The Radiographista Interview: Steven Heller

Source: Design Indaba/Youtube

Writer, curator, editor, educator and designer. For a seasoned American creator, Steven Heller needs no introduction, as his prolific career is well known in the design scene.

But for the Tumblr-and-Snapchat generation that keeps bringing new designers into our ranks, a small presentation is in order: He was Art Director for The New York Times — first for the OpEd then for the Book Review — for 33 years, has written around 170 books on design throughout his career; he is also the co-chair of the design programme at the School of Visual Arts in New York and has received the AIGA’s lifetime achievement award & the Smithsonian Institution’s National Design Award.

We had the opportunity to talk with Mr Heller in New York about design in the current political climate, his book Becoming a Design Entrepreneur, the challenges designers face, curating design and his upcoming projects.

Radiographista: How did you choose design as your career?
Steven Heller: I wanted to be a cartoonist when I started and I wasn’t a very good one; I got a job when I was 17 laying out pages for an underground newspaper and I liked it. It seemed like a fun thing that fit my needs: my need to illustrate, an editorial and writing need and I reached people with a message, more of a left-wing message at the time in the 60’s, which suited me very well. Design just kind of grew out of that. I dropped out of college and I just kept doing this and it built and built. What I really wanted ultimately was to write about history and I found that I could write the history of graphic design and political art and that would bring me joy. What I didn’t know was that it would bring me a career.

R: Do you remember being aware of design at a young age? 
SH: No. I looked in the newspaper for job opportunities and found one on doing mechanicals; I didn’t know what that was, my father didn’t know what that was, but when I finally went to this underground newspaper they said ‘we could have you do cartoons and news and mechanicals’, so I learned what it was, and from learning mechanicals I learned what type was and then about typography; I then met people who along the way taught me what I do.

R: The breath of your career focuses on observing, studying and communicating design rather than producing it; how did this decision come about?
SH: In the beginning of my career I was designing and I was kind of a naive designer at that, working with all these tools that were necessary to make a weekly publication, so I just started designing magazines, newspapers and I did that for many years. I was then hired by the New York Times as the art director first for the OpEd and then the Book Review; so I’ve always been a producer or a mediator for others to produce, and then at a certain point I became a writer, which meant I told the stories of the people I worked with, and then I became an observer to some extent. Being in education, which is what I am doing now more than being an observer, is about taking more of an active role in the people who are going to design while still writing about the social ramifications of what these things that they’re making mean. Design is a communication art, it’s a propaganda art; an art that has power. It can and cannot influence as the case may be.

R: You’ve written a several of books on how to be a designer but Becoming a Design Entrepreneur seems quite different from the rest, considering you’re most known for working in big organisations such as the NYT and as co-chair of the design program at the School of Visual Arts NYC; where did the idea for the book come from?
SH: This is the third book on entrepreneurship that I’ve done and the second with Lita Talarico; 20 years ago we co-founded this MFA program at the School of Visual Arts called The Designer as Author and Entrepreneur. So the idea of starting your own business or creating your own equity has been at least with me for so long as a focal point of education and professional practice. But I have always worked with other design entrepreneurs who may have used their creativity to produce other projects while working for clients. From being in the background for a number of years, entrepreneurship took on a more prominent role because I figured that graphic design was going to change radically in the digital age and one of the things we can do is to help designers develop content, which would allow them to become better placed in the digital environment. As a term, graphic design no longer has the same meaning it once had; graphic design as a practice is part of the experiential practice of design which also involves entrepreneurship.

R: In trying to become entrepreneurs or getting our work out there, many designers struggle to find their voice and valuable opportunities. What are their biggest challenges we face and advice could you give to them?
SH: The greatest challenge is creating something that has value, that either it hasn’t been done before or it can be done better. Ultimately, the design entrepreneur is somebody who has an idea and that idea has an audience that can be reached somehow, and as designers, they’re in a good position to reach them through a self or team-motivated idea or product. I think the creative center of any business now is not with the people who handle the aesthetics but the ones that understand the audience, who then apply the aesthetics and conception to said audience. That’s the challenge; how do you remain a designer when design is about ordering and aestheticizing and developing a product.

R: Nowadays, anyone possessing a computer with Photoshop or Illustrator is calling themselves a designer and that saturates the market. I’m certain you’ve been asked this many times, but what do you consider makes design good?
SH: It has to do with understanding what kind of design you want to make and how do they go about setting a methodology to make that design and being open enough to embrace all the different things they will come across. Designers 20 years ago didn’t do ethnographic research and now they do so, the kinds of skills and tools that are being used have changed radically and a good designer is going to embrace them. Basically, the best designer is going to come up with something you and I feel is unique to our experience and that’s very vague; there’s no formula for that. There are formulas for lots of things in design, going from corporate identity manuals to brand strategies, there are formulas that you can follow. But the pure imagination that we still have to rely on is not formulaic, you can get there through formulas but ultimately what you’re thinking is something else. I also think storytelling is a large part of any kind of communications art and what story you tell and the way you do it are very important.

R: Now that you mention radical changes in the way we do design, what do you make of the dawn of artificial intelligence? Do you think design jobs are at risk?
SH: I don’t know. There are companies that are forward-thinking and they’re always debating about what the next big step will be like it is a chess game. I think A.I. will have an impact in all of us but what that is I’m not sure. Is A.I. telling my car to drive on its own? I’ve got to be able to trust that intelligence and when it comes to that, jobs will be eliminated, sure and other jobs that will come out of it. How’s that going to affect design I’m not sure. Design means order from chaos, we live in a chaotic world and there’s going to be a need for order whether it’s in reading or looking or watching.

R: In their work, what do you think designers tend to overlook that you think should be the norm?
SH: I don’t know whether I can answer that; people who go into design or become inventors have to overlook the things that have been done a million times before or try to make them better. If you go into any field I think the fact that something has been done before is a clear signal to go into another direction, but that’s not going to be the norm in every field. When you hire somebody to do something like mow your lawn, you don’t want them to do something radical. If you hire somebody to keep your accounting books, you want them to follow strict procedures, but I think that since design is a creative and imaginative endeavor and will continue to be that, the idea of finding something new, of discovery, is very important.

R: Considering the current political climate, what is the state of design and what role should it play?
SH: The political environment sucks. I’ve written about how designers should have some role in it and it’s wishful thinking to consider there is one. Design would have had a role if Hillary Clinton had been elected to public office. Whether it has any relevance at all other than pure propaganda in the current administration is something else. I think design serves a master in politics and it really depends on who the master is. It served Adolf Hitler very well but it wasn’t the case with Jimmy Carter. Communication worked for Berlusconi too but it wasn’t about great design but about controlling the printing presses and the television cameras and the airwaves. So it’s left to be seen how design will change the political world.

R: Speaking of politics, is graphic design a democracy or a dictatorship?
SH: When I think of the graphic designer I think of him as a dictator; he should be the expert of what is typographically or visually sound and should be the last word, but that comes from the old days of me fighting with editors. Editors and designers have their own place so it’s more of an integrated world. To that extent, integration is a better word than democracy or dictatorship. I think in the end, the field of graphic design is a democracy because it’s a meritocracy, it’s based on how well you do something. At the same time, there are people that are doing really crappy stuff who let it out in the world. Democracy is imperfect and graphic design as a field isn’t perfect, so it is an imperfect democracy.

R: What would you think was the most difficult point in your career? How did you overcome it?
SH: The most difficult moment in my career is probably now. Just addressing what my relevance is at my age in a field that has changed so much and being in a position where I’m teaching or at least administrating teachers who are trying to put students into the world. I haven’t figured that one out yet. I just keep doing what I’ve been doing and trying to expand on it so that there’s some relevance to it. But relevancy is the big challenge and I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

R: Where do you find inspiration and are there any quirks or rituals to your work process?
SH: My quirk is that I get up very early in the morning and start working. I then spend the rest of the day trying to figure out how to not do what I’m supposed to do, and in the process of doing that I get things done but they’re not necessarily the things that I’m supposed to have done that day. So you could call it a ritual or bad behavior. Ideas, however, come to people’s minds all the time, sometimes they come in dreams or after you wake up. This morning I wrote something because I knew I’d be talking to you but in between talking to someone else, I had 45 minutes to write so I came up with a little checklist of how do you know when you’re an old fogey, so it’ll probably run soon on some website. That’s just kind of a behavior that I have, there were 45 minutes that I had to fill.

R: Curators are often unnoticed as part of the design industry; since you also have experience in the matter, how is curating design different than curating art?
SH: Curating design doesn’t go unnoticed, although the general public doesn’t think of graphic design unless it’s pushed to their faces and some very good curators have done so, like Paula Antolini at MoMA and Cooper Hewitt. And there are more design curators than there used to be. The difference has to do with the discipline; design, in general, is a consumer-driven activity whereas art, while it does impact a certain kind of consumer it is very elitist in its consumption. What a curator cares about of art history is not what a design curator cares about, which is the context and what goal or solution it is trying to solve, how it’s done and how it has lasted the test of time or not. An art curator looks for heroes, the art genius or individuals that either change the way we look and perceive art as whole or specific languages of art. Sometimes they come together or overlap.

R: In your opinion, which are the most brilliant modern design projects and why?
SH: I’ve done many books that talk about brilliant design, and some of the most brilliant design isn’t necessarily the best for people. Design for the Nazi party was brilliant but it was criminal. There are many beautiful ways to design books; I think books are the quintessential human user experience, and going back to Gutenberg and coming into the press, the book is still essential to mankind for knowledge, entertainment, the appreciation of beauty and for the transmission of ideas. So I would just say that anybody involved in book design has done something remarkable for the culture and for humanity.

R: In your book, Introduction to Graphic Design History you say and I quote, “knowing the roots of design is necessary to avoid reinvention, no less inadvertent plagiarism.” This was back in 2001 and since then things have changed dramatically in the way we communicate and network as we’re exposed to more diversity and multiculturalism than before, which often leave the door open to reinvention in many fields, including design. After all this time, do you find it difficult to accept change in your field? What do you think should be left unchanged in design?
SH: From a personal point of view I’m not very good with change; I’m set in my ways and I don’t like to see a chair move from one part of the room to another. But in terms of culturally accepting change, there has to be rebirth, regrowth, regeneration all the time, and certain things have to remain the same only because they were probably good to begin with. I’ve argued for and against eligibility; the same for readability, so it really depends on a specific context or need. I have accepted change; in the 20 years that Lita and I have done this, things have changed a lot, students were used to making books and magazines and physical objects, now most of them do digital products. We lament the loss of the physical, the use of the hand, and in place of that there’s this digital sameness and redundancy, so we like to have students go back to more handwork or figuring out a way of making a hybrid of the two. That’s inevitable in any teaching situation; you want to see the good of one and of the other and bring them together to create something new.

R: What would you say to the young, aspiring Steven Heller if you had the chance?
SH: I’d say get a college education. I would say that there are things I did in my life that if I had to go back and do them again, I don’t regret any of them, but I do regret not extending my education. It wouldn’t have made things easier but it would have brought more to my life. The more input in my life, the more articulate I can be. The more understanding, maybe the smarter I can be. So I would urge people to not do it exactly the same way I did it in trying to be self-taught. Let other people help you to learn.

R: Are there any new projects you’re working on?
SH: I’m still writing books; I have one called The Moderns which is about modern designers in the United States and will be out shortly. I’ve been doing some products, one of them is called Type Deck which is a way to learn about type design and history through cards. The thing that is going to be the most challenging in the next couple of years is writing my memoirs, and that means I have to read a whole bunch of other memoirs to understand how these things are done. I’ve written first-person pieces before or things that I could call memoirs but I want to see how other people do it and what I have to offer to the field and to myself by going back in time and drawing conclusions or making confessions.

Becoming a Design Entrepreneur (2016, Allworth Press) is available on Amazon, Barnes&Noble and the Apple iTunes Store.

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