Stefan Sagmeister

Edge Senior Art Director Chris Stewart recently attended the Vivid Ideas Game Changers series held in Sydney. Published in B&T on 17 August 2015, the original article can be seen here.

When Stefan Sagmeister introduced us to the notion of ‘psychotic sameness’ my two-beer haze lifted. He had my attention. Amid all the grandiose statements the phrase ‘psychotic sameness’ stood out.

What is it? It defines what Sagmeister finds most abhorrent in the design world. It’s his refusal to do what people expect. It encompasses precedents set by agencies, clients and even governments, and clarifies that they mean little to him. It’s not that he’s constantly looking for something new, but more so something that makes sense. Just good old common sense.

He further articulated his point when describing the train stations in Moscow. Most train stations are depressing, bland places, as that’s how designers and architects have been conditioned to construct them. The ‘same same’ drab design means passengers must rely on bland signage alone to know which station they’re at. Not so in the former Soviet Union.

The Russians have defied convention to avoid a mundane experience across their capital city’s stations. Instead they’ve opted to protect each station’s original appearance and legacy, noting that each one can offer a distinctively different visual and physical experience. “The Moscow train network is the only one in the world whereby tourists actually consider each station as an attraction, as opposed to merely a way to get to one,” Sagmeister said.

I didn’t agree with everything Sir Sagmeister shared (exhibitions utilising excrement should be considered art … WTF?). However, I do relate to his ideals around sameness being the real threat.

Sagmeister repeatedly stated that even he has to constantly restrain himself from falling into the stream of status quo. The antidote he shared was divergent thinking, constantly placing himself in fresh environments completely removed from ones he knows. Sagmeister religiously shuts down his New York studio once every seven years for one year as a form of sabbatical. By his own account, “The first [shutdown] was a fucking disaster,” but he now works to a high school-styled timetable, with each session lasting no longer than an hour.

Sagmeister went on to show work he had created over his career, and how many of these projects were directly influenced by the unrelated experiences he explored during his time-out.

The notion of ‘psychotic sameness’ has haunted creatives in the communications game for years. The idea that ‘because it has been done before it’s the only way’ continues to prevail. Why is it that brands and agencies feel a level of safety in being able to select the safe option? Sure, there are financial considerations when it comes to taking a risk or being innovative, but it’s the brands that think like Moscow’s Rail Council that will be remembered – that’s where people want to get off, instead of blindly flying by.

Now is an exciting time to be in this industry for that exact reason. Advertising is bending to allow us to think more laterally, to execute ideas spawning from industrial design rather than purely graphical. Now it is people who are effectively steering the way in which brands act. We are watching companies become more transparent and effectively develop work based on ‘common sense’. Common sense is a confronting ideal for brands – it can make them feel vulnerable – but it will be exciting to watch those that truly embrace it and, subsequently, the trust they receive from their consumers.