Tell us about your first job – where was it, what were you doing, and what was the most important lesson you learned whilst there?
I started to write for a small magazine called Alphorn when I was 15, and quickly discovered that I loved doing the layout more than the writing. This was a small operation, we printed the magazine ourselves on a donated offset press. We created the final headlines using donated Letraset sheets, where many letters were missing. I learned that it is easier to design the entire headline by hand then to try to recreate a missing ’S’ for a Helvetica headline.
It was also during this time that I became fascinated by album covers, and thought that would be a wonderful thing to do with my life.
Are there any people who have played a particularly important/influential role throughout your career?
Tibor Kalman was the single most influential person in my design life, and my one and only design hero.
25 years ago as a student in NYC, 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 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 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, and he was willing to walk away on the question of who will present to the client. Tibor had an uncanny knack for giving advice, for dispersing morsels of wisdom, packaged in rough language later 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 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, 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 it’s boring”.
He did good work, containing good ideas, for good people.
And what has served as your biggest source of creative inspiration over the years?
The process I've used most often was one outlined by the philosopher Edward DeBono, who suggests starting to think about an idea for a particular project by taking a random object at the point of departure – lateral thinking.
Say I have to design a pen. Instead of looking at all other pens and thinking about how pens are used and who my target audience is etc., I start thinking about pens using – this is me now looking around the hotel room for a random object – bedspreads.
Ok, hotel bedspreads are sticky, contain many bacteria – it could be possible to design a pen that is thermo sensitive, so it changes colours where I touch it. Yes – an all black pen, that becomes yellow on the touching points of fingers/hands. See, not so bad considering it took me all of 30 seconds.
Of course, the reason this works is because DeBono's method forces the brain to start out at new and different point, preventing it from falling into a familiar grove it has formed before.
Today, you are a role model for designers the world over, and you recently opened up your Instagram as a tool for critiquing other designers' work. What do you perceive the value of this kind of service to be?
When I was a student, I was very frustrated with the lack of response I got from design professionals and I promised myself that I would answer questions. Doing it over Instagram has the possibility to encourage more than just the single design student in front of me. People really seem to like it.
Choosing to take a sabbatical every 7 years, you also champion the often overlooked value of having time off. However, in the creative industry there is often a pressurised, long-hours working culture. For those embarking on their own creative journey, could you summarise why taking a break can be so important?
If I would be fresh out of school, I would not take a sabbatical, I do think these things should be earned and a proper period of hard work should be put in prior to make the sabbatical the most valuable.
Having said that, I discovered fairly quickly that my initial desire to conduct a year without a plan (‘a vacuum of time’) was ill fated, and so I came up with a very tight hourly plan. I looked through my diary and wrote down all the instances where I had complained about how busy I am and that I would really like to do ‘X’ if I was not so busy. I added to this list, ordered them by importance into three, two and one hourly segments and wound up with a schedule, just like in grade school.
There are just so many things for which there never seems to be enough time for with the studio running at full speed. Sabbaticals insure that I can continue to see my work as somewhat of a calling instead of a 9-5 job.
Reflecting on your career, what is the one thing you’ve learned that has impacted you the most?
Again, my mentor Tibor Kalman's line when I started: “The most difficult thing when running a design studio is to figure out how not to grow. Everything else is easy”.
I figured it out.