The joke, which Sagmeister has opened with before, involved having the sign language interpreter assigned to his talk at the conference interpret a story about a manatee giving itself a blowjob. On Twitter, conference attendees and many in the graphic design community took issue with both the subject of the joke and the position in which it put the interpreter.
Sagmeister, who runs the New York design firm Sagmeister & Walsh, is as famous for his irreverent attitude and nude publicity shots as he is for his esteemed design career. He’s been telling the manatee story as an unconventional lead-in to design talks for at least eight years now—at the 2010 Idea Festival, for example, and again in 2015 at the Australian Graphic Design Association conference. Here’s a video of him telling it at Columbia University in 2009.
While the act doesn’t always involve humiliating a sign language interpreter, it has before. On Twitter, product designer Lauren Hallden pointed out this post on a talk from 2008 on the design blog FriendFriend:
If this unfortunate rendition of the joke was well-received then, it’s not landing as well in 2017. Over the past few years, the lack of diversity and inclusion in the design industry has become a highly visible and oft-discussed issue. People of color, people who are differently abled and women have been more vocal in an industry that hasn’t always been inviting, in both public forums and on social media. In this environment, aggressively inappropriate jokes by established white male designers don’t fare as well.
The silver lining then is that this manatee story might be seen as kind of a litmus test for how design is changing to be more inclusive. I’m sure it didn’t sit well with everyone who heard it in 2008. But whereas distaste for the joke may have been shared privately before, the backlash is public now, and that seems like clear a sign of the times.
Here’s a look at where people stand:
UPDATE: Late on Friday Sagmeister wrote an apology on Twitter from the Sagmeister & Walsh account.