The All-Seeing Eye

If you had to pick one person as the ultimate observer of the past, present, and future of design—from cereal boxes to sneakers to web architecture—it’d be hard to go wrong with Steven Heller. His name is on more than two hundred books as author, co-author, editor, or contributor; he produces a continual flow of articles, commentary, and criticism for magazines; now posts online at The Daily Heller; and was until recently the longtime senior art director for the New York Times Book Review. (Those obits for the main newspaper? Just a little sideline.) Throw in his post at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, as co-chair for its master’s program in design, and it won’t be surprising to learn that Heller’s workday begins at 4:30 a.m. How does he do it? “I just do it,” he says simply. “We all have obsessions and this one is mine. I wish I could be more profound or witty, but it is what it is.” 

A lifelong and admittedly provincial New Yorker (he has acknowledged a certain kinship with Woody Allen), Heller is making a trip to St. Paul to deliver the third annual lecture for the “Leaders of Design” series for the College of Visual Arts. That talk takes place in conjunction with 365: AIGA Annual Design Exhibition, an annual survey of current design excellence.

Given your protean career, what do you make of the groundswell of interest—bordering on mania—about design of all kinds in recent years? The American Craft Museum changed its name to the Museum of Arts & Design. All kinds of magazines, including titles like Newsweek and Fast Company, are producing special design issues and treating designers almost as celebrities. There’s Target’s “Design for All” credo, of course, and locally, Minneapolis is reveling in its new status as a “design capital.” It seems that design is working its way into, or being exploited by, every nook and cranny of the culture. What do you think is driving this?

I could take the cynical view and say that as America’s industrial and agrarian might recedes, our main output is in the form of entertainment and crafts. Design straddles both realms. Good design can be quite entertaining and it can be perceived as craft. That said, design also frames and positions many of our greatest commodities. The mega-chains worshiped by us lumpen, like Starbucks and Target, have raised the bar of design and are not ashamed to give it credit. Apple is fifty percent design, and we love them for the way they’ve made things look. Yet design has long been part of American life. When I was a kid my mom read all the interior design magazines and bought her furniture and accessories accordingly. Fashion, cars, et cetera, it’s long been about design, as well as utility. We are simply in a period were the word is used more, because people identify with it more. But watch out that design and “lifestyle” do not become synonymous.

One of your SVA students famously designed the new prescription bottle for Target as her thesis project. Have you come across other student projects that are worthy of that kind of attention?

We are always looking for that spark in a thesis project. We see lots that have potential. A few years ago one of our stellar students created a project called “Ametrica,” which was a wonderful campaign to turn America metric. She received various grants to produce a book and other advocacy materials, and is still plugging away. These things take time. But more likely our “Designer as Author/Entrepreneur” students produce manageable products that do not require the millions necessary to launch the Target bottle. Quite a few have started small entrepreneurial businesses.

You are part of an increasingly rare breed in the U.S.: a leader in your field who does not have a college degree. Do you regret not having gotten that diploma, or do you think college is overrated?

I don’t honestly regret anything that I’ve done, so far, in my life. What I didn’t learn in college—I was an English major at New York University and then studied illustration, very briefly, at the School of Visual Arts—I learned in spades at jobs that offer great stories to tell my grandchildren. I kind of wish I had a broader education. But the fact is, I was not a good student, so I doubt that college would have made much of a difference for me. I needed the stimuli I received away from the classroom—in the streets, as it were.

Could a young person today achieve what you have without a college degree?

No, I think kids today—with certain exceptions— should have a college education that includes real-world experiences. As far as the degree goes, it is looked upon in many fields as a measure of accomplishment. In design, however, it’s the work that counts.

You got your start in the late ’60s at an underground lefty paper, the New York Free Press, and worked for decades at the New York Times, one of the most esteemed newspapers in the world. But with the rise of all things online, is there anything to the continual proclamations about the “death of print”—or the equally common proclamations to the contrary?

I wrote a bit about the death of print lately. I feel mixed. While I cannot believe it will happen in our lifetime, there is an incredible push for integration of print and web components, and this is to be expected as the shift in media appetites turns toward the web. Behemoth magazines, like Life and Look, folded after TV took all the advertising dollars. These things happen. What about the death of vinyl? Or the death of hot type? Or the death of CDs? For the most part these have become anachronisms. I used to joke that there was no paper on Star Trek, and why should there be?

We’ve become familiar with the idea of corporate and consumer responsibility—tailoring actions with regard to the environment, to social and economic justice, and so forth. You make the same call for designers in your book Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility. How does that work?

It’s simple. If you are in a profession that both uses and abuses resources, be aware of what you are doing. I think that’s the first step in design citizenship. From there one has the freedom and responsibility to decide how one’s talents are used. To knowingly hurt others through one’s work or wares is irresponsible, if not criminal. So don’t do it.

And on that note, what are your thoughts on phenomena like “eco-chic,” Ethos Water, and the RED campaign, which revolves around specially designed goods—heavily promoted
by celebrities—to be purchased in support of fighting AIDS in Africa?

Whatever works. Hey, philanthropy began in this country with the robber barons. Of course, if we didn’t have a government that encouraged philanthropy by making it worthwhile for the rich, they might never have done it, but still, their contributions have been long-lasting. I think we have a tendency to write off fashion in the service of good works, but I believe if the quid pro quo helps someone other than the fashionistas, then bring it on.

As a consumer, what are some of your design-related pet peeves, or things you find outrageously stupid, unjust, wasteful, etc.?

What I truly hate is voice mail hell. The notion that we must talk to machines for basic services is infuriating. I think it wastes time, and reduces employment.

And on the flip side, are there products or things you find simply irresistible? What about anything you’re drawn to for the “wrong” reasons?

My guilty pleasures are antique, things from the past. But as far as contemporary objects or gadgets go, I’m as attracted to Apple products as the next person. I have four iMacs of varying years that are sitting unused in a bathroom. I’m also a sucker for sneakers, though I stick with just a few by New Balance. Still, I fantasize about buying them. Other than that I’m pretty ascetic.

You’ve authored more than a hundred books and written introductions for probably a hundred more. Many of these titles, it seems, revolve around obsessions you have. There’s one on vintage Halloween graphics, and one you produced with your wife, the designer Louise Fili, on miniature countertop mannequins from now-defunct department stores. What are you collecting or obsessing over right now?

Currently, I’m finishing a long and large project on totalitarian graphics of the twentieth century. I’m obsessing over this material because it contributed to the branding of the world’s harshest regimes. Sometimes the graphics were sensational.

And what about an earlier title: The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? Have you found an answer to that question? How do you suggest we deal with swastikas as part of the ornamentation of buildings—many from a certain era?

In my mind I’ve found the answer. In the U.S. and other Western countries it should not be redeemed for another fifty years. In other nations, and for peoples who have long owned the symbol for good, not evil, they should have their unabridged right to it. Of course, it was used in the U.S. as ornament long before the Nazis stole it, so I have no problem with these historical contexts. What I object to is the abject and idiotic use of Nazi emblems by those who use them flagrantly, like rock groups and skateboard companies.

Finally, why did you choose this portrait by illustrator Cristoph Niemann to illustrate this interview?

I hate having pictures taken of me, and worse, I hate seeing them. Vanity? Dunno. As for the image itself, it just makes me smile. I don’t see it as me, but as a little logo for something else.