Q:After growing up in Vienna, Austria, living in Hong Kong and now in New York, how have the different mentalities and cultures affected your ongoing career as a designer?
Selling is more important here in New York than it is in Europe, (but less than in Hong Kong). I had clients in Europe whose principal criteria when they commissioned a piece of work was quality and only secondarily, marketability. In the US, my clients first check to see if it works, and only then, see if it’s good or not. In Hong Kong, many of my clients did not care if it was good at all.
In a prior interview, you spoke of a meeting called “Second Tuesday” that occurs every second month with at least 15 people who run their own design firms. How would you describe your interaction during your “Second Tuesday” engagements, and where does it take place? Over the past years, I became rather obsessed with white angry monkeys.
It always took place in the (always different) studio of one of its members, who also had to provide the food as well as the subject we all talked about. This had a good run in New York City for about twenty years, but I think we slowly ran out of subjects. Now the meetings take place very irregularly.
Over the past years, I became rather obsessed with white angry monkeys.
You apparently executed OMA’s Casa da Musica brand/logo, in the city of Porto, Portugal, What would you say are the most important elements when designing a corporate identity?
In general, branding people (as well as designers) overestimate the power of their work. I showed Jeff Swystun, the head of International Branding at Interbrand show, a slide of a Starbucks coffee cup with a $ 4.00 price underneath, and compared it with a slide of a Dunkin Donuts coffee, (50cents) and triumphantly declared the difference between the two to be branding. Jeff, of course, would have been able to tell the difference between the two different products. One is custom made but the other is not. One is steamed, the other dripped, etc.Branding (or at least the kind of branding International Branding Agencies provide) play a miniscule role in all of this.
Nevertheless, I do think that a strong visual identity can be three things: A little joy for everybody to look at (and not visually pollute our world); a memorable experience that saves the client incredible amounts of money by having to promote it less: and effectively communicating the essence of the product/service.
How did you decide which of twenty slogans to choose from your “Things I have learned so far” project? and what kind of impact were you hoping for?
They were the only things I had learned until then. There was no ‘choice’. Initially I was not expecting any feedback since the entire notion seemed too self-indulgent to me. Only when we received feedback after publishing the first couple, did I understand that they actually have an impact. In the meantime, we received many, many calls, mails, faxes, letters and projects that underline this.
”Everybody always thinks they are right” was displayed in several locations around Scotland. This piece consisted of six giant inflatable monkeys that spell out “Everybody always thinks they are right”. What is the connection between the geographic and historical placement of this Installation piece?
Every human conflict throughout history, every war and every dispute traces its origin back to this one sentence. I think I am right when I cross the street as the light is changing and when I design a campaign for the reduction of the US military budget. The bus driver blaring his horn thinks that he is right to blow me out of his way, so does the American president, who thinks that the military budget reduction would leave the US weak and vulnerable. We had a chance to run the maxim, ”Everybody always thinks they are right”, during the Six Cities design festival, initiated by the Scottish government to take place in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Inverness, Dundee and Stirling. Over the past years, I became rather obsessed with white angry monkeys. I had first proposed one that resembled a Mozart – like porcelain bust as a packaging design for the Talking Heads’ boxed set Once in a Lifetime (killed last minute). Then it was a signage system for an exhibit of contemporary art, which was part of the cultural program of the Athens Olympics. Killed again, only when I tried the third time in Scotland, they finally saw the light of day.
In the lecture you gave in February 2008 through AIGA, you claimed that you were planning to relocate this installation to Jerusalem. Are you proceeding with this venture? What is your intention in displaying this piece in this location?
I am in tight contact with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. We are planning an installation for 2009, after my client-free year our proposal will include the monkeys.
Did you choose monkeys for this piece in order to represent global ignorance?
This piece is talking about any kind of righteousness—my own, those of my friends and family, those of my city as well as the global one.
The One Voice Movement ‘s intention is to permanently end the Israel-Palestine conflict. What is your connection to the One Voice Movement? Is it your intention to help them communicate their ideology more through your design, or do you have your own political agenda?
I think they are a good group with a noble goal. As they have so many different spokes people, everybody from Muhammad Ali to local clergy, it made sense to create a single icon as a signifier. We were happy to design that icon as well as a number of other materials for them.
In your book “20 Things I Have Learned So Far in My Life”, (published by Harry N Abrams and released on February 1st 2008) you present your ideas through photography. Would you say that photography is a means or an end in you work?
A means. We also use illustration, flat typography, animation and video.
Do you think the use of visual words has more impact then spoken words?
When and why did you start teaching?
My first teaching job was in Hong Kong in 1990, – 18 years ago. I have been conducting workshops with students around the world every since. I do teach every year at the Graduate Design Department of the School of Visual Arts.
How does teaching affect your design philosophy?
Through the joy of travel, the fight against boredom, the appeal of the new, the fact that I am forced to put ideas into words, the desire to work in different cultures, the possibility to compare, the realization that it is easier to come up with a new concept in a foreign land than in the studio.
During the 90’s you were involved in many projects with legendarymusicians. What is your visual approach towards contemporary music today? And what are your thoughts about the music industry itself?
With a couple of exceptions, we have not designed music packaging in a while. Music does not play the same role in my life as it did when I was in my twenties and thirties. That is true for my design as well.
Is it fairly accurate to say that you are nursing some film ambitions? If so what would be the theme or subject of your film debut?
No. I used to think that this was something that I wanted to pursue, but I found out that when I did have a chance, I preferred to stay in design.
Who are not only your favorite film directors, but those who have inspired or tempted you enough for you to want to give it a try as a film director?
My favorite film directors don’t inspire me to give it a try, they achieve exactly the opposite: They scare me away with their brilliance. They include P.T. Anderson and Steven Soderberg, both for their ability to make really big and really small movies.
Who are your all time favorite graphic designers who may have influenced and/or inspired you? And what exactly did you learn from them?
Tibor Kalman was the single most influential person in my designy life and my one and only design hero. 15 years ago, as a student in New York City,When I wanted to meet him, I called him every week for half a year, I got to know the M&Co receptionist really well. When he finally agreed to see me, it turned out I had a sketch in my portfolio that was rather similar in concept and execution then an idea that M&Co was working on: He rushed to show me the prototype out of his fear that i’d say later he had stolen it out of my portfolio. I was so flattered. When I finally started working there 5 years later I discovered, more than anything else, it was his incredible salesmanship that set his studio apart from all the others. There were probably a number of people around who were as smart as Tibor (and there were certainly a lot who were better at designing), but nobody else could sell these concepts without any changes, get those ideas out into the hands of the public with almost no alterations. Nobody else was as passionate. As a boss, he had no qualms about upsetting his clients or his employees, I remember his reaction to a logo I had worked on for weeks and was very proud of: “Stefan, this is TERRIBLE, just terrible, I am so disappointed”. His big heart was shining through nevertheless. He had the guts to risk everything, I witnessed a very large architecture project where he and M&Co had collaborated with a famous architect and had spent a years worth of work: He was willing to walk away because of the question of who would it present to the client. Tibor had an uncanny knack for giving advice, for dispersing morsels of wisdom, that was packaged in the rough language later to be known as Tiborisms. “The most difficult thing when running a design company is not to grow,” he told me when I opened my own little studio. “Just don’t go and spend the money they pay you or you are going to be the whore of the ad agencies for the rest of your life”, was his parting sentence to me. when I moved to Hong Kong to open up a design studio for Leo Burnett. These insights were also the reason why M&Co. Got so much press. Journalists could just call him up and he would supply the entire structure for a story, with some fantastic quotes to boot. He was always happy and ready to jump from one field to another, corporate design, products, city planning, music video, documentary movies, children books, magazine editing were all treated under the mantra, “you should do everything twice. The first time you don’t know what you’re doing. The second time you do. The third time its boring”. He did good work containing good ideas for good people.
What are your plans for future projects?
Many designers whom i respect create non client driven experiments as a regular part of their practice. The key word here is ‘regular’. I found that experiments that are not part of a regular schedule, have a tendency to get pushed out by more ‘urgent’ jobs simply because they have a deadline attached to them. So every seven years I conduct an experimental year. I will start the next one in September 1st, 2008 in Indonesia, and i will be there until the end of August, 2009.