Photo by Marco Scozzaro

OVER THE PAST two decades, Stefan Sagmeister has reshaped pervasive impressions about graphic design. The Austrian-born artist generates experimental typography, album covers, and entire identities, all of which have received wide critical acclaim, including an American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) medal.

And now, AIGA brings Sagmeister to Portland to speak about his most recent endeavor, which is his most conceptual and personal work so far. While Sagmeister's designs have often hinged on the reciprocity between the observer and the graphic, the majority of his portfolio has been advertorial. Now, he poses the question: Can an individual design happiness?

As Sagmeister said in a recent TEDTalk, "I had used the language of design only for promotional and advertising purposes. There must be other possibilities." This inquiry is deeply embedded in Sagmeister's psyche, and has become the driving force behind his artwork. A turn to happiness does not imply a departure from labor, but examines lifestyle and what conditions best generate creative productivity and satisfaction.

Perhaps this is why Sagmeister completely closes his firm every seven years for a yearlong sabbatical. However, these periods are not traditional vacations; this time off creates a space free from deadlines where Sagmeister can explore the synergy between personal and professional lives in a grand pursuit of happiness. Fortunately, Sagmeister has invited spectators along on his path, one paved with acts of kindness, travel, research, and yes, even drugs.

His exhibition The Happy Show, shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Design Exchange, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, "offers visitors the experience of walking into [Stefan Sagmeister's] mind as he attempts to increase his happiness via meditation, cognitive therapy, and mood-altering pharmaceuticals." If you missed it, fear not: Sagmeister has also thoroughly documented his investigation via film. The Happy Film is currently in production, and offers Sagmeister a new medium for his explorations. The documentary (which has no fixed release date) shows Sagmeister as he conducts various tests to increase his well-being. A brief, entertaining trailer on the film's Kickstarter page demonstrates that any creative undertaking he approaches will be inextricably and beautifully linked to design. Whether it's monkeys arranging bananas into signage or massive coin installations along a boulevard, Sagmeister's work is playful and ripe with sincere curiosity.

I'd like to propose a campaign to bring both The Happy Show and a screening of The Happy Film to Portland, preferably in the middle of the rainy season. Until then, AIGA celebrates its centennial with Sagmeister's talk, where attendees will have a chance to absorb the artist's musings on the connection between design and happiness firsthand. Individuals who hope to gain an exact formula for happiness from the lecture will leave disappointed; Sagmeister offers no definitive answer, although he has found some helpful maxims along the way: "Seek discomfort. Lose face. Take it on. If I don't ask, I won't get."

It is the very process of discovery that illuminates Sagmeister's work, with his continual excavation of our human relationship to a designed existence. He says, "Making a film about 'happiness' can be akin to making a movie on 'life.'" This genuine curiosity also makes his work deeply personal. After all of his pondering and experimentation, the question resonates with viewers: How happy are you? It's a question worth asking, and exciting to have a designer as imaginative as Sagmeister to help us ask it.


Stefan Sagmeister: Design and Happiness Portland Art Museum's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park, Wed Oct 8, 6-8 pm, $35-95 (sold out, but worth finding a way)