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Bad world, good numbers? With his new book “Früher war Heute ist besser”, Stefan Sagmeister goes against the spirit of the times. Precisely because a distorted and unreflected picture of global developments is often drawn, the Austrian graphic artist pleads for a study of long-term data – and finds striking ways to visualise it.

Review by Gerrit Terstiege

Früher war Heute ist besser”, Verlag Hermann Schmidt, Mainz 2023

“Design is an optimistic activity,” the design theorist Michael Erlhoff once stated. Indeed, striving for improvement through design, for greater clarity and more user-friendliness, requires a sunny disposition. One could even go so far as to say: no optimisation (in design and through design) without optimism! Admittedly, Sagmeister’s new publication does not necessarily come at a time when many people are looking to the future with optimism – but this is probably precisely why the well-known Austrian graphic designer is now calling on us to engage with complex social issues and historical developments. Because by looking at larger periods of time, we gain a better understanding of the achievements of the present. Not only in design and architecture – no, Sagmeister broadens the view and also introduces readers to difficult topics with reliable figures, including murder and pandemic statistics or infant mortality parameters. Why is he doing this? Researching the data for this project alone must have been time-consuming – and Sagmeister shouldn’t really be writing a book anymore. Increasing his fame and reach was certainly not his motivation. He currently has 545,000 followers on Instagram, since his “Happy Film” he has become known far beyond the design scene ­– and the last major project about beauty, which he realised together with Jessica Walsh, became a blockbuster in renowned museums from Hamburg to Frankfurt to Vienna.

Encouraging Developments

“Heute ist besser” is not quite as monothematic as his film and exhibitions. Sagmeister uses interviews and research in very different areas of life to counter the widespread doom and gloom with positive facts. At first glance, this packet of concentrated optimism may cause some people to take a defensive stance, as the current world and economic situation, characterised by climate change and wars, does not exactly seem suitable for conveying a sense of how well off many people are today – at least in those parts of the western world where wars are not currently raging. However, the positive basic attitude that Sagmeister advocates is a medicine that slowly unfolds its effect when reading and studying his “beautiful numbers”. Visualising percentages and facts beyond pie charts, even making people want to look at the details, is unquestionably one of the basics of graphic design. And not just in annual reports. Innovative forms of conveying information have been booming for years. Sagmeister’s multifaceted ways of animating facts and contexts in a spatial, playful and often poetic manner have made him the “number 1” in international comparison, so to speak.

He had already staged the results of surveys on the subject of “happiness” in a way that was as schematic as it was striking on walls or asked visitors to signal how happy they felt by throwing yellow balls into transparent tubes. “Beautiful Numbers” was the title of an exhibition at the Thomas Erben Gallery in New York, which Sagmeister documents in his new book. Coincidence and a visit home were probably the triggers here: in Bregenz, where the Sagmeister name has stood for fashion and liqueur department stores for generations and some of his five siblings run very successful businesses, there is still a family attic where the designer discovered oil paintings from the 19th century. His great-grandparents had been antique dealers – and these paintings had remained unsold. They mostly show landscapes and portraits of stern-looking ladies and gentlemen convinced of their importance, whom nobody recognises today. Any sensible gallery owner would categorise these remnants as difficult to sell and wave them off.

A look inside the book “Früher war Heute ist besser”, page 28

Difficult Themes, Beautiful Motifs

Unless, that is, Stefan Sagmeister takes the old hams and transforms them into something conceivably new and clever: he cut holes in the dark painted canvases, not arbitrarily, but thoughtfully and in response to the respective subject and the people depicted. He filled the geometrically shaped recesses with bright, monochrome areas of colour on stretched stretcher frames that were specially matched to them, each carrying information or a message: for example, on the relationship between CO2 emissions in China, Europe and the USA or on the development and spread of women’s suffrage. By placing himself at the service of the data he collects and its comparative visualisation, Sagmeister avoids the trap that many very good graphic designers over the age of 60 have fallen into before him: suddenly trying their hand at being artists. His brightly coloured, geometric interventions are so beautiful that you would immediately hang his statistics on suicide rates through the ages in your living room with a smile. Once again, Sagmeister’s foray into fashion proves that even depressing columns of figures can be realised “beautifully”: his “Murderous Coat” shows how murder rates relate to each other over long periods of time using freely placed knife silhouettes on the outside and staggered knives of different sizes in the lining. The coat is even available on his website.

A look inside the book, page 153

Sagmeister Pulls Out All Stops

The fact that “Heute ist besser” has also become an attractive book and object is not only due to its lavish design: shiny silver trim, perforated slipcase including embossed lettering that looks as if it was created from freely poured tin or lead. This likewise shiny silver lettering on the slipcase in turn refers to two brilliant authors, Steven Heller and Hans Ulrich Obrist, who are involved in the book with an essay and an interview respectively. But most of the texts are by Sagmeister himself, who passes on his personal insights and judgements. For example, he gives an example of a famous artist who, in Sagmeister’s view, designed an unconvincing cot (Donald Judd) and of a legendary graphic artist who did himself no favours by designing a kitsch sculpture (Lucian Bernhard). But for all the differences in content and form of the five Sagmeister books published since 2001, there are also constants: These are the roughly similar sizes, but above all it is the format of approximately 17 by 24 centimetres that the graphic designer has stuck to for almost a quarter of a century. Other designers may create a monument to themselves with large-format illustrated books weighing several kilos – Sagmeister prefers to produce handy works that can be read lying down or taken on a journey. One last piece of good news: a partial edition of the book comes with a lenticular print signed by Sagmeister – an innovation that should help to increase the value of this first edition. At least in the long term.

Stefan Sagmeister

Früher war Heute ist besser

Verlag Hermann Schmidt, Mainz 2023

264 p., hardcover ,

ISBN 978-3-87439-925-8

35 euros

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