Stefan Sagmeister On How To Beat Your Phone Addiction

Our latest “Design for Living” column asks the graphic design star for insight on staying more present.


A recent psychology study found that snapping pictures of an event makes you less able to vividly remember it. That’s sobering news to everyone who lives and breathes on Instagram, or new parents like me who incessantly record their little angel’s every moment for posterity. It also seems to speak to the trouble our latest advice seeker is having:


“I still can’t get my husband to be 100% present. He’s doing great, but does he really need to take a photo of his food and upload at this very instant? I wish there was an app that would make him even more present and time-shift the not-so-important things in life.”

It is strange how the moments that we are most emotionally affected by–like the delight you feel upon seeing a delicious plate set before you at your favorite restaurant–are often the same ones we are most eager to step out of in order to fix into pixels. But then again, it’s not so weird. We love replaying favorite memories and sharing them with others, so if we can do that literally by recording them as images, doesn’t that do our fallible brains one better?

The above research apparently implies otherwise, but maybe there’s something else wrong with this picture. Is the problem that your husband takes too many photos instead of “being in the present moment,” or is the problem that he’s not sharing the present moment with you? Most of the knee-jerk irritation we feel toward people who are too into their phones seems to have something to do with their apparent selfishness. They’re “somewhere else,” not paying attention to their surroundings, which should be more important because we’re in them!

The fact that these are phones, not just cameras or books, probably exacerbates this feeling of being left out or de-prioritized. After all, someone who obsessively Instagrams his food as soon as it hits the table is implicitly doing so to share that moment with other people on the other end of that Instagram feed, which makes them seem more important to the people who are actually sitting there.

I reached out to Stefan Sagmeister, the (in)famous graphic designer who knows a thing or two about living in the moment: He created Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far, a visual compendium of aphorisms about appreciating what’s right in front of you, as well as a documentary and art show about happiness. If there was anyone who could speak to designing a more present way of living, I figured Sagmeister had to be the guy.

Image: The Happy Show via The Happy Show

“We’ve designed a video and a bag for The Happy Show that states: ‘Now is better,'” Sagmeister told me. “But obviously, looking at a bag won’t make you live more in the moment.” He struggles with the “selfishness” problem of too many smartphones, too: “We went to see our client Jay-Z perform on Monday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and were surrounded by people taking videos and photos on their phone. It diminished the experience for us and I assume it also reduced their own immediate enjoyment.”

Sagmeister’s idea for solving the problem was to try to sidestep our black-and-white thinking about these kinds of moments–that you’re either “in” them or not–and figure out ways to combine these two ways of experiencing them without putting them in conflict. In the case of that Jay-Z concert, he imagines, what if “the performer plays a song specially for video taking in the beginning featuring photo/video friendly light effects, and for the rest of the show there is a photo/video restriction in place?”

That would require co-creating some new social norms about how to behave at an event with thousands of other people, but it would probably blunt the unpleasant feeling of having your experience selfishly “co-opted” by someone else and their virtual audience. During the “phone friendly” part of the show, everyone would be “sharing” the experience in the same way (or at least expecting it). During the “no phones” part of the show, the same would be true. Isn’t that what we really want out of these moments we wish to be “more present” in?

The same approach would be much easier to implement at a meal between a husband and wife, of course. What if your Instagram-happy husband simply put your “shared moment” first–for example, what if you agreed that he could take a pic of his plate only after sharing the first bite with you? After all, what he does on his own time probably doesn’t matter as much to you (who cares if he Instagrams his crème brûlée if you’re not around?). But when you two are together, it does matter what aspect of the “present moment” he chooses to inhabit–and include you in. Design that experience together, and you won’t bat an eye the next time he whips out his phone at your favorite restaurant–you might even appreciate it.

[Got a situation in your life that needs some design thinking? Drop me a line:]

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