Alongside an illustrious career as a designer, Stefan Sagmeister has built a reputation for taking on broad-ranging subjects and themes and offering an unusual, and sometimes unfashionable, take on them. This has included investigations into happiness and beauty – both of which resulted in exhibitions and books (the latter in collaboration with Jessica Walsh).
His latest project, Now Is Better, is published this week in book form by Phaidon, having already exhibited in venues around the world. It was sparked by a conversation Sagmeister had with a lawyer at a dinner at the American Academy in Rome, when Sagmeister was designer in residence, where he was offered a pessimistic take on democracy and the rise of extreme right-wing governments.
Sagmeister looked into whether the lawyer’s views were right and discovered that “my dinner companion could not have been more wrong. This highly intelligent lawyer did not understand the reality of the world he lives in. As a communication designer, this opened a promising line of thinking.”
He went on to gather a series of statistics which demonstrate how the march of human progress has created a better world today than that of previous decades or centuries. In simple terms, the data demonstrates the value of long-term thinking and research, and why it is dangerous to get sucked into short-term dramas (take note, people of Twitter/X).
Data is to some extent always slippery, and open to different interpretations depending on context. Sagmeister states that the stats featured in Now Is Better come from “scientific sources I trust” though admits that he is coming to this project with an “optimistic” outlook, which in itself gives the book a certain bias. He is likely right about the media though his assertion that “if things are better now than they were in the past … assuming things will continue to get better in the future constitutes common sense” nonetheless seems something of a leap.
This ambiguity continues in the ‘visualisations’ accompanying the data, which Sagmeister has created by repurposing 19th century oil paintings – some created by members of his own family – and inserting graphic shapes or using embroidery to represent the different statistics and how they’ve changed over time. He has also created a clothing line featuring imagery based on the data.
The results are visually striking though hard to interpret, presumably deliberately. They appear more like artworks than infographics, an observation that Sagmeister anticipates as halfway through the book he shifts topics and begins sharing his thoughts and experiences on the differences between art and design. This is perhaps the most personal part of the book, and clearly is something that Sagmiester has thought about (and been asked about) for most of his career. He dives into the topic from a number of interesting angles, addressing attitudes towards commerce and the role of ‘function’ in different settings.
Sagmeister identifies as a designer, though his work has long criss-crossed the lexicons of art and design, and as such he undoubtedly occupies a rarified cultural position. References to the art and cultural elite are made throughout the book, and Sagmeister speaks of his sabbaticals, when he closes his studio for a year every seven years, and the influence of these on his output.
His position in the art/design establishment is further reinforced here by the inclusion of texts by publishing mainstays Steven Heller and Hans Ulrich Obrist, with both their contributions proving light and unchallenging. This can start to feel slightly cosy, prompting questions about who gets to write books like this, and what further inequalities need to be broached for life to continue to get better for all. I can’t help but wonder that if a more probing or spiky line of questioning were included, it might have brought something unexpected and interesting to the conversation.
But Sagmeister’s overall style of writing is engaging and unpretentious and he does occasionally critique himself, perhaps a little by accident. In conversation with Obrist he reminisces about meeting the artist Louise Bourgeois, which he describes as a “seminal experience”, in part because of her direct and slightly savage-sounding approach to reviewing others’ work.
By contrast, he describes the online feedback he gives to designers on Instagram as “shallower than an in-person review” because “you can’t be that harsh on Instagram”. And his ‘now is better’ approach comes up against a harder challenge when he turns to the subject of climate change, where his optimism becomes more measured.
Despite its supposed foundation in ‘facts’, Now Is Better raises more questions than it answers, which is in keeping with Sagmeister’s previous investigations, and ultimately no bad thing in a design/art book. And as an exercise in trying to galvanise people to look beyond the gloom and be encouraged into optimistic action, it offers food for thought. “The world is terrible. The world is fantastic,” Sagmeister acknowledges at one point. “Both statements are true.”