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So What Do You Do, Steven Heller?

A New York Times art director is also the most prolific design writer anywhere. But he doesn't want a blog.

- January 29, 2007
StevenHellerTo call Steven Heller the most widely-published design writer and editor on the planet would still be selling the man short. True, he is a regular contributor to more than a dozen visual culture magazines like Eye and Print. Yes, he’s the editor of AIGA’s authoritative graphic design journal VOICE. And he has authored more than 100 books about design, illustration, and photography; he guesses his most recent, Stylepedia: A Guide to Graphic Design Mannerisms, Quirks, and Conceits, to be about #105. For nine years he has also had a rather important role at the School of Visual Arts, where he co-founded and is the co-chair of the highly influential MFA Designer as Author program. But all of this has been accomplished, mind you, while holding down a full-time job as art director at The New York Times for the past 33 years, currently as a Senior Art Director.

Heller has recently taken a sabbatical from the Times to work on a book on the history of Totalitarian graphics campaigns and a biography of the designer Alvin Lustig. He conducted a spirited email rally with UnBeige editor Alissa Walker about great interviews, celebrity designers, and why, honestly, he can’t wait to go back to work.

Name: Steven Heller
Position: Senior Art Director, New York Times; Co-chair, MFA Designer as Author Program, School of Visual Arts, New York; and editor, VOICE: AIGA Journal of Design
Publications: Writes for more than a dozen magazines on a regular basis, author of more than 100 books.
Favorite writing assignments: Designer and illustrator obituaries for the New York Times
Education: NYU (two years), SVA (six months)
Hometown: New York City
First job: New York Free Press (as young adult), Bergdorf Goodman ad dept (at 12 years old)
Last 3 jobs: New York Times for 33 years
Birthdate: 7-7-50
Marital status: married
Favorite TV show: The Twilight Zone and The Simpsons
Last book read: Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power, by Lutz Koepnick, about Hitler as an artist and art patron.
Most interesting media story right now: Bush’s New Folly, otherwise known as strategy.
Guilty pleasure: Flea marketing

I’m so nervous about asking you questions that I feel like I’m gonna puke. Do you ever get nervous interviewing people anymore?
I don’t get nervous, unless I have no interest in the person I’m interviewing, and then I worry about sounding stupid out of malaise. You know, it’s like being a guest at friend’s son’s bar mitzvah and having to talk to someone’s boring uncle. Every so often, but not always, I’m stuck interviewing Uncle Mo.

Well, every time I’ve seen you interview someone, they always say, “Wow, that’s a really good question.” How does one ask good questions?
Well, it helps to ask questions that people want to answer. You always can tell when someone has been asked the question a million times before. Their eyes roll and they take deep, sighing breaths, and make it seem like you’re a know-nothing. So, the more insightful the question — which usually comes from your own basic interest in the subject — the better. Then there are the questions designed to unhinge the interviewee. I don’t do that a lot, but sometimes I want to get a “reaction” because that’s what will make for a good read or listen.

What about your interviewing techniques, if you can divulge them? Do you ever use an instrument to record and/or transcribe?
For years I would use my trusty cassette player — usually face to face, but sometimes over the phone with my trusty suction cup — until one day I did a great interview with the illustrator James McMullan and when I returned home, nada. Nothing recorded. Embarrassed, I had to ask him to do it all over again, and of course it wasn’t as spontaneous. This time I brought two machines and used them both. Good thing too, because one of them actually — believe it or not — didn’t work. After the interview, rather than listen to the recording, I sent the tapes to my trusty transcriber — a jazz geek, who was the fastest transcriber in the east. Now I use a digital recorder.

As for techniques, no big secret, when I talk to a subject I start with simple questions then work my way up to the biggies. Sometimes the subjects are effusive, other times they are not. The biggest pain, so to speak, is editing. If it is a long Q & A I always send the edited script back to the subject. Invariably, they try to rewrite it. I remember Maurice Sendak totally rewrote his one time. But the rule is they can fix grammar and punctuation; even rewrite a sentence or more to make the voice smoother, but no deep alterations to the content.

How many interviews do you think you’ve done in your career? Who was your favorite?
Geez, I have done many hundreds, maybe more. I don’t even remember how I started. I’ve enjoyed a lot of them for different reasons — I like getting the skinny on something I didn’t know, or finding I have surprisingly common interests with a subject, and we become kinda like friends. I’m not Barbara Walters so I can’t say I’ve interviewed Mel Gibson, Britney, A-Rod, K-Fed, or Henry K (although I wish, some day I could interview Mel Brooks).

My subjects are artists, designers, and writers — people who don’t have to do a PR thing for my benefit. My favorite, however, was a celeb: Hugh Hefner, simply because he was such a figure in my ill-begot youth. I also loved interviewing Bob Downey Sr., a great filmmaker, whose Putney Swope was such an influential picture when I was a teen. But I’ve enjoyed interviews — or rather talks — with scores of people from David Levine to Shepard Fairey.

Funny you mention celebrities, since this is something that’s come up of late — the question being if graphic designers could and should ever be considered celebrities. Should they be?
Frankly, the word celebrity is too charged. A celebrity suggests hype. Should graphic designers be hyped? No. Anything hyped outlives its usefulness pretty quick. Designers should be seen and maybe heard on occasion, but not elevated above their station unless they do more than what they do as mere graphic designers.

"Then there are the questions designed to unhinge the interviewee. I don’t do that a lot, but sometimes I want to get a 'reaction' because that's what will make for a good read or listen."

That said, there are some graphic designers who are more celebrated (which is a verb and not exactly the same as the noun celebrity) than others because they do great work, and that’s as it should be. If the fame comes from having a savvy PR person — like a couple I know — then, even if the designer’s work is great, I think ego has gotten the upper hand. So, you might ask, do I interview designers because they are celebrities? The answer is I try to interview those who I believe have something to impart beyond the artifacts they produce — those who think and speak well about craft or about the culture that influences their craft. Interviews certainly contribute to the cult of celebrity you’re asking about, but my intent is not to perpetuate it. Rather I think there are many people in our field who are worth “knowing,” either personally or through an interview.

Well, I think people get all riled up about it because they think having design celebrities is the only way design will ever be understood by an audience larger than those who practice it. Which is fed by this design awareness movement that we’re currently seeing, where design and designers are being featured in the mainstream media more than ever.
Celebrity certainly draws attention to the graphic designer, but not necessarily to design as a profession. However, designers who create consumables, as opposed to packages for consumables, are more well-publicized to the public at large. Arguably Michael Graves became more famous among the great mass for his teapot than his architecture, likewise Philippe Starck got high visibility for his products. Mainstream media — lifestyle and shelter magazines and supplements — usually focus on design that sells in the marketplace, not the esoteric stuff, unless the newly celebrated designer also does experimental stuff and is championed by some pundit.

If being known to others helps designers gain stature in business or government, that’s great. I know that Paula Scher is on the Art Commission of the City of New York and that’s wonderful because her position will have important ramifications on the way art and design is addressed on an official level in the city.

And you currently co-chair a new MFA program at the School of Visual Arts, called Designer As Author, which, to me, represents the future of this whole celebrity designer debate. Your students are encouraged to become design entrepreneurs, right?
We’re in our ninth year — and I run it with co-chair Lita Talarico. The Designer as Author program is about creating ideas that have some relevance to the culture and the market (I know that sounds like a pat response), but it’s much less about forging celebrity than about creating value. Some of our students have achieved a bit of positive buzz, but that’s not the goal. We train the students, if that’s the right word (maybe encourage is better) to think and do for themselves and create a narrative that underscores a product that builds upon their story. I guess more and more designers will become entrepreneurs simply because the tools are at their disposal — and speaking of disposal, this culture encourages disposability. So we encourage students to make products that have long-term results. Why shouldn’t designers invent and discover like all them other inventors and discoverers out there? We have ingenuity, too, don’t we?

So you do consider yourself a designer, then. That was actually one of my questions. I always thought of you as design’s biggest fan; more of a social commentator. You don’t have any formal design training, and as I recall, prior to getting your job as an art director at The New York Times your professional experience mostly consisted of art directing a few sex reviews — when you were 17! How in the world did you land that gig? Were you actually qualified?
I just finished writing a piece for Eye about how, because we are not a licensed profession, we can call ourselves anything we choose. You ask if I am a designer? I am! Am I a good designer? I was! What changed? I reached the end of my skill set as a designer and became an art director, which meant I collaborated with others to get (hopefully) fantastic results. Without schooling — learning on my own — I could not go further as a designer. Maybe even with an education I would not have gone much further either. Yet I have designed many things, from books and magazines to posters and leaflets — even a film title sequence. I used to love designing letterheads (which are in my prepubescent portfolio) and I even designed an entire typeface called Klaus Bubala Bold (because only the K U and B were interesting).

Before being hired at The New York Times Op-Ed page in 1974 I was designer/art director for various underground newspapers, publisher/art director of a couple of small underground sex papers, art director/designer for Screw, as well as Evergreen Review, the Irish Arts Center, and a bunch of other things. Was I qualified to be the art director of The New York Times Op-Ed page? Sure, or the great Louis Silverstein wouldn’t have hired me, and the stunning Ruth Ansel wouldn’t have recommended me. Am I a great typographer? Not really, and I got worse over time not better. But I know enough to critique great (and bad) typography, and I’ve written or edited a bunch of books on type. I’m not so much a fan as a wishful thinker. I always wished that by associating myself with great designers something would rub off. I still bask in the talents of designers like Louise Fili and illustrators like Christoph Neimann. I get charged every time designers like Seymour Chwast, James Victore, Hans Dieter Reichert, Helene Silverman, and Mirko Ilic, “interpret” what I do editorially, or when an illustrator like Henrik Drescher or Mark Sumers takes my brief and makes imagistic magic. Yeah, I guess I am a fan. Yahooooo.

Ha — you snuck the incredible Louise Fili in there as just another designer you’re basking in the talents of, but I bet some people don’t know she’s your wife. (No wonder you’re such a fan!) You recently collaborated with her on your most recent book, Stylepedia, which you guessed is about your 105th book. You’re certainly the most prolific voice for design and its environs, but it’s a pretty small space, and 105 books is a lot. Do you worry you’re too prolific, to the point where you might be dominating this niche market?
Certain friends (I think they’re friends) have cautioned me against being too prolific lest I devalue myself or make others resentful. I’ve heard it so many times I should have a prepared answer. But I must say I’m always dumbfounded. While I don’t think everything I do is as good as it might be (or as good as someone else might do), I believe that I have something useful to contribute to our “niche.” But more important, at least for me, I have this boundless curiosity that translates into books and articles. Have I over-saturated the “niche?” I don’t know. Probably no more than Rick Poynor, who is just as ubiquitous, or Ellen Lupton, who is just as prodigious. We each have our respective strengths (and weaknesses) that contribute to the design “discourse.” Michael Bierut is currently on a roll with his excellent writings for Design Observer and soon a couple of authored books will be out. I’m sure there are some people who might say I’m monopolizing the stage, but I’d counter that I’ve made a lot of stages for others. What’s more, by doing a book on, say, Paul Rand, I haven’t stopped others from doing so. And I wager that few people would have wanted to do the book I produced many years back called Not Tonight Dear, I Have a Haddock.

You’re right, probably not — but I’d definitely like to read that. You’re also right about how you’ve created stages for other design writers — you’ve helped bring design criticism, for example, into somewhat of a golden age. But my only question is when? You’ve managed this freelance career on top of a full time job for 30 years, you’re co-chair of this MFA program, you answer emails lightning-fast and I’m pretty sure you have a life, too...can you divulge for freelance writers some of your Steven Heller time management secrets?
I don’t think it’s a matter of superb time management as much as filling up time. Without getting Freudian or Jungian or Marxian (Groucho that is), I make up for my deficiencies by appearing to be prolific. Everyone works at their own rhythms, which, if we’re lucky, is in sync with our interests and curiosities. You at UnBeige post six items a day — and you probably do a lot of legwork to do that — for some that’s a tremendous amount of work. But it’s your job, and your passion. I simply do what turns me on (and turns off some of the demons and voices raging in my head). I also like being able to tally up accomplishments, and these come in waves. This year my wave is establishing new MFA programs at the School of Visual Arts, like the brand new MFA in Design Criticism (to be chaired by Alice Twemlow) and a few others that are top secret at the moment. Next year, maybe it will be knitting large scarves.

Well, you’ve just gone on sabbatical from The New York Times so what else are you going to do with all this free time?
I wish it were free, but I’m paying for it. The Times has been my family, and I’ve ostensibly left home (although I still write for the paper). I’m doing more at the School of Visual Arts, and working on my books, but I pulled up the anchor in my life. You know how they say the “holidays” are always a stressful and depressing time. Well, I never ever used to think so. I’ve loved New York at Christmas time since I was a wee lad. This year was my first “academic holiday.” The school was closed and I had no office to go to. I was adrift. Sure, I finished some articles, read, went to a lot of exhibits, visited a few landmarks, rendezvoused with some people, took a meeting or two, but felt disturbingly unproductive. A friend asked if I had a good vacation. My response was it felt more like a lock out (reminiscent of when the Times went on strike two decades ago, and I was literally “locked out” of the office). I apologize if I am sucking the air out of the room with self-pity, since there is no real reason to be pitiful. Yet to be productive (and therefore feel jolly) the conditions must be right.

“Steven Heller wanders the streets of New York, searching for missing jolly, adrift, making keen observations and sending me photos of brilliant scaffolding.” You know what? You need a blog!
Alissa, lest I be a curmudgeonly heretic I must say in jolly fashion, there are too many blogs. Too many opinions, observations, commentaries, drivel-ings (oops, my prejudices are showing). It’s not that I don’t drivel myself, but a blog would be an open invitation to unrestricted, unedited, and unwanted me. I’d much rather pass a few choice observations to you from time to time. The fact is, and forgive me for saying it, the design field should be about making great work (and smart thoughts, and at times insightful words); design first and foremost is about making functional (often beautiful) objects that make a difference to others’ lives — don’t you think?

You know, Steve, that’s a really good question.

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