Deep down on New York City’s subway platforms, a man’s face is obscured by the tangled tentacles of an octopus sitting on his head. A woman’s beautiful visage is covered with graceful swoops of hair, like vines on a trellis. And large block letters seem to be bursting from another man’s face, as if trying to escape. All three stare impassively ahead, their faces literally exuding the same message: Take It On.
The trio makes up the latest addition to the SVA subway poster series and were created by MFA Design Department faculty member and design superstar Stefan Sagmeister. In fact, the octopus-topped man is Sagmeister himself. The other two are his business partners, alumnus Santiago Carrasquilla (BFA 2012 Graphic Design) and BFA Design Department faculty member Jessica Walsh. The subway posters are an SVA institution; art by faculty members has enlivened the ride for commuters for nearly 60 years. When SVA Executive Vice President Anthony P. Rhodes asked Sagmeister to create this year’s design, the artist decided to focus on a universal theme: change. His attitude? Take It On.
“Take It On” could well be his own mantra. Constantly engaged with new students and clients, he hopes to wrap his latest project, The Happy Film, this spring. And his traveling installation, The Happy Show, is now on view at the Chicago Cultural Center. That octopus on his head is an apt metaphor.
Sagmeister recently spoke to SVA Close Up about the subway posters, his popular class (which he calls “Can Design Touch Someone’s Heart?”) and other things that make him happy.
“Take It On” is about confronting our fear of change. Yet the only constant in life is change. How are you changing right now? What brought it on and what are you doing about it?
We are working on our first documentary film, a medium we know very little about, and it proves to be quite a challenge. We tried it because we are aware that if we keep doing the same things we’ll get so bored that we won’t be able to create anything new.
What gets you energized these days?
The one constant that keeps me excited over a long stretch of time is traveling. I’ve been on the road now extensively for over 20 years and its surprising to myself that I still get a huge kick out of it. I do try to steer my trips towards places I have not been before. I’ll go to Colombia for the first time tomorrow.
Was there a particular “ah-ha” moment when you realized that design CAN touch someone’s heart?
I always knew that it could, as my own heart had been touched by design on several occasions. The ah-ha moment came when I realized that it is possible to design for more emotional moments.
As a teacher, what have you learned from your SVA students?
Exactly that. My students prove without any doubt—year after year—that “touching the heart” of an audience member is indeed possible. Difficult, but possible.
Are you happy with the Happy Show?
Yes. We have received incredible feedback including the testimony of a 16-year-old boy who got his courage together and kissed a girl whom he had a crush on for a very long time.
Who is your dream client and what would you do for them?
My standard answer used to be Coca-Cola, as it is such a visible brand having such an incredible impact on the visual culture of the planet, and it used to look so terrible. But now that they got their act together (without our help) and are doing quite good work, I have to come up with a new answer: Pepsi.
You’ve designed album covers for musical legends like The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads
and Lou Reed. Ever secretly wish they’d ask you to sit in with them?
Oh no, no, no! I used to be in terrible bands and realized the giant difference between these people and what we produced in my parents’ basement. I’d be terrible and scared (rightfully) shitless.