start by asking ourselves questions like:“Which part of design do we particularly like? When are we most satisfied with a design job? What makes a design job particularly meaningful to us? Then we can ask how we go about getting these types of jobs.”

Answering these questions will help us find our design niche. However, we can only answer them after we have worked with sufficiently diverse clients and projects. You need to get as many different types of projects under your belt as possible. I know a student who worked at a photo studio because he wanted to improve his Photoshop skills. Once he did that, he moved on to a magazine company so that he could work on his layout skills. When he felt technically competent, he moved on again to an agency that gave him the opportunity to meet clients and to think and present more conceptual work. I don’t know what he ended up doing now but I’m sure he’s closer to finding his niche and knowing who his ideal client is. Definitely closer than other students who continue to work on the same job repeatedly.

Check out this video interview on the Leaderonomics Show with Stefan Sagmeister:

This article was first published on on October 26, 2012 (Friday) after Stefan's visit to the Leaderonomics office. This article has also been licensed by Leaderonomics to for publication.

Dr. Emelia Ong Thiran is a former graphic design lecturer who taught graphic design at UTAR, LimKokWing University, KBU and the One Academy and a researcher at the University of Malaya. She has a PhD in Art History & and currently paints art pieces. You can view her art collection at

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Dr. Emelia Ong Thiran is a former researcher and lecturer at University Malaya, Lim Kok Wing University, KBU and UTAR. She researches South-East Asian artist and has written a book on Malaysian artist titled "Living Art: The Inspired Lives of 14 Malaysian Artists & Their Art Practice" (available at Areca Books and Kinokuniya). She currently paints and her art collection can be viewed at

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