As an art director at the New York Times for 33 years and co-chair of the MFA design department at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Steven Heller has had a major impact on the trajectory of graphic design—and that’s not even mentioning the more than 180 books he’s written, coauthored, or edited on design and popular culture. Heller spoke with PW about how he chooses his projects—which include the forthcoming Head to Toe, coauthored by Mirko Ilic (Rizzoli, Apr.), and The Illustration Idea Book, coauthored by Gail Anderson (Laurence King, Oct.)—and why good design matters to non-designers, too.
A new edition of Citizen Designer, which you and Véronique Vienne coedited 15 years ago, is pubbing in May. Has the role of socially responsible design changed in any way since that first edition?
Because the world is shifting back onto that slippery slope of populism and exclusion, I think [the importance of] being a designer who makes messages for the public has increased. You see it with #MeToo, #NeverAgain, etc. I also think, at least for now, designers take their roles as framers of ideas in society a bit more seriously. Design is not just about prettifying, although there’s nothing wrong with that.
What new issues or concerns are you addressing in the second edition?
There are more personal responses to sexism, racism, the usual concerns. But there is a piece I love about designing an artificial pancreas that fits outside the body. As Paul Rand once said, probably not really aware of how true his statement was, “design is everywhere.”
Which other designers, and design books, have been important to you?
I have thousands of books spread out between office, apartment, and weekend house. Most of these books are on art, design, or a combination of the two, plus other drivers. Many of those have added chunks of knowledge and inspiration to my life. Milton Glaser’s first monograph influenced me a lot. It certainly made me realize I wasn’t a very good designer.
Given your packed schedule, how do you decide which book projects to take on?
I once thought I had boundless energy. I also had limitless curiosity, and doing books was a way to expend one and satisfy the other. I’ve always been interested in how design works in the context of culture, politics, and so on. Deciding on projects is fairly easy: what do I want to know, and what do I want other designers—or nondesigners—to know about the art and craft?
What can nondesigners learn from typography and design, and from books on these subjects?
Design and type are integral parts of our experience: if the book is not overly technical but tells a good story, it can be as enjoyable and inspirational as anything that neophytes or nonwhatevers find interesting in books.
Who do you envision as your readership when you write about design?
Depends. Some work is just for designers. But I’d like to reach whoever sees its relevance. I try to write accessibly; I’m always criticized for not using footnotes. Even when I write about design history, I like the anecdotal approach. But I’ve been doing this so long, maybe it’s time to focus in on something very specific and do the proverbial opus. Then again, maybe not.