Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far: Sagmeister’s Typographic Maxims on Life, Updated
Lived wisdom in living lettering.
By Maria Popova
About a decade ago, Stefan Sagmeister, one of the most celebrated and influential designers of our time, began keeping a running list of life-learnings in his diary. Eventually, he translated these private thoughts into a series of typographic artworks and public installations at the intersection of the personal and the philosophical, creating a new genre of metaphoric lettering, which ended up among the 100 ideas that changed graphic design and which he collected in a gorgeous artifact of a book in 2006.
A new updated edition of Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far (public library) published by Abrams capitalizes on the “so far” portion of the premise by complementing all of Sagmeister’s original learnings with 48 additional pages exploring new ones that touch on everything from obsession to confidence to love, contextualized by a triumvirate of great minds: Design critic extraordinaire Steven Heller, psychologist Daniel Nettle, and Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector.
What makes Sagmeister’s maxims so beautiful and so moving is that, rather than mindless aphorisms dispensed as vacant cultural currency, they are the lived and living truths of a man who approaches his life with equal parts humor and humility, vigor and vulnerability.
One explores our shared propensity to worry (especially about sensitive subjects like money) and the immutable human desire to, as Italo Calvino memorably put it, lower our “worryability.” Sagmeister writes:
I used to lie awake at night brooding over problems that came up during the day. It kept me from sleeping, it was not enjoyable, and most importantly, I never arrived at a solution for anything — a remarkably effective way to be miserable.
(Cue in this great read on what the psychology of suicide-prevention teaches us about controlling our everyday worries.)
Another, a collaboration with Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizu, enlists the whimsical to reveal the real:
Then there is the burden of vanity, the most extreme cultural symptoms of which are nothing short of heartbreaking:
Another captures the way in which the same compulsive drive that propels our most successful work poisons our inner lives:
I rarely obsess about things in my private life. I fail to care about the right shade of green for the couch, the sexual adventures of an ex-lover, or the correct setting for the meeting room air conditioner. I am not someone who misses things that aren’t already there.
However, I do sometimes obsess over the studio’s work and think that a number of our better projects come out of such obsessions.
Accompanying the artwork are also entertaining anecdotes that serve as an additional narrative about the unpredictability of life, perhaps a meta-maxim about how trying to control life into order only produces more chaos. Case in point: This coin project was inspired by the natural grid of the stone plates covering the urban plaza, which the city of Amsterdam lent Sagmeister for the endeavor. The installation consists of 650,000 Euro cents and took 100 volunteers to assemble over the course of the week. But the real beauty of it was a subtle experiment in psychology and behavioral economics: Sagmeister and his team had intended to leave the finished piece in the plaza unguarded, waiting for passers-by to disassemble it; they had painted one side of each coin a distinctive bright blue so they could track how the money traveled across Europe on a special site dedicated to the project. (Inspired, perhaps, by the Follow the Money project.) But everything, true to the workings of the human condition, took an unexpected turn: Having witnessed the laborious weeklong assembling, people in the neighborhood took a special fondness to the project and they took it upon themselves to guard the plaza from potential coin-takers. When a man attempted to carry away a bag full of coins, a neighbor immediately called the Dutch police, who proceeded to sweep in and sweep all the coins into buckets, transporting them to the Amsterdam police headquarters. The completed project didn’t even last until sunrise.
But as a lover of diaries, a proponent of Joan Didion’s conviction that keeping a journal enriches the soul, and a dedicated diarist myself, I find this one most captivating — doubly so for the beautiful symmetry to how the project began:
Sagmeister, who has kept a diary since almost as early an age as Anaïs Nin, explains:
I have kept a diary since I was twelve years old. . . . I do use the diary to go back and reread certain passages, to see what my thinking was, and, most importantly, to discover things I feel need changing: When I have repeatedly described a circumstance or character trait of mine that I dislike, I eventually wind up doing something about it.
All images copyright © 2013 Stefan Sagmeister courtesy of Abrams
Published February 6, 2014