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We’ve Been To Heller And Back And We Liked What We Got So Much We’re Going To Have To Go Ahead And Share

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After bringing you the design stylings of Michael Bierut and Gregg Pasquarelli, we’re bringing you the next Unbeige Interview of The Every Week Or So, Although It Depends on Everyone’s Schedules And People Can Be Hard To Track Down. Steven Heller, graphic design enthusiast, chair of the SVA’s MFA program, editor of AIGA Voice, contributing editor to publications from Print to ID to Mother Jones, author of over 90 books on graphic design, and art director of the local paper’s book review, rocked one of our worlds when he took us to graphic design school for an hour, then rocked the other one even harder when he answered these questions. After the jump, Heller talks about subjectivity, his interest in dictatorships, and his tendency for wiggling around in a bag of cliches.

Unbeige: When did you first realize you were interested in design?

Steven Heller: I found I could make pages by putting type and image together, along with drawings I made. It was like doing jigsaw puzzles, which I liked to do. It also meant I could see the result of my labors at the end of every week since I worked for a weekly newspaper. To me, graphic design was my entry to DESIGN as a big D activity.

UB: Where do you think graphic design is headed, and are you excited?

SH: I’m not sure. Excitement is relative. I get off on seeing new illustrators doing work I’d never thought about. For instance, I’m a fan of vinyl toys and the entire illustrator’s toy movement. But I also get excited almost every time I see a drawing by Christoph Niemann–he’s just so damn smart. But as far as graphic design as thing, or as existential force, I have no idea.

The big type revolution is settling down to the day-to-day, so there’s nothing new there. I think motion is becoming more important to designers–telling stories with design as the frame is of interest. I’m not sure I’m all that keen on design as “art.” The days of Barbara Kruger–or at least when she was breaking new ground–are kind of over. Anyway, we’ll see what comes next as students graduate and do great things with their talents.


UB: How do you go about teaching students about graphic design?

SH: I don’t teach students how to do graphic design, but I do introduce them (as co-chair of the MFA Design department of the School of Visual Arts to the nexus of design and cultural, political, and social things and events. I also, as part of the program’s mandate, encourage them to be entrepreneurs, and to use their talents for creating tangible ideas that have some audience and relevance in the world (even a small part of it). But I’m helped a great deal by a fantastic faculty who are committed to teaching how, why, where, and when.

UB: What’s the first thing you do when you’re starting to design something, and you’re faced with a blank page/computer screen?

SH: Pray. Then fall into my bag of cliches and wiggle around. Then, to be honest, call someone much better than me to do it. You see, I’m an art director, not a designer, per se. So I match good people to good jobs and hope that I don’t have to meddle too much.

UB: Who has inspired you, and why?

SH: My mentor was Brad Holland, a fantastic illustrator. I’m inspired by storytellers, whatever the medium. I’m always in awe of my friend Seymour Chwast, because he makes art happen. I have long been inspired by artists who faced certain adversities–John Heartfield is my fave rave of all time. He invented political montage at a time when the world–and Germany–really needed him. Georg Grosz fits that bill as well.

UB: What are you working on now? Anything you’d really like to be working on that you’re not?

SH: I’m working on a big book for Phaidon called “Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State,” which examines how dictatorships used visual matter to propagate their respective faiths. I’ve been obsessed with this ever since I became an editorial designer. Of course it addresses Nazis (I wrote a book some years back about the swastika), Italian Fascists (and their ilk), Chinese, Soviets, etc. I want to understand who in the various bureaucracies were responsible for how things looked and what things said. Finding the primary documents of this makes me giddy. I recently obtained “the” official type catalog of the Nazi party. Funny how banal it is when you look at each decision and raison d’etre.

UB: You must see a lot of design–how do you decide if what you’re looking at is good?

SH: That’s the toughest question you’ve asked. And the answer is purely subjective. If I like it, it’s good. If I don’t I must find out why. That said, I may miss the nuance of certain things and learn to like them later, after I’ve, well, matured a bit. And things I’ve liked at the outset, sometimes, I learn to dislike. Analysis is tougher. It requires spending time and intellect understanding the form and content of work. Sometimes it’s just easier to say, “this works, therefore its good.” I haven’t answered your question, because it’s something I’m still trying to figure out. Incidentally, I love a lot of kitschy things because they bring a certain pleasure. I’m not sure that makes them “good design”, but it’s enough for me sometimes.

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