Stefan Sagmeister, Performance Ideator


Graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister gave a wonderful talk Wednesday night at Stanford, as part of the David H. Liu Memorial Lectures in Design series. He focused on Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far, a group of projects based on a list of personal maxims he took from his diary.

For me, the highlight of the talk came when someone in the audience asked about Sagmeister’s ideation methods. After mentioning “hotel rooms in foreign cities,” Stefan described an Edward DeBono lateral thinking approach which involves looking at a project from “a completely nonsensical point of view.” Then he picked up his water bottle and did an off-the-cuff ideation that created a perfect little gem of a moment.

I’ve paraphrased a bit, but this captures how he talked through his process:

“Say you were going to design a new water bottle. You could base it on a . . . zipper” (the choice was triggered by a zipper on the jacket of an audience member in the front row).

“Let’s see, it could interlock” (demonstrates by spreading and interlocking his fingers), “You could have 2 that go together . . . maybe a 4-liter bottle that comes into 4 parts. That wouldn’t be too bad.” (pause)

“Not bad. DeBono would be proud.”

From start to finish, this ideation took about 10 seconds, and it was just a great illustration of a creative thinking process.

This demonstration, coupled with a caution Stefan made about the dangers of starting ideation from existing solutions and opinions, got me thinking about the art of research.

Design research is often positioned as a kind of counterbalance to the type of creative act I’ve just described. But, when it’s well-practiced, research includes a juxtaposing and synthesizing of ideas that is similar in creative process to the bottle+zipper riff. Just as with other aspects of the design process, research culminates in possibilities for new ways that things can go together. For design researchers, the materials for this synthesis include a deep and focused exploration of people: behaviors, bodies, meaning, culture, complaints, wishes, lies and truths.

At the beginning of the night, Stefan talked about his fear of doing graphic design primarily for other graphic designers, comparing it to playing “music for other musicians.” He said at a later point, “If you can reach a mass audience with good quality, that’s the highest honor” (and listed the Arch of St. Louis, The Simpsons, and the Champs Elysees as examples).

The beauty of integrating a focused understanding of people into the whole design process-using it as one of the basic materials with which to design-is that what comes out the other end of the pipe will be imbued not only with the vision of its creators but with the soul of that wider audience as well.


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