When asked how he decided upon a career in design, Niklas Sagebiel explains that it’s a story we’ve heard many times before. “The visual aspect of skateboarding, graffiti and music was always something that attracted me,” he tells It’s Nice That. “I knew that at some point I wanted to work in that field.” Although sounding like a familiar tune, his work is far from mundane. Having studied typography and book design at HFBK University of Fine Arts Hamburg, he began to work as an editorial designer “totally by accident”. Then, he landed his first job designing the publication for an exhibition, which “worked out pretty good” and led to another gig – and then another. Now, his portfolio is filled with art direction, book design, typography, illustration and client work ranging from Andreas Mühe, Markus Lüpertz, ASICS, Distanz Verlag, Penguin Books and Wired magazine.

Overall, Niklas tends to draw his inspiration from the people that surround him. Influencing his work are professors Ingo Offermanns and Wigger Bierma, who taught him during his studies, as well as Hermann Hülsenberg, his first employer and friend – “[Hermann came] from a totally different background; he taught me a lot and inspired me to see things not too strictly.” And music – “music!” – is a major influence throughout his design process, due to its ability to “get you in the right state” for certain projects.

Like most freelancers, Niklas grapples with the good days and the bad. “There is no typical day in the studio,” he explains. “On good days, I have to be there early and on the bad ones I’m not in the studio at all.” His creative process revolves around the task at hand, typically working with artists who want a publication or exhibition catalogue designed. “Then, we talk through what they want and why they want it in that certain way,” he adds. “I try to find the right concept that illustrates what they want understandably, and I try to cut out anything that is pretentious.”

One (certainly not pretentious) project that caught our eye here is the latest issue Lodown Magazine – a quarterly arts and culture publication that focus on popular culture, sports and entertainment. “I knew the Lodown guys and have been friends with them since I did an internship back in 2010,” he says. “The magazine has always been a huge influence for me, so to getting asked to design an issue for them was a big deal.” In terms of the brief, there wasn’t anything set in stone – “I think it’s always like that,” explains Niklas. “If Thomas Marecki aka Marok [founder of Lodown magazine] likes your design approach, you get a carte blanche. There is always an overall theme for the issue but what you are doing with it is all up to you.”

The recent issue is centred on the topic of “youth”, and features contributions from the likes of Owen Harvey – “The Photographer Documenting The New Era Of Masculinity” – Bristol-based photographer Kamila Lozinska and various pieces tackling the theme. “I think with such a time-related theme, there is a risk that your work is going to be nostalgic or it tries to illustrate a certain period of time,” says Niklas. “I wanted to work against that and get a timeless look but still with a zeitgeist feeling to it.” With this in mind, the designer worked with Times New Roman and Arial as his fonts of choice – “With only two front sizes, I got the right natural look and they gave the articles the space they needed.” Alongside a “time display” that tells you how long it you need to read the article, further details include a horizontal alignment for all the imagery, which Niklas refers to as a “timeline”: “I wanted to get this ongoing feeling and simultaneously it was a non-moral reference to the ‘swipe right’ time we live in.”


Looking forward to hanging out in NY, Michael!

I’ve inhaled all the writing about how to run successful remote projects from in-house teams (Doist, InVision, Buffer, etc), but I’ve come across far less with agencies. How is it different, if at all?

If the teams are parallel, I haven’t seen a lot of difference between distributed in-house teams and distributed agency teams. However, I do see a lot more agency teams that are primarily co-located with one or two remote team members. My friend Mandy Brown wrote a wonderful article called Making Remote Teams Work, and one of my favorite lessons from there is to act “remote by default.” If you have one or two remote team members, the whole team should act like they’re working remotely, even if they’re co-located. Otherwise, it’s easy for the remote team members to be accidentally left out.

I imagine the Hollywood Model adds another layer of complexity, as well.

I haven’t felt much difference here, but I’m sure some of that is confirmation bias, because it’s what I do! The Hollywood Model—another way of saying that it’s a team assembled ad-hoc for a particular project, the same way Hollywood makes a film—is really just a tax status. It means people have independent affiliations and choose to collaborate temporarily. If you have an invested team—whether or not they’re full-time employees—that’s the key ingredient for success.

Back when you did project work at SuperFriendly, how did you get involved with most of these projects? What were the outputs that you were personally responsible for? Did you still mainly spend your time hands-off, focusing on strategy and directing the team?

I tried many different configurations for myself over the years. I’ve done projects where I… – Designed and coded the whole thing – Designed comps and had engineers on the team – Directed other designers and engineers – Acted as principal or account person while someone else directed other designers and engineers

One thing I’ve learned is that, like movies, every project needs a director and a producer. When I first started SuperFriendly, I was the de facto director on every project. As I’ve been hiring more directors on projects that aren’t me, the work has gotten much better.

What are the most valuable tools or processes for running projects and developing products that you’ve found works for SuperFriendly?

I’m a big fan of this George Patton quote: “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” I don’t dictate any tools or processes to teams, but there are a few concepts and principles I try to communicate:

  • Follow your instinct. If you hire good people, they have good instincts. Let them do what they’d do anyway. Otherwise, why hire them?
  • Take risks. We have smart clients. They already know how to do the safe, easy stuff. Our job is to help them do what they can’t do otherwise.
  • Learn something, and teach something. When I was directing projects, I tried to make it my job to create a safe place for people to try something new. I want every team member to do that for each other.

I’ve only started to articulate these, but there are 4 working SuperFriendly principles:

  1. Work together.
  2. Play together.
  3. Eat together.
  4. Win together.


Nice to meet you, and hey to Eduardo! 🙂 

First I’ll answer generally, and then specifically (i.e. how I do it with my specific things).

Generally speaking, you have to prioritize what’s most important to you, let go of the small stuff, learn to say no, and stop working on side projects or ask for help to keep them going.

In my case, I ask for help. And it works.

So. I’m a full-time dad and a full-time (and busy!) Automattician, and those are my full-time, day-in, day-out focuses. The rest is possible by having great teams, trusting them to do what they do, and checking in with them as frequently as need be. 

For An Event Apart, there’s a lot of editorial work to be done choosing the best speakers, helping them hone in on the most relevant topics, and arranging those topics editorially in each AEA conference. I can’t hand that work off. It needs me. I email and meet weekly with staffer/producer/editorial consultant Toby Malina and partner/co-founder Eric Meyer, and reach out to speakers via email and calls as needed. The billions of hours of additional work needed to mount a successful conference are handled entirely by the brilliant Marci Eversole. I trust her with my life.

The conference enhances the knowledge I’m able to bring to my work at Automattic, since I’m constantly interacting with and learning from some of the very best designers, developers and strategists in our industry. Automattic is an open source company dedicated to democratizing publishing and sharing knowledge. An Event Apart is about sharing knowledge about the open web. The values are in sync, and the time I put into An Event Apart, although it’s done outside of Automattic business hours, is in some ways, conceptually, also work I do for Automattic.

A List Apart functions because of the brilliance and hard work of our crew, including Aaron Gustafson, Michelle Kondou, Brandon Gregory, Mica McPheeters, Dougal Macpherson, Tatiana Mac, Adrian Roselli, Rachel Andrew, Dezzie Garcia, Sara Wegman, and many other extraordinarily gifted people (all listed on that Masthead), who review submissions, work with authors to fine-tune them, and manage the many other tasks that go into creating a low-volume, high-quality web publication. All I need to do is read the article drafts and weigh in on the discussions as to their merits. That’s something I’d do for pleasure anyway. It takes less time than I spend watching TV or going to the gym—because the team is that good, and their collective intelligence is that powerful.

Since moving from our old platform to WordPress (with the incredibly able assistance of Tiffany Bridge and the Automattic Special Projects team, which is how I fell in love with that team, and which led indirectly to my taking a job there), we’ve also been able to bring our Italian publication edited by creative director Valeria Brigatti in-house, instead of treating it as an external publication. Again, all I had to do was say, “Yes, please.”

A Book Apart is, I think, an important addition to the canon of great books for people who design, write, and code. I co-founded it with  Jason Santa Maria, and in the beginning, we were very busy setting it up, but today, and for several years, CEO Katel LeDu has done EVERYTHING. Jason and I weigh in a book proposals and give Katel our thumbs-up when she proposes big changes to how the company works, but it’s really all Katel and her staff and consultants at this point. 

I could not run the three Aparts myself. I could not even run one of them myself. Finding good partners. People worthy of trust. People with talent and work ethics you can depend on. That’s the secret.