Stefan Sagmeister and his “Beautiful Numbers” conference arrives at IED Madrid

Stefan Sagmeister, one of the greatest creativity geniuses in recent decades, presents his “Beautiful Numbers” conference at the IED Madrid, that in 2024 will celebrate its 30th anniversary in the capital as a school of reference for artistic professions and as a cultural dinamizer, essential in understanding Madrid’s current position as one of the most important design capitals.

This talk, that will also be the closing event of the Moments Festival, is part of his Spanish tour in which he defends looking at the present with optimism, from a creativity standpoint.

The designer will visit the IED sites – Florence (29th November), Madrid (30th November) and Bilbao (1st December), Hondarribia (1st December, Espacio PEN) and Málaga (2nd and 3rd December, at Marbella Design Academy and Club MOM) – as part of a “TALKs” tour that will take place between the 29th November and the 3rd December. During this tour and coinciding with the launch of his new book, he will present the way in which he views the world from a long-term perspective.

“With Beautiful Numbers he defends an optimistic perspective from a creativity standpoint.”

“Short term media like Twitter and hourly news create an impression of a world out of control, with democracy in peril, ubiquitous conflicts and an overall outlook of doom. But if we look at developments concerning the world from a long-term perspective almost any aspect concerning humanity seems to get better. Fewer people go hungry, fewer people die in wars and natural disasters, more people live in democracies – and live much longer lives – than ever before. 200 years ago 9 out of 10 people could neither read nor write, now it is just 1 out of 10.” Stefan Sagmeister

A tour and a new book: Now is Better

“Now is Better” (Phaidon) is Sagmeister’s new book. Through design and creativity, he presents different statistical data compiled about current times which prove that, contrary to the pessimism and doom reflected on social networks and media channels, from a long-term perspective humanity has done nothing but improve. To illustrate this, he looks at data that refers to topics such as the prevalence of hunger in the world, the levels of literacy, life expectancy and the number of victims of wars or natural disasters.

“In his new book, he combines design with statistical information to show a surprisingly positive view of current times.”

At the same time, this book is also a beautiful exploration based on the milestones of human progress throughout time, with which he urges us to choose gratitude and positivity over pessimism and despair.

“Through this collection of works he explores how design can reach people’s hearts and improve their lives.”

“Now is Better” tackles matters related to quality of life through a compilation of statistics and information, revealing that – despite how we feel in our day to day – things are much better than before.

“Sagmeister brilliantly transforms different informative data into amazing works of art.”

The visualised data is displayed embedded in 19th century oil paintings, embroidered into canvases or transformed into dynamic lenticular prints and hand painted ceramics, many of which have been exhibited in galleries all over the world. The burst of primary colours, the dazzling geometrical superpositions and the optical illusions help bring the encouraging statistics to life, and each work of art is explained in more detail in the footnote with additional information in the end matter.

The positive underlying themes throughout the book are reinforced by the introduction written by the psychologist Steven Pinker, an expert on language and the mind; an essay by the design historian Steven Heller; and a conversation between Sagmeister and Hans Ulrich Obrist, art curator and artistic director at the Serpentine Galleriesin London.

“The historic pictures used in this series originally belonged to the Sagmeister family itself.”

His paternal great-grandparents opened a small antique shop in Bregenz (Austria) in the 1870’s. The objects that remained unsold by the couple were stored in the attic of the designer’s childhood home and have now been transformed into the artwork that appears in this book.

“Most of us prefer life over death, food over hunger, health over sickness, and peace over war. We’d rather live in a democracy than under dictatorships, we’d rather be knowledgeable than ignorant … we have a better chance of finding a solution for these problems from a position of acknowledging past success than from a place of doom and gloom.” Sagmeister

The book is presented in a die-cut case with customised font that interacts with the illustrations on the cover. Each book includes a lenticular print designed by Sagmeister, that illustrates the increasing percentage of the world’s population that has lived in a democracy in the span of years between 1915 and 2015.

An interview with Stefan Sagmeister

Making the most of his visit to Spain, we had the pleasure of interviewing him and this is what he told us. Come on in and read.

1. In your new book, “Now is Better”, you encourage long-term thinking and remind us that many things in the world are improving. How did the idea to create this book come about? And what has been the main challenge?

I started to think about this subject when I was invited to be a designer in residence at the American Academy in Rome. I was working out of a gorgeous studio and participated in the fantastic lunches and dinners with artists, writers, architects and archeologists in the courtyard. These were quite salon-like meals with ever-changing pairings of table mates. One evening I wound up next to a very sharp lawyer, who worked at the European court: We got to talk politics and he told me that what we are now experiencing in Hungary, Poland and Turkey, but also in Brazil and the US is really the end of democracy. So after dinner I looked it up!

When did modern democracy start? How did it do over the past two centuries? Where are we now? Well, in 1823, arguably only a single democracy existed, the United States. In 1923, there were already 18 democratic counties, following the first World War. In 2023 we now have 96 democratic countries, for the first time in human history more than half of the world population lives in a democracy, so he COULD NOT HAVE BEEN MORE WRONG: Not only are we not seeing the end of democracy, we are living in the absolute golden age of democracy. This was interesting to me:  a smart, highly educated person who clearly has no clue about the world he lives in.

“Not only are we not seeing the end of democracy, we are living in the absolute golden age of democracy.”

2. Have you always been an optimistic person? Is an optimistic person born or made?

Yes, I am an optimist, and I do think I was born as one. But I also believe that optimism indicates rational thinking. If the ultimate outcome of a situation can be either exceptional or terrible – when the chances are exactly 50/50, – then my prospects of succeeding are clearly improved if I approach it from a bright rather than gloomy position.And if things are better now than they were in the past – the central argument of the Beautiful Numbers series – assuming it will continue to get better in the future constitutes common sense.

3. “Now is Better” has also been a beautiful and fascinating exhibition of original lenticular prints, displayed alongside interventions of historical paintings exploring the state of human development. With this exhibition, you highlighted global progress through artistic representation of long-term statistics. How did this project come about? Do you plan to showcase this exhibition in other countries and make it a traveling exhibition?

Yes! Right now there is an exhibition touring through Mexico. There is another one in Asia, right now in Seoul, Korea and then going onwards to Shanghai, China. We will bring an exhibit next year to Austria, and hope we can tour this through a wide variety of European countries, we are also talking to a number of places in Spain.

4. The canvases in this exhibition are ancient European paintings that you sought throughout Austria, your homeland. Can you share any anecdotes about the process of searching for these paintings?

I looked at my own family history to see how the lives of my great-great grandparents Jacob and Johanna Sagmeister differed from ours: it turned out they were extremely different: Six of their children died! And they were not cursed by bad fortune! They were not damned with terrible luck: That’s how life was experienced by the rest of the world 200 years ago.

The next generations of Sagmeister’s, my great grandparents, didn’t do much better, five of their children died. But they both could read and write: Which made them part of the elites of their times. Only 15% of their contemporaries were literate. They owned a small antique store in my hometown in Austria. Everything that did not sell were stored in the
attic in the house that I did grow up in Bregenz until today.

I am reworking some of these historic paintings into data visualizations with the goal that viewers might want to place them into their living rooms, as reminders that if you look at the world from a longer point of view, you will get a different perspective.

5. Data is embedded in 19th-century oils, embroidered onto canvases, or transformed into lenticular prints and hand-painted dishes to convey a hopeful message. Who has been involved in this entire artisanal creative process?

I usually work with different teams pending the medium. The 19th century oils we create in a studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yards.

I have been teaching a class in the department “Designer as author, designer as entrepreneur” at the School of Visual Arts in New York for a long time. Over time, the desire to be in charge of the content of our designs – as opposed to promoting someone else’s product of service, became central to our practice.

The goal of many of these projects is to place a reminder into people’s everyday life that the current slant of terrible news is not necessarily a sign that the world is ending. If you look at human development from the long-term perspective, many things look very positive. Of all the things we’ve designed in that direction, be it a piece that you hang
over your sofa, a coffee cup or a mural, clothing is among the most immediate, personal and intimate media to do so.

6. We are currently in a historical moment with many frictions due to political, ideological, and religious issues leading to various conflicts and terrible wars. How do we manage to focus on the more optimistic perspectives you portray about the state of our society, instead of succumbing to the onslaught of misfortunes we encounter through the media and social networks?

I’ve actually given a “Now is Better” presentation 2 weeks ago in Lviv, in the Ukraine, 2 years after the war started there. And surprisingly to me, the feedback was so strong that we are now talking about bringing the exhibition there. And publishing a Ukranian version of the book. In Israel and Gaza, many of my friends think the situation is utterly hopeless and after decades of conflict, there will never be a solution.

I feel that long-term thinking can bring some hope even to this situation: The Brits and the French waged bloody war on each other continuously for over 100 years. Nevertheless, its now almost unthinkable that these countries would kill each other’s citizens.

7. Your talk “Beautiful Numbers” maintains the same optimistic focus and is a celebration, from a creative standpoint, of looking at the present with hope. What can you share for those who won’t be able to attend?

Many of my friends live in a state of doom and gloom. They believe the world is in a terrible state and is only getting worse. If you follow the daily news, this mindset certainly makes sense. I also believe there is a completely different way to look at the world: From the long term.

“Many of my friends live in a state of doom and gloom. They believe the world is in a terrible state and is only getting worse.”

8. Can creativity change the world?

Right now over 50% of the world population live in cities. For this part of the population, EVERYTHING surrounding them has been designed, from the contact lens, to the cloth, the chair, the room, the house, the street, the park, the city. These designed surroundings play exactly the same role to a city dweller as nature does to an indigenous person living in a rain forest.

They can be designed well or badly. They will make a difference. There are of course many products out there that do make our life easier, but we tend to only notice them when they fail badly. I can be in a plane going up and completely ignore the fact what an incredible piece of design that really is. I’ll only really notice it when it crashes.

9. By the way, what are your thoughts on current advertising? And social media?

Traditional advertising experiences a crisis as Google and Meta took all their money away. I don’t think many people outside of the ad industry will miss it much.

“Traditional advertising experiences a crisis as Google and Meta took all their money away.”

Social media created a number of massive problems, chiefly the segregation into different political camps among adults and the envy inducing posts among teens, as well as online bullying among all age groups.

10. What projects are you currently working on?

Considering there is no end of negative short-term news in sight, I’ll stick with trying to show the other, long-term view for a long while.

About Stefan Sagmeister

In 1993, Stefan Sagmeister founded the company Sagmeister Inc. based in New York, and since then he has designed for clients as diverse as the Guggenheim Museum, the Rolling Stones and HBO. His work is included in museum collections all over the world, such as in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna. He teaches in the graduate design department at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Stefan is currently considered one of the most important graphic designers and creatives of the 20th-21st century.

(*) Images provided by IED.