Design Week Portland 2014 was great fun, and I felt lucky to attend the sold-out talk by Stefan Sagmeister on Design & Happiness. The Austrian-born designer has been a design “rockstar” for decades, but when he’s not working for clients of Sagmeister & Walsh, he’s studying how we attain happiness. His ultimate goal is a full documentary on the topic, but he’s the first to admit that his documentary production skills do not level with his vision, which has made for a rather painful project process (somewhat ironic, given the subject). However, his explorations for the documentary have resulted in some beautiful standalone projects along the way. I would love to see the museum exhibit, “The Happy Show,” where scientific research and psychological observations are made visual in a series of engaging, clever, artistic reflections on happiness.

I really wish I could share some of the mesmerizing artistic video projects he shared during his presentation, but they’re not public domain (yet). But a few of his points can be heard in an older TED talk on this subject he’s been exploring for over a decade:

Perhaps most intriguing is how he manages to accomplish all this happiness research and exploration while running a bustling design firm in New York. First, the firm is restricted to seven team members–despite great successes and huge clients, the firm does not grow in personnel, on purpose. This allows them to carefully choose clients, only saying ‘yes’ to projects they really want to work on, which ultimately results in more creative freedom and reasonably managed project schedules. Second, one word: sabbatical. Every seven years, the entire firm goes on sabbatical—business doors are closed and locked for an entire year. And during their year in Bali (most recently) or wherever the team lands, they rest, explore, and produce incredible, creative, because-they-want-to projects, completely refreshing their creative outlook. It’s worked well for business too; evidently, initial fears of lost revenue have been allayed, as existing clients have remained faithful and appreciate the unique perspective these sabbaticals lend the firm’s work, while new clients wait in the wings, eager to get a piece of Sagmeister & Walsh’s one-of-a-kind creative approach.

What a bold business model. It’s one that requires a huge leap of faith…but that’s usually how we find the kind of happiness we didn’t even know we were missing.