Stefan Sagmeister includes Malaga and the Costa del Sol in his tour of talks in which he examines Beautiful Numbers. SUR
Stefan Sagmeister: 'I enjoy things that have been deliberately created to be ugly'

Stefan Sagmeister: 'I enjoy things that have been deliberately created to be ugly'

A world-renowned designer who justifies his positivity with figures and images, Sagmeister comes to the Costa del Sol to close Moments Festival

Regina Sotorrío


Friday, 1 December 2023, 16:16

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Stefan Sagmeister is to design what the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed are to rock. It's no surprise that his name was top of these rock stars' list when it came to looking for a designer for their record sleeves. He was nominated for a Grammy five times and won one for his Talking Heads box set. But that's all in the past. A convinced optimist, lover of beauty and innovative creator, Stefan Sagmeister is currently touring the world with inspiring talks based on his new book Now is Better, offering visual and numerical proof that the world is getting better, even though we believe the opposite.

This weekend Sagmeister brings his theory to the closure of Moments Festival. On 2 December he will be giving his talk, Beautiful Numbers, at the Marbella Design Academy in Monda (free - request an invitation from, before taking part in the inauguration of Club MOM, on 3 December in the Montes de Málaga (95 euros, including the book and lunch).

–If the data says that the world is a better place, as you show in your book, why do we get the impression that the world is a disaster?

–There are a number of factors. For one, the amygdala - a small, almond-shaped mass in the central brain - compounds the problem, transporting negative messages much faster than positive ones in order to keep us safe. The brains of our prehistoric ancestors required a shortcut for negative news - it was extremely important to detect that lion quickly, as the alternative was death. The brain never developed a similar timesaver for positive messages. Our lives would be better informed if we were more receptive to positive news. I don't believe the people in the media to be particularly negative; they simply leverage our naturally heightened interest in drama and negative messaging. Most attempts to create a positive news site have failed immediately. We all simply find drama more fascinating. While working on The Happy Film, a documentary about my own happiness, our team went through the considerable trouble of sending the entire film team from New York to Bregenz to interview my siblings. I purposefully did not take part in these interviews, as I wanted my brothers and sisters to have a chance to speak freely about all of the awful things I must have done growing up. When I checked the footage weeks later, they had all talked only about positive events. This was incredibly boring. We wound up using not a single frame.

–Where does this optimistic attitude to life come from?

–I am an optimist. Optimism indicates rational thinking. If the ultimate outcome of a situation can be either exceptional or terrible - when the chances are exactly 50/50 - then my prospects of succeeding are clearly improved if I approach it from a bright rather than gloomy position. And if things are better now than they were in the past, the central argument of the Beautiful Numbers series, assuming it will continue to get better in the future, constitutes common sense.

–Some might think it is a naïve view of reality.

–Yes! John Stuart Mill already said in the 19th century: "I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage."

–A good design makes us happier, is that true?

–Right now over 50% of the world's population live in cities. For this part of the population, everything surrounding them has been designed, from the contact lens, to the cloth, the chair, the room, the house, the street, the park, the city. These designed surroundings play exactly the same role to a city dweller as nature does to an indigenous person living in a rain forest. They can be designed well or badly. They will make a difference. There are of course many products out there that do make our life easier, but we tend to only notice them when they fail badly. I can be in a plane going up and completely ignore what an incredible piece of design that really is. I'll only really notice it when it crashes.

-Let's imagine an apocalyptic future. What could a designer contribute to the common good and the survival of humanity?

–Apocalyptic futures have been imagined ad nauseam by designers, filmmakers and authors, to the point where they occupy their own categories and genres. I don't feel the need to contribute to that canon.

Social media

–What's your relationship with social media?

–I post regularly on Instagram where I give feedback to the work of young designers who send me their pieces. Outside of that I spend as little time as possible on social media.

–You consider beauty to be important. But who determines what is beautiful? Surely there's nothing more subjective?

–The worst thing that ever happened to beauty is the idea that it is in the eye of the beholder. If that would actually be true, the desire to create something beautiful would make no sense, as everybody would have a different opinion about it. Luckily, there exists significant agreement throughout all cultures about what we find beautiful and what we don't. Blue is the favourite colour from Iceland to South Africa, from Kyoto to Rio de Janeiro. The circle is the favourite basic shape in every culture in the world.

–Some say they find ugly attractive... a kind of guilty pleasure.

–The opposite of beauty is not ugly, it is carelessness. The vast majority of all ugliness has not been created to be ugly, it exists because someone did not care. Strip malls, highway exits, discount furniture stores are all ugly by happenstance. I actually do enjoy things that have been created to be ugly with intention.

–Do you also value perfection?

–At times. But the imperfect can be gorgeous.

–You've designed covers for iconic bands, from the Rolling Stones to Talking Heads. Which current band would you like to work for?

–None. I have no desire to create more album covers. I feel I've done that and want to explore new directions.

–Few designers make themselves known among the non-specialised public. You are one of them. How do you manage fame?

–A famous designer is like a famous electrician: it's pretty easy to manage.

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