It might seem like the world is an awful place. But Stefan Sagmeister's new book makes inspired use of both historical art and data visualisation to highlight just how much life has improved for the majority of people.
With all the misery in the news, it's tempting to think life was better in the old days, and everything's got worse since then. But actually, that's just not true. If you look at the facts of the matter, the world is getting more prosperous, people are living longer and in general things are better than they used to be.
It might not feel like it, because there are many terrible things happening in the world, and maybe in our own lives too. But by almost any measure you care to suggest, from levels of crime to life expectancy, for the vast majority of people things are getting better, and continue to do so.
You won't think it, of course, given that bad news is what gets most clicks online. And so it's a brave soul who puts their head above the parapet and points out that, actually, things aren't so bad after all. Which means we have nothing but praise for Stefan Sagmeister, one of the world's most celebrated living designers, for doing so in his latest book.
Now Is Better covers the most recent project from Stefan: a fact-driven exploration of human progress through the ages, urging the audience to choose gratitude and positivity over pessimism and despair.
The book's optimistic message is bolstered by a foreword from psychologist and leading authority on language and the mind Steven Pinker; a featured essay by design historian Steven Heller; and a conversation between Sagmeister and Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator and artistic director of Serpentine Galleries in London.
And as you'd expect, it's beautifully designed. Featuring 300 colour illustrations, the 264-page paperback is presented within a die-cut slipcase.
Quality of life
Stefan Sagmeister formed the New York-based Sagmeister Inc. in 1993 and has since designed for clients as diverse as the Guggenheim Museum, the Rolling Stones, and HBO. His work is in museum collections around the world, and he teaches in the graduate department of the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Initially conceived in 2020 as the world entered a global pandemic, Now is Better looks at quality of life issues through collected statistics and information, revealing that despite how we may feel on a day-to-day basis things are much better now than they used to be. As such, it inspires us to think about the future with much-needed hope.
He explains what inspired him to write it. "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," says Stefan. "From a communication-design point of view, it seemed an interesting direction to tackle."
Combining art, design, history, and quantitative analysis, Sagmeister engages the reader by cleverly transforming data sets into stunning artworks. The visualised data is shown inlaid into 19th-century oil paintings, embroidered onto canvases, or transformed into dynamic lenticular prints and hand-painted tableware, many of which have been exhibited in galleries around the world.
Pops of primary colours, dazzling geometric overlays, and optical illusions help bring encouraging statistics to life, with every artwork further explained by an accompanying caption and additional information in the endmatter.
The initial historical paintings used in this series come from Sagmeister's own family. His paternal great-grandparents, Gebhard and Rosalia Sagmeister, opened a small antique store in Bregenz, Austria, in the 1870s. The wares that the couple didn't sell were stored in the attic of the designer's childhood home and have now been transformed into some of the works featured in this book.
Sagmeister's great-grandparents were themselves a statistical anomaly, being among 15% of the world's population at that time able to read and write. Today, 86% of the world's population is literate.
Refreshingly optimistic and unpretentiously wise, Sagmeister creates a visual feast of a book that challenges the persistent negative tone of the current news cycle. He writes, "Most of us prefer life over death, food over hunger, health over sickness, and peace over war. We'd rather live in democracies than in dictatorships, we'd rather be knowledgeable than ignorant ... we have a better chance of finding a solution for these problems from a position of acknowledging past success than from a place of doom and gloom."
Held in a die-cut slipcase with custom typography that interacts with the cover artwork beneath, the compact softcover book features silver foil edges. Each book includes a lenticular print designed by Sagmeister, poignantly expressing the increasing percentage of the global population living in democracies between 1915 and 2015. A limited number of copies will include a lenticular print signed by the author.
Now is Better by Stefan Sagmeister will be published by Phaidon on 28 September 2023. You can preorder your copy now for £29.95 here.