Interview: Steven Heller

By Ben Kessler of the Network
Dateline: October 4, 2007

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Steven Heller, photo by Amy Stein

It sounds strange to call Steven Heller a "peerless" graphic design professional, even though his accomplishments may well justify the use of that term. In his 40-year career as an art director at the New York Times, professor, curator, and author of more than 100 books, Heller has constantly collaborated with his peers in the design world, including such luminaries as Michael Beirut, Paula Scher, and Louise Fili. He has also garnered praise for penning historical volumes such as The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?, in which he explores design's role in promoting totalitarianism. His next book on this theme will be Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State, due next year from Phaidon.

A member of the faculty at School of Visual Arts in New York City for 25 years (despite having never received an undergraduate degree himself), he serves as co-chair of SVA's innovative "Designer as Author" MFA program. This month, SVA is honoring Heller with the Masters Series Award (inaugurated in 1988 to spotlight influential but underexposed professionals in visual media) and a wide-ranging retrospective exhibition at the Visual Arts Museum. I contacted Heller via email to get his thoughts on the upcoming exhibition and the achievement-filled career it will celebrate.

Ben Kessler: Though Kevin O'Callaghan is putting together the SVA exhibition devoted to your work, you have curated quite a few design exhibitions yourself. How much, if anything, have you contributed to this upcoming retrospective?

Steven Heller: Well, it's my work and the work of my collaborators. But other than that small point, it is Kevin's design concept that will make or break this event. And at the moment it's making it. He's amazing. And I take great joy in seeing how another person interprets what I've put out there. That's what I love about working with designers. I may write and/or assemble material, but the designer gives it form—in fact, gives it life.

The New York Times Book Review, February 6, 2000
Art Director: Steven Heller
Illustrator: Steve Brodner

The exhibition will include a photo montage of your legendary design collection. What are some highlights from the Heller library that attendees can expect to see?

Kevin has photographed a portion of some of my collection—though it's not as legendary or massive as some truly astounding collectors like Mitchell Wolfson or Merrill Berman—against one wall in my dedicated apartment/library. You'll see mini-mannequins, counter display ads, and communist Chinese porcelains, among other effluvia.

This retrospective and your current sabbatical from the New York Times provide an ideal point from which to look back on your long association with that newspaper. In your history with the Times, what achievements/collaborations are you proudest of?

I'm proud of just being there. It's a remarkable institution with very smart and talented people. But since I worked with illustrators all these 33 years my pride comes in bringing a bunch of the best into the world as highly visible artists. Those who can't draw, draw inspiration from those who do. I'm the former.

Will the exhibition include your work for Screw and New York Review of Sex? Would you say that these sex magazines could still be considered shocking or controversial? Do you think the sexuality-focused design of the sixties had a lasting impact?

Yes, a few examples of those things will be in the exhibit in various forms—display, video, etc. No, they are not controversial at all. That crazy time has passed and fortunately the world—well, this part of it—has become much more tolerant of these things. It's history now.

The New York Times Book Review, June 13, 2004
Art Director: Steven Heller
Illustrator: Milton Glaser

Do you believe that this exhibition tells a particular story? What would you like attendees to come away with?

The story is about how a guy with a modicum of talent but a lot of ambition and curiosity, and some good ideas, managed to carve out a small place for himself and do a little good for others in the process. I hope that does not sound too pretentious. But SVA and its President David Rhodes has been so generous regarding this exhibit that I hope it might inspire SVA students to become workaholics—with a mission. Frankly, my job has always been as a catalyst for others to move and groove. This spotlight seems out of place. But maybe it will inspire some other catalysts.

You began your career in graphic design not long after Ken Garland's 1964 "First Things First" manifesto, which you and more than 30 other prominent design figures renewed and revised in 1999. Do you think that the intervening eight years have seen any progress toward achieving the goals outlined in the manifesto?

Yes and no. Jeez, I sound like Hilary. But the fact is the Manifesto has prompted a lot of discussion among students about so-called design citizenship. That's good. Has the world been altered? Well, Bush is still president.

As a lifelong New Yorker and the preeminent design chronicler, how do you feel that the role of design in the NYC landscape has changed since you started out? Has the city become more or less design-conscious?

This city always seems design conscious if you hang with design conscious New Yorkers. I don't think the ratio of awareness to design has increased a lot, but more conscious people have come to town over the past decade. Dang, my answer is muddled. I'm not sure how preeminent I am since I can't give you a definitive answer.

You learned the tricks of the design trade at various underground papers in late-'60s New York. How are young graphic designers in 2007 finding a foothold in the industry?

They make toys, t-shirts, games, websites, stickers. My era was great for me, but the current era with its new technologies allows for movies and videos and podcasts as fertile ground on which to grow (mixed metaphor?).

You founded the brand-new Design Criticism MFA at School of Visual Arts, the first program of its kind in the U.S. Given that the program is unprecedented in American academia and the field of design criticism is still thought of as somewhat obscure by many, how are you planning to prepare students to become working design critics?

I co-founded the program with Alice Twemlow who is doing a PhD on the history of design criticism. It's great working with her, as it has been a privilege working with Lita Talarico, the co-chair and co-founder of the MFA Designer as Author program, which I co-chair. That said, we are planning on offering a wide array of writing and media faculty so that design criticism is cross platform and broad-based. It is about analyzing objects, events, and ideas. It's NEW so it will be wonderful to see develop. Actually, I can't wait to meet our students who will start in the Fall of '08.

Throughout your career, you have collaborated with celebrated designers and illustrators, many of whom will speak about working with you in a video installation at the SVA exhibition. Will you be incorporating collaboration into the new Design Criticism MFA?

Definitely. Our new MFA studio will be a collaborative environment where students learn as much from other students as faculty. The media world cannot operate without collaboration these days. I cannot function without collaborators.

The New York Times Book Review, April 4, 2004
Art Director: Steven Heller
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic

Some have described you as blog-phobic, but your writing on the subject of design blogs is rather even-handed. Now that you have had your own blog on the Print website for some months, have your feelings or thoughts on the form changed at all?

I guess it's silly to argue against the form, but some of the content is, well, a pain. Nonetheless, I write online and I have a daily "thing" with Print that is ostensibly a blog. I like the immediacy of the form. I don't like the bad etiquette sometimes. That said, it's the proving ground for artists and designers and writers, and I appreciate that.

Do you encourage your students to blog?

Yes. I believe the more they write the better they will be able to organize and communicate thoughts. As long as they are not simply IMing, the blog could be a good preparation for them.

Your upcoming book, Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State, is unusual for you in that it took quite a while (five years) to write. Why did this book take more time than others?

The fact is many of my books take longer than planned. This just happens to be one that's publicized as taking longer because I've spoken about it in public as a work in progress. I'm getting to the finish line though. Whew!!!! In large part it's taken longer because I'm doing it alone (which isn't to underrate my great editors at Phaidon) and therefore there was nobody with whom I had to keep up with but myself. It's also difficult material to sort out. Anyway, it'll be out in Spring '08.

In the book, you examine branding through the lens of totalitarian regimes, including the Nazis. How do you make these comparisons without suggesting a simple conflation of capitalism and totalitarianism?

Oh, I'm not supposed to do that? In a way it is a simple conflation. That's what's so disturbing about it. There are so many direct parallels.

Can you say more about the parallels? Was there something you discovered in your research that provoked an especially strong shock of recognition?

Edward Bernays wrote a book called Propaganda, about the need for advertising in the US. It is the capitalist's tool, but also a means of "educating" the populace. The same basic methods were applied by Geobbels in Germany. Fascism was so linked to the capitalist oligarchy that one might be blind not to see the connections between selling a regime and selling toothpaste.

Much of your writing deals with the political uses of design. How do you distinguish between politically conscious design and propaganda?

I write a lot about politics and design, as well as polemical design. All propaganda is political in one way or another. Even when I write about art deco I can address the political side of using the style and codes.

What lessons can be learned from studying the history of design as a political tool?

First, studying the history of design in general is important for overall literacy. How can one design if the past is unknown? As a political tool it helps to understand the language of persuasion, even if the goal of the design brief is not to change politics.

Do you believe that design can change people's minds about important political issues, or does it only serve to harden the positions of true believers?

It can be used as a tool to communicate or promote ideas. In the broadest sense I don't think it really changes minds, but certain images have been known to alter perception (I guess that's the same thing). Vietnam-era posters showing horrible things changed some minds and hardened positions, but it was the IMAGE more than the DESIGN (or frame). For minds to be changed there needs to be a concerted push of word, picture, and design scheme—and then the mind has to want to change.

Books by Steven Heller

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