Steve Heller
October 31, 2002

by Armin Vit

Speak Up: For a writer who has tackled every conceivable topic in the field of Graphic Design, from the myths of the Swastika to Cuba's visual history, how do you approach new projects?

Steve Heller: Whatever strikes my fancy seems ripe for something -- article, book, dance, e-mail conversation. I try to find the story in whatever I'm interested in. Telling stories is very important.

SU: Are you afraid, although that might not be the right word, that you will eventually have no theme to discuss? Or in a less promising scenario that designers will say 'oh! another Steve Heller book', roll their eyes and instead favor the latest (and trendiest) designer biography/portfolio book?

SH: Yep. While there is an endless supply of new experiences, I'm always scaring myself that I'll run out of curiosity. And Yep, I hear that very "another Heller book" line from people. I realize over saturation has its downside, but I'm addicted to exploring. Perhaps some of my books are written before the information is fully digested, and that is a problem.

I'm always scaring myself that I'll run out of curiosity.

SU: This might be old news. What did you think of the "patriotism" shown by designers after the September 11 attacks? Every organization from the AIGA to Italy's Fabrica was encouraging designers to submit artwork, but was it just a little bit too much?

SH: It is old news and frankly no longer of interest to me. Patriotism has its good and bad sides. From a design point of view we can be patriotic and make objects that do good for people, or we can be nationalistic and produce clichés that further fill the world with mediocrity. But despite my criticism of the post 9/11 graphic output I do feel it was heartfelt. People were grappling with issues, concerns, and fears, which manifest in images that relied on timeworn idioms -- and that is inevitable.

SU: Granted, some of the images and graphics created were extremely powerful and emotional. I can't help but think that with Graphic Design being so image oriented and preoccupied with recognition this was nothing more than another opportunity to get their work exposed, and use these events as a vehicle for self-promotion. Maybe even one more attempt to convince the public that design matters?

SH: Perhaps there is an element of opportunism, but I don't think that was the majority feeling. I think people just wanted to say something -- anything.

SU: Do you feel like, and this question might apply to every trade, Graphic Design lacks dialogue between it's practicing professionals? Yes, we have publications, conferences and lectures, but it all seems to be a one way street with designers concerned only about talking and not listening. After all we are in the business of communication. This just sparked the opposite thought, do we really need dialogue at all in our field?

SH: Depends on the dialogue. We're a large "community." Some people talk, others listen, still others talk and listen, and still more just let the world go by. I think we have enough outlets for discussion between the trade press, organizations like AIGA, and now the bloody web. More important, we should integrate more with other cultural activities.

Some people talk, others listen, still others talk and listen, and still more just let the world go by.

SU: We have all heard how much design "styles" can vary in the various regions of the US. Print Magazine ran an article (I just can't find the issue that was printed on) about this same topic, with a rather pointless quiz about matching styles with their regions. LA natives can't stand New Yorkers and vice-versa. In a talk by Stefan Sagmeister in Atlanta, GA he was asked what inspired him, and his first response without hesitation was 'New York'. What, in your opinion, separates New York from the rest of the US and has established it as one of the greatest Graphic Design centers in the world?

SH: New York is simply a vibrant place, full of energy (both positive and negative). Stefan comes from tidy Europe but his mind is best suited for HERE. I don't think of him as Austrian, I see him is devoutly New Yorkian. But more specifically, New York is a melting pot to use a cliché, and there are so many influences and inspirations that its hard not to be energized - or for that matter competitive, which means a high degree of trying to out do the next guy.

SU: What is your take on the AIGA and other organizations devoted to Graphic Design? Are they doing enough for our profession? They talk about educating the public, setting ethic standards and promoting Design as a valuable business tool, but in pure appearance they just seem to be concerned about booking that month's "hot" designer for their next conference. At the moment I am not actively involved with any organization but I follow their events, articles and general doings in the "Front End", what is happening in the "Back End"?

SH: Any organization is what you bring to it. When I first got involved with the AIGA many years ago it was as the "curator" of a show on Political Art. The then director gave me her full support and I used that as an opportunity to open the discussion of what is effective polemics. I got Tom Wolfe, Tom Wicker, and others involved in the selection process. What I'm saying is that one has to be involved rather than watch from the sidelines. If there are too many "hot" designers on the stage, bring something else to the stage. But I would disagree with you in any case, I think AIGA does a great job of promoting many areas of cultural concern beyond the parochial aspects of the profession. I don't go to the pure trade events, but I love the ones that go beyond -- and in New York, for example, there are many.

steve h

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