Stefan Sagmeister On Co-Directing His First Documentary, “The Happy Film”

The eminent designer tells Co.Design how making a movie about happiness may end up reducing his. (It’ll still be worth it.)


Is personal happiness a design problem? If design is “trying out creative iterations toward a specific goal,” it just might be. Stefan Sagmeister has turned his designer-y eye on personal existential issues before, with his Things I Have Learned In My Life book/website, and has given a TED talk on design and happiness — so his latest project, a documentary he’s codirecting with Hillman Curtis called The Happy Film, seems like a logical next step.


The Happy Film will follow Sagmeister as he “undergoes a series of self-experiments outlined by popular psychology to test once and for all if it’s possible for a person to have a meaningful impact on their own happiness.” He spoke to Co.Design about the project and where it’s taken him so far, happiness-wise.

Where did this idea come from? Was it an extension of your Things I Have Learned… project?

It started during my last sabbatical in Indonesia. I do [these sabbaticals] every seven years. I was working on material with designers there, a lot of furniture, which I’d never done before. And a friend basically told me that this looked like a poor result of my time, making six or seven furniture prototypes. So we started thinking about what would make more sense, and that was the start of my thinking about happiness. The subject itself was lying in the air of the studio for a while.

Why did you choose to explore these ideas in a film, instead of a book or interactive app?

Sagmeister: It would have been easier to do a book. But I don’t know anything about documentaries, so it’s more of a challenge to do a film. That was the reason to do it. It turned out to be more of a challenge than i’d thought: I’d figured that I knew about half of what I was doing, and figuring out the other half would be pleasurable. In having actually started it, it’s more like I know 10 percent. I found it unbelievably surprising how little my design background applies to documentary filmmaking. I have a much bigger appreciation for documentaries now, knowing how hard they are to make, and I have an incredible appreciation for Mike Mills, who started out in graphic design and is now a filmmaker.

Is that how you came to collaborate with designer/filmmaker Hillman Curtis? To help you with the other 90%?


Yes, that’s exactly it. I was really lost.

You’re both credited as codirectors of the film, and you also appear in it. How did you two collaborate?

I’m more connected to [portions of the film] that need to be very “set up” — things that you storyboard first and then film. Hillman is much more connected to filming me, filming what’s going on, the experiments. Considering that they’ll take a larger time onscreen than the setpieces, that means he’s responsible for directing a bigger part of the movie than I am. We’re only about a quarter of the way through it. I hope we’ll be done in a year, maybe a year and a half.

So the movie is about your attempts to increase your own happiness?

I’d use the term “increasing my well-being.” Initially I had a script for the whole thing, but we’ve pretty much abandoned that. We all came the conclusion that scripting would be good for peace of mind, but not good for making an honest movie. It’s feasible that we’re making a movie where my happiness decreases.

How does design figure into your experiments?

The film is about a person who tries out strategies recommended by psychologists to increase his well-being, and that person just happens to be a designer. So design plays a role in the film simply because design plays a role in my life, but it’s by happenstance. The strategies I’m experimenting with are not design strategies — it basically comes down to meditation, cognitive therapy, and drugs. I could say I’m designing my life, but for the time being, meditation teachers or psychologists don’t really call themselves designers. Saying that by and large they’re “designing people’s lives” is basically just me playing games with terminology.


Even if it’s not a “design” problem per se, who’s to say that personal happiness is something we can even seek to influence? If you focus on it, doesn’t it become that much more elusive?

I’d say I have no evidence so far that that is true. I’d also say that since I’ve been looking at this properly, I don’t think that I’ve become happier overall — I’ve probably become worse off. That’s my offhand guess, my initial assessment. I’m keeping daily “happiness grades,” so at the end of [the film] I’ll have more accurate numbers. But the fact that I’ve been worse off has little to do with this gaze on happiness, and has more to do with concrete things, like a death in my family, for instance. I still have something of a belief that this notion that you can train your mind, just like you can train your body, might be true. Psychologists say that 50% of your happiness-ability is genetic, so you’re only in charge of the other half. But that’s probably the same as it is with sports and physical ability too.

What I’m trying for most with the movie is that the whole thing is honest. The movie will follow what actually happens, and I have a hope that somehow it’ll be intriguing. if not, if the movie is terrible, I hope the process of making it was interesting enough to be worthwhile.

[Read more about The Happy Film]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets