A man that needs no introduction, we asked Stefan to share with us his hopes, fears, heroes, and the latest on his upcoming film; The Happy Film.
The role of design itself will become more important as the world gets further urbanised. Everything within an urban environment has been designed, from the things we wear to the tools we use, the apartments we live in, the streets those apartments are situated in and the neighbourhoods those streets live in. Design is as important to the 21st century urban human as the natural environment was to the Stone Age man.
I have some fears about the future of design. My biggest one is that, as a profession, we might continue to invest a lot of our energies to create things faster and cheaper, rather than better.
We were not made to sit in the same position looking in the same direction all day. As we spend the vast majority of our time in front of the screen we’re getting more and more bored within our daily process. Boredom (or adaptation) is a serious factor in decreasing our well-being. We will have to find novel strategies in the utilisation of our tools in order to shake this up.
I am currently working on my film The Happy Film. For the film, I will try to narrow the big overall theme of ‘happiness’ by concentrating on my own happiness, and trying to find out if it’s possible to train my mind in the same way it is clearly possible to train the body. In a self-experimental setting, I will go through three months of meditation, three months of cognitive therapy and three months of taking psychopharmaceutical drugs to find out which (if any) of these methods lead most effectively to an elevated well-being. There will be extensive measurement possibilities in between these experiments using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scanners and EEG (electroencephalogram) devices.
A lot of love and attention will be spent on the visual approach of the film. The bulk will be captured by renowned cinematographer Ben Wolf on RED cameras. Scientific surveys will be presented as animations in a wide range of stylistic variations, from simple stop-motion creations to 3D computer graphics. A number of our aphorisms will be depicted as typographic installations and choreographed sequences.
Since we started working on the film, I have kept daily notes on my own well-being. Last month I averaged a 6.1 on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the happiest. This is conducted extremely simply, just by asking myself how I feel today. I am aware that this sounds rather ridiculously unscientific, but Danny Gilbert at Harvard presents a good study comparing self-answers on happiness with the results from MRI scans and peer reviews, and they match well.
Even though my studio is not involved in the design of CD covers anymore (for a plethora of reasons), I have always found the act of visualising music incredibly satisfying. You start with something artistic and emotional, but essentially non-visual. This may also be the reason why album covers inherently are a more promising canvas than, say, film posters, which are based on visual material from the get-go.
As I very much love what I do, there is no need for hobbies to balance things out. Outside of design, I do not get up to anything particularly unusual. Reading a lot, going to dinners, exhibitions and concerts with friends.
Tibor Kalman was the single most influential person in my design life and my one and only design hero. Twenty-five years ago, as a student in New York City, I called him every week for half a year and 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 rather similar in concept and execution to an idea M&Co was just working on. He rushed to show me the prototype out of fear I’d say later he stole it out of my portfolio. I was so flattered.
When I finally started working there five years later, I discovered it was, more than anything else, 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 and get those ideas with almost no alterations out into the hands of the public. 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 year’s worth of work. He was willing to walk away on the question of who would present to the client. Tibor had an uncanny knack for giving advice, for dispersing morsels of wisdom, packaged in rough language later known as Tibor-isms.
“The most difficult thing when running a design company is not to grow.” This is what Tibor 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 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 and he would supply the entire structure for a story and some fantastic quotes to boot. He was always happy and ready to jump from one field to another; corporate design, city planning, music videos, documentaries, children’s 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 it’s boring’. He did good work containing good ideas for good people.
From desktop magazine.
Thumbnail image: John Madere.