Most influential designers; Stefan Sagmeister

The D5 Graphic Design Blog

This is the final part of a ten part blog series, if you’re looking to start from the beginning, go here. As part of their 50th anniversary survey GDUSA published a top ten list of the most influential graphic designers working today (amongst other creative professions). I’m going to work, in reverse order, through these top ten designers and establish just what it is that makes them so damn great and more importantly display some of their best works.

#1 Stefan Sagmeister

In a total contrast to our eighth part and number 3 on the list, I’ll have to try my best not to let my love for Stefan’s work obscure meaning and remain unbiased with view to presenting a fair and clear picture of the Sagmeister success story.

[video_youtube video_id=”nE_Z0_nsYSg”]

Stefan is a designer, studio director, entrepreneur, artist, typographer, published author, educator and all round art and design hero. According to the internet, the Austrian born designer started his career at the tender age of fifteen, whether or not we can trust this statement is sketchy at best. In fact in his TED Talk ‘The Power of Time Off’ (below) Sagmeister describes his working career as starting at 25. Stefan certainly however had a keen interest in design from an early age. This early participation in the industry at Alphorn, an Austrian magazine for young people, will have surely laid the path for the successful academic pursuits that followed. Unfortunately, this did not happen immediately, his first application at undergraduate level to The University of Applied Arts, Vienna was rejected.

“just about everybody was better at drawing than I was”

He enrolled in a local private school and was later accepted at the University. During this time Stefan worked on posters for Schauspielhaus theatre group as part of the Gruppe Gut collective. His style at the time did not represent his current methods, humour, nudity and borderline inappropriateness weren’t present until he moved to New York due to  receiving a Fulbright Scholarship based on the merits of his work enabling him to continue his study at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Sagmeister, in this period, famously designed business cards ‘that cost only a dollar’ as they were printed on a one dollar bill.

Austria, at the time, and still is, one of the few European countries with a mandatory military conscription. Typically among the art and design world, Stefan was objectionable toward this idea and managed to serve his time contributing toward community work in a refugee camp near Vienna. Following this period Sagmeister stayed in Vienna working as a graphic designer.

In ’91 Stefan moved to Hong Kong to work with Leo Burnett, the ad agency were looking for a typographer at the time:

“So I made up a high number and said I would do it for that.”

In ’92 Stefan famously designed a poster for ‘4As Advertising Awards Ceremony’, the poster featured a traditional Chinese image with four men showing their behinds. Stirring significant controversy with some ad agencies even pulling out of the ceremony entirely, Stefan’s favourite complaint read:

“Who’s the asshole who designed this poster?”


In ’93 Sagmeister decided to move to Sri Lanka and work from a beach hut, this only lasted two months before the design-magnetic-field of New York City got the better of him and pulled him back, half way around the world.

As a student, Stefan had greatly admired the work of Tibor Kalman and subsequently had a great ambition to work at M&Co, Tibor’s world famous studio. Stefan bombarded the company with calls and correspondence until they’d support his visa application. Interestingly here, Sagmeisters first project was to design an invitation for a gay and lesbian task-force gala. He designed a large basket of fruit which notoriously caused M&Co staff a huge headache attempting to prevent the thing from rotting. Perhaps an early incarnation of the idea for his ‘Self Confidence Produces Fine Results’ piece which Sagmeister fans will no doubt be familiar with. M&Co was closed just two months later when Tibor moved to Rome to work exclusively on Colors magazine.



Stefan Sagmeister founded Sagmeister, inc. Kalman had advised he keep his company small, just Stefan, a designer and an intern. A principle, though not to such an extreme, Stefan still swears by. In the early days Sagmeister had intended to exclusively work on design for music projects and more specifically, for music he liked. However, any designer, freelancer or creative professional reading this will know, we don’t always get what we want when it comes to these things. His second project following branding his own company was branding his brothers company, an austrian jeans label named ‘blue’. Sagmeister, of course, designed a black and orange logo.

Unsuccessful in seeking his desired work through traditional sourcing avenues, Stefan settled for designing the cover for his friends album. ‘Mountains of Madness’ by H.P Zinker. The album went on to win the first of Stefan’s 4 grammy nominations, it featured a picture of a depressed looking man but when the red transparent sleeve was removed, the image became a detailed green and red image of the same man screaming. The concept was inspired after Sagmeister spotted a young dyslexic girl using a transparent red sheet to assist her with reading her maths textbook. A similar concept was later featured on the Peter Hall book ‘Made You Look’ about and designed by Sagmeister.

HP Zinker - Mountains of Madness


madeyoulookWinning a grammy for album packaging design is a sure fire way to open the floodgates to some very exciting music based design projects, Stefan had really hit the nail on the head with the Mountains of Madness cover, in times that were seeing the changeover from the brilliant art platform that was vinyl to the toy like plastic-y ugliness of CD. The following years are undeniable proof of this with clients like Lou Reed, David Byrne and The Rolling Stones knocking at the door.



LouReedSince these works, as one can imagine, Sagmeister, inc. went from strength to strength. He did not stick entirely to his mission statement of only producing work for music that he liked but that is not to say he’s not picking and choosing his projects. Almost everything Stefan Sagmeister works on is, in my opinion, a brilliant project, not just from a design perspective but from artistic, environmental, economical and social perspectives. His website states:

“We want the product or service to be worthwhile, i.e., have a reason to exist. …. We want to work with kind people.”

It’s clear that Sagmeister, inc. has stuck to these business philosophies, small studio, honest and good work. Not that there haven’t been points in which Stefan has felt otherwise, he writes in his diary:

“I have done enough bullshit lately, I just have to make time for something better. Something good.”

Since Mountains of Madness, Lou Reed, David Byrne and The Rolling Stones Sagmeister has worked commercially, on personal and cultural projects for clients including: Aishti Department Stores, Levis, HBO Studio productions, Toto, AutoDesk, Adobe, BBH ad agency, Publicis ad agency, IDEO, Red Bull, BMW, Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia, Guggenheim Museum, Casa da Musica, NYC, Olympic committee, Museum of Modern Art, AIGA, Random House Publishing, Seed Magazine, The New York Times, .copy Magazine, NYTimes Magazine, Columbia University, School of Visual Arts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rhode Island School of Design, Lou Reed/Sister Ray Enterprise, Universal Music/Jay-Z, Warner Brothers Records Inc, Atlantic Records, Rhino Records, David Byrne/Brian Eno, Capitol records, One Voice and Azuero Earth Project.

A massive contributory factor to Sagmeister’s success however are his personal projects, they let us, his audience have a deep insight into his mind. Sure a great designer will express some of their own opnions and ideas through all of their work, but most don’t really open up in the same way that Sagmeister does. His ‘Things I have Learned in My Life So Far’ series and the book by Peter Hall, subtitled ‘Made You Look’ containing dozens of exerts from Stefan’s diary are incredibly honest, open and transparent.

For further reading; his books, especially ‘Made You Look’ are an exceptional start.

[video_youtube video_id=”EXz539vZKLk”]

Another unusual ingredient in the way in which Sagmeister works is his theory on sabbaticals. In the below video he talks about how he has decided to divide his first five years of retirement into 5, 1 year long periods in which the studio closes its doors to commercial work and Sagmeister and his colleagues go to outreached areas of the world to work on personally fulfilling projects.

[video_youtube video_id=”MNuOmTQdFjA”]


Recently Sagmeister, inc. has evolved. Having acquired a new professional partner, Jessica Walsh, the company became Sagmeister & Walsh. More about Jessie next week in the blog post ‘People Who Should Have Been Included in the Top Ten Most Influential Designers.’

Let’s take a look at some work.

Vilcek3_1_1800_1114_75TIL30_1_1800_1114_75TIL6_1_1800_1114_75 TIL3_1_1800_1114_75SW_ABickerton_1_1800_1114_75SW_ABickerton_4_1800_1114_75StoryStore5_1_1800_1114_75StoryStore2_1_1800_1114_75StandardCharter8_1_1800_1114_75 StandardCharter6_1_1800_1114_75SkeletonKeygravityCD_1_1800_1114_75SevenDeadlySins6_1800_1114_75 SevenDeadlySins1_1800_1114_75RollingStones5_1800_1114_75 RollingStones3_1800_1114_75Public_ALT_LORES_1800_1114_75PatTrio_1_1800_1114_75 Oubey3_1800_1114_75NVN_spread_persp_7_1_1800_1114_75 Obsessions1_1800_1114_75 Obsessions2_1800_1114_75 NewViennaNow_1_1_1800_1114_75 NewRepublicAmpersand_1800_1114_75_1800_1114_75madeyoulook_6_1_1800_1114_75 madeyoulook_7_1_1800_1114_75HappyShow3_1800_1114_75HalftoneSatisfaction10_1800_1114_75Elevator7_1800_1114_75 Elevator3_1800_1114_75EDP2_2_1800_1114_75DrugsAreFun5_1800_1114_75DrugsAreFun1_1800_1114_75DeitchWall_2_1800_1114_75CompassTable3_1800_1114_75 DarwinChair3_1800_1114_75casadamusica3_1_1800_1114_75 casadamusica4_1_1800_1114_75 casadamusica7_1_1800_1114_75Brian-eno-and-David-Byrne_20_1800_1114_75 bananawall_6_1800_1114_75 BikeNeonSign_1800_1114_75 BikeNeonSign4_1800_1114_75bananawall_2_1800_1114_75AnnualPhotography1_1_1800_1114_75 AizoneIdentity1_1800_1114_75Aizone9_1_1800_1114_75 Aizone5_1_1800_1114_75 Aizone4_1_1800_1114_75 Aizone3_1_1800_1114_75 Aizone2_1_1800_1114_75AishtiIdentity7_1800_1114_75 Aizone_FW13_GoGoGo_1500_1064_75Aizone_FW13_SoItGoes_1500_1064_75 Aizone-11_1800_1114_75 AishtiIdentity6_1800_1114_75Adobe_ALT_LORES_1800_1114_75 AIGnewOrleans_LORES_1800_1114_75Abstract10_11_5_1800_1114_75Abstract-1011_9_1800_1114_75 120412_Portfolio_ALBUM_026_1800_1114_75_1800_1114_75


Sagmesiter’s work clearly has a definitive style, having said this each work is vastly distinguishable, a designers dream quality to say the least. He enjoys his work, is very opinionated on the field of graphic design and openly embraces every aspect of his life and the world around him in his work, he is open, honest and human. We see his mistakes, his low points as well as the astonishing highs of his works. It’s difficult to pinpoint just one element that is responsible for his success, but if I had to pick one it would be the persona that is Sagmeister, I’ve never met Stefan, but I feel as though I know him inside out, my idea of him maybe entirely wrong but his greatest design achievement isn’t that of music packaging, nor a great poster, it’s branding. Branding himself.

From what we’ve seen it’s clear that Sagmeister inspires me. I’ve tried not to let this taint the information provided but in an attempt to balance the scales I’ll include some quotes from less impressed individuals.

“I am appalled at your inclusion of Stefan Sagmeister’s work. The design community bears a certain responsibility, our society is already on the road to depravity” – Letter to the editor, Graphis.

“Disgusting” – South China Morning Post.

Next week: People who should have been included in the top ten list of most influential graphic designers.



Do you want to grow your business online?

We are a media production company based in Brighouse, West Yorkshire

Contact Us

95-97 Birds Royd Lane
West Yorkshire
Tel: 01484 612112

Media Services

Media Services

© All rights reserved

Scroll to Top Exclamation Triangle Check code