The Lessons Stefan Sagmeister Learned Making The Happy Film Aren’t What You’d Expect

Originally published on Eye on Design.

In 1993 Stefan Sagmeister announced the opening of his graphic design studio with a dick joke featuring his own, very exposed founding member. It was shocking (and funny), but he had the smarts to back up the provocation—and it had the desired effect, both for his business and his reputation. By the time he published Things I have learned in my life so far (Abrams, 2008), a folio of typographic explorations of his now well-known maxims, Sagmeister had gone from roguish design provocateur to bonafide (and still roguish) design celebrity. I hate using the term “design celebrity,” but even my dad knows who he is, and my dad works in escrow. This might be because Sagmeister’s Grammy award-winning album covers include some of my dad’s music heroes like Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, and most notably, David Byrne, but that has less to do with my dad’s taste in music and more to do with the impact Sagmeister’s visually exciting, boundary-pushing, multidisciplinary work has had on the world well beyond design.

Which is perhaps why his latest effort, The Happy Film, shouldn’t come as a surprise, and yet the new documentary-within-a-documentary is probably what audiences will least expect from him. An exploration into human happiness through the lens of his own life, it is, like much of his previous work, deeply personal, inquisitive, and includes some lovely typography—but it’s also a rabbithole mindfuck of a psychological journey that’s immersive in the way only a film can be, as opposed to an album cover or a poster. It also reveals even more of Sagmeister than he showed us in that original studio announcement, laying bare his weaknesses, his small, daily human failings, and occasionally his propensity to be, in his words, a total asshole.

Seven years in the making, The Happy Film began as an attempt to find a design solution to a pressing problem: Sagmeister was at his creative peak, but he wasn’t very happy. At the time, he was reeling from the death of his mother and a difficult break up with his girlfriend of 11 years; his happiness, frankly, didn’t stand a chance. But as a designer who methodically confronts challenges with creative solutions for a living, it was frustrating to suddenly have a problem he couldn’t solve. So why not approach it like a designer, and frame his happiness problem as a creative brief ? First, he’d have to find the right format. “We could have chosen to stick closer to graphic design and make a book project out of it, which would have made everything so much easier,” Sagmeister told me of his decision to make a film. “But I thought I wanted the challenge. I certainly got that.”

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Like a true designer, Sagmeister created the opening titles first. They’re charming, but monkeys and bananas do not a film make. So he dove head first into research, reading books and speaking with experts, namely psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis (and later a Happy Film consultant). He plucked his favorite data points from various sources and used them in TED Talks like 7 rules for making more happiness, but it still wasn’t turning into a movie. The unwieldy topic of happiness was turning out to be a lot harder to tackle than he anticipated. Fortunately Sagmeister’s friends, filmmaker and fellow AIGA Medalist Hillman Curtis and producer/director Ben Naborscame on board as co-directors to help him locate the narrative that would turn an increasingly self-involved exploration into an engaging story with wider appeal.

“It took about a year to realize that the originally planned general film on happiness wouldn’t work,” says Sagmeister. “The subject was just too big and unwieldy, and I did not feel that I was an expert on everybody’s happiness. It took another two years and the comment of a friend to realize how much in the center of this I wound up being.”

Ultimately, Sagmeister embarked on a three-part happiness experiment that consisted of isolated, month-long periods spent first meditating, then in therapy, then using prescription drugs. During each experimental period he would track his progress and, at the very end, calculate his happiness number based on a rigid system he’d devised to measure his emotional well-being. Then he would take a break, come back to “normal,” and begin the next experimental period. At the end, all he’d have to do is look at the numbers to see what worked.

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Oh, how the best laid plans soon spin totally out of control (or something like that). Sagmeister’s emotional side easily outdid any attempts at conducting a methodical, scientific study, and he steadily ruined each of the three experiments by falling in love (and getting very happy) and then falling out of love (and getting very unhappy) during each phase, throwing any kind of system of measurement completely off kilter. How can you tell if meditation or therapy is making you happier when you’re going through a breakup? By the time he was taking mood elevators, all bets were off.

While he was on the happy pills, Sagmeister did indeed feel happier, though he compromised the experiment by not only falling almost immediately into mad, deep, crazy love, he went against his doctor’s advice to not make any major life decisions until he’d stabilized. Instead, Sagmeister got engaged to a beautiful young woman he’d recently met when she came to interview him for a German-language magazine. In just a few days, he went from the post-breakup blues to the throes of passionate love. And all of it—from his foulest moods to his giddiest schoolgirl grins—is presented onscreen. It’s painful to watch Sagmeister’s daily video diary entries during this time. There are some cringingly TMI moments, like when he films his new fiancée in the shower talking about how madly in love she is, that induce a reaction of embarrassment, skepticism, disbelief, and just being bummed out. He’s the hero of our story—who doesn’t want things to work out for him? Especially since he’s been trying so hard for so long to be happy, and now he finally feels it—but it’s drug-induced and fanned by the flames of new love, his favorite drug of choice.

More difficult, however, is the position co-director Ben Nabors found himself in during this final experimental phase. Without the voice of reason and co-direction help from Hillman Curtis, who tragically died of cancer during filming, Nabors was left to not only manage his hopped-up friend, but also to navigate the careening course of the documentary. In one scene, Sagmeister is explaining his motives to a palpably uncomfortable Nabors, who sits in the backseat of a sports car Sagmeister rented to drive to his doctor’s office. Here is Nabors witnessing his friend experience a happiness greater than he’s ever known. Who is he to say it’s not real? On the other hand, Nabors is genuinely worried about what will happen after Sagmeister takes his final pill. Will the feeling stick? Will Sagmeister have found the solution to the happiness problem he first set out to solve? Or will the freewheeling ride have run its course, his elation expiring along with his prescription? In this scene and others Nabors appears in, he remains calm as ever on the surface, but you can practically see his nerves twitching underneath. “It’s fun to drive a car fast,” Nabors said of Sagmeister during this period, “but also really dangerous.”

I don’t want to give away too much of the ending, but that old adage about things that are too good to be true certainly comes to mind (perhaps Sagmeister should add it to his collection of maxims). But filming didn’t end when Sagmeister’s happiness tests did. Beyond the three-part experiment, there’s a fourth part here: the making of the movie itself. After two years spent cutting and recutting the film, trying to figure out the best way to tell the story, Nabors found the answer by revealing the hand of the maker and showing how their method of producing the film impacted the way the story developed. In fact, he shows his cards from the very start, beginning the film with the end—literally—a shot of Sagmeister’s then-fiancée tethered to a mass of balloons that spells “The End.”

The effort required to make this film is very clear, not just in the scenes that reveal what’s happening off camera, but in other clever meta-filmmaking elements, like the handwriting used throughout to show ideas being crossed out and rewritten, taking the audience into the thick of things right along with Sagmeister and the crew. We see the delicate balance between Sagmeister the person vs. Sagmeister the movie character play out, and witness the complicated, many-layered process of trying to tell the story of a man who’s trying to tell the story of his struggle to examine his life and change it for the better.

At the end, Sagmeister is naked once again; not literally this time, but more vulnerable than ever. He’s been through a trying period made infinitely more difficult by his arguably misguided notion to film it in order to  tap into something universally human—and yet he doesn’t seem to have learned much at all. He jokes that he’s much better to date now than he was seven years ago, but when pressed he only says he “learned that the single-minded pursuit of [happiness] will not lead to the desired outcome, as life is too multi-faceted and complex to be gone after with a single strategy.” He went on, rattling off many of the same talking points he leaned on so heavily at the beginning of production.

“Ultimately, the proper possibility for a whole, fine life would be to figure out a proper relationship to other people, both friends, acquaintances, and the public, where happiness is able to arise. Then I would need a proper relationship to my work and be engaged in something that is bigger than myself,” he says. Hardly a revelation into the human psyche.

The real lesson in happiness, if there’s one to be learned, comes from Nabors, whose steady hand is what ultimately kept this crazy train of a film from going off track. His keen observations and measured insight about both the film and the process of making it ring truest. “It’s not about achieving the idea, but about being comfortable with what it is, whatever it is,” he says. As Sagmeister became more and more unpredictable, Nabors learned to simply trust the process and finally, to simply let go, starting with the original script.

After reflecting on the hours of footage they had amassed over the years, Nabors knew there was an easy, obvious, “forgettable” story to tell, a simple three-act arc to trace. But he kept digging at the narrative, allowing it to emerge slowly over time. It’s not so much a lesson that can be boiled down into a memorable maxim, but it’s a pretty spot on reflection of life and what can happen when you try to strongarm its natural ebb and flow or to boil it down into some arbitrary quantifiable. Today, Sagmeister’s happy number is the same as it was before he started filming: 7.6. When I asked Nabors about his, he simply said, “I don’t keep a happiness number.”