Episode 24 – Radical Positivity Through Communication Design w/ Stefan Sagmeister

“The world is terrible. The world is fantastic. Both statements are true.”

This is a line that opens one of the chapters of Stefan Sagmeister’s new book, and its pragmatic, no-nonsense tone is a perfect indicator of what readers will be presented with: a fact-driven exploration of human progress throughout the ages.

Yet the book’s title, Now Is Better, reveals where Stefan’s heart lies and what his true intentions are: to in his words “foster radical positivity” and nudge audiences towards choosing “gratitude and positivity over pessimism and despair.”

I am in the same camp as Stafan, believing that despite the unrelentingly negative content being force-fed to us in our daily news cycles, things are actually much better now than they used to be, and we would all do much better if we were able to keep that somewhere in our active minds. That theme, coupled with the tools Stefan uses to explore and preach it – communication design, his stock-in-trade – is what compelled me to chat with him for this episode of Bevel.

His pieces blend classic art with quantitative data analysis by rendering complex data sets into geometric symbols and then literally inserting them into nineteenth-century oil paintings. Because Bevel is an audio podcast, we don’t talk about individual pieces directly, but instead I use Stefan’s overall mission as the starting point to explore topics such as communicating “truth” in a post-truth age; how a communication designer measures the effectiveness of a message; why design is compared more to art than science; and even touch on the question of ownership as it relates to the visual arts.

Stefan Sagmeister formed his New York-based firm in 1993 and his work is in museum collections around the world. He’s also designed for a diverse roster of clients including album covers and packaging for bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Talking Heads and Jay-Z, so I even indulge a bit and ask him about the state of album design.

“I found the phenomenon of a highly educated person, so influenced by the daily news cycle that he carries a completely wrong view of the world, fascinating. From a communication design point of view, it seemed an interesting direction to tackle.”

– Stefan Sagmeister on what inspired the Now is Better project.




THESE SELF-EVIDENT TRUTHS. Image credit: Phillip Reed and Andreas Vesterlund (page 22) Number of democratic countries worldwide, 1810–2010
PRECEDENTS. Image credit: Phillip Reed and Andreas Vesterlund (pages 234-235) Deaths as a result of global pandemics over the past 200 years
WAR! WAR! Image credit: Phillip Reed and Andreas Vesterlund (pages 40-41) Percentage of years in which the great powers have fought one another for an extended period (at least twenty-five years), 1500–2000