INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN HELLER

13 November 2006
This article was originally published in Sugo. Undecided writings, Issue #1, p. 35, and re-published with permission of Sugo
This article was originally published in Sugo. Undecided writings, Issue #1, p. 35, and re-published with permission of Sugo

Eleven questions
Knowing the lively intellect and openness to discussion of Steven Heller - art director of the New York Times Book Review and influential writer and critic - Sugo asked eleven graphic designers from eleven different countries to ask him a question of their choice. What is most striking is the energy and freshness both of the questions and of the answers, which have the power - like everything that springs from brilliant and intelligent minds - of clearing up some doubts while giving rise to others.


1. abake, London/Paris, www.sexymachinery.com
What's wrong with graphic design education?

I hate to start so abruptly with a negative. So, if you don't mind, I'll begin by saying what's right with graphic design education.
There are a lot of dedicated teachers with startling ideas about how to inspire students. Notice I said "inspire" rather than teach because learning must occur in an inspired environment. For a book I recently edited titled 'Teaching Graphic Design' (Allworth Press), I compiled over forty syllabi from different levels of course-work taught by various teachers throughout the United States and I was extremely impressed to find some exciting new ways of teaching, and therefore inspiring, everything from basic typography to linguistic theory.

But the question was what's "wrong" with education? First of all, the field has become excessively production-oriented. Designers have been transformed from problem-solvers into typesetters, page-makers, and color separators, which means that the computer becomes an all-important be-all and end-all tool. Too many undergraduate design programs rely too heavily on computer instruction, which considerably reduces the time devoted to intelligent (not rote) thinking. Design is as much about making conceptual and aesthetic decisions as it is being fast with the most up-to-date software, but there is a considerable division between these in today's pedagogy. Secondly, four years is not enough time to address all the needs of students today. It may be enough time to produce a marketable portfolio but not enough to master both the technology and theory of visual communications. It is certainly not enough time to teach practice and theory. Thirdly, graphic design school is little more than a trade school if there are no liberal arts classes, and in the current environment (at least in the U.S.) liberal arts is virtually ignored. I can't tell you how many design students don't read a newspaper.

Education in any field must start broad and then focus on specialties, but graphic design education starts narrow and gets even more so. If I were to instantly change the entire structure I would add at least another year of liberal arts (and especially history). Then I would intersect design studio classes with liberal arts so that the graphic design student knows the role of his or her design in the larger culture.


2. Reala, London/Stockolm, www.reala.se
Do you believe the best graphic design is yet to come?

I'm not sure how to answer this insofar as it requires prescience that I do not possess. It is easy to look backwards to find classic work. And there is a lot of great graphic design today produced by very talented designers (albeit context is very important). But is the best graphic design yet to come? Beats me. I presume, as technology, media, world events, and other concerns of import change there were be new and different ways of addressing typography, image making, etc. Add to that those unborn geniuses who will rise to the occasion and I presume we have a lot to look forward to.


3. Matteo Vianello, Venice
What do you think about interviewing as literary format?

The interview when done really well is an art. Is it a literary art? A journalistic art? Something else? I find reading a well crafted and finely tuned interview is as enjoyable if not more than reading an article peppered with quotes. I've done hundreds of interviews and some worked out brilliantly. But I often think that has less to do with me than the subject. If the interviewee is articulate and open, the interview will be a gem. Of course, if I'm the one being interviewed, then I pray the interviewer is a genius.


4A. Tyler Whisnand, Amsterdam, www.kesselskramer.com
Do you think news art direction is different than othercommunication art direction?

News art direction, once called news make-up, is different from magazine or any other art direction insofar as the newspaper medium is different from magazines, books, etc. But more importantly, a news art director must work collaboratively with editors in presenting the heirarchy of news accurately and accessibly. There is no room for fluff. While typographical schemes are different from paper to paper (I particularly like the sophisticated boldness of the London Guardian), the bottom line is how news is presented in a way that retains journalistic qualities and judgements. News design by its very nature must be more restrained, more subservient to the content than other forms of communication design.


4B. Tyler Whisnand, Amsterdam, www.kesselskramer.com
Headlines sell papers. Does art direction? Does art direction of headlines?

A paper's reputation sells papers. Sure, sensational headlines have visceral appeal, but a solidly journalistic newspaper is a critical mass of the day's stories and its own attitudes towards those stories. While I may buy a tabloid on occasion because the screaming headline may be provocative (like, "Britney Spears Caught in Love Triangle with. . . "), I subscribe to the New York Times because I trust its coverage. The art direction of headlines must be in the service of the newspaper, so they are to be read but not obtrusive.


5. Manuel Krebs, Norm, Zurich, www.norm.to
When considering the New York Times, there's two things that really irritate me (I even dislike a lot):
-the incredibly high amount of advertisement. e.g. in the first part, from page one until page 32, I find at least 24 pages of pure advertisement. This is too much, I feel like the newspaper is losing its identity over that.
-an article would start on page 1 and then continue on page 17, or page 32 etc.
To me, these are unsolved situations. How do you deal with these issues?

I don't deal with them. I am not involved with the main section of the newspaper. I am art director of the Sunday Book Review section, which is what we call a "continuouas read." But I will comment on newspaper make-up. Alas, what you find objectionable is the reality of the medium. A newspaper relies on its advertisements for revenue. Only a small part of the overall operating budget is paid for by circulation. The Times does, however, attempt to open and usually succeeds at having full page "news holes" on a regular basis. In any given paper the A section has at least two if not more full pages, double-trucks, and other non-advertising news holes. Traditionally a newspaper front page only starts a story and it invariably jumps into the appropriate section (a foreign story will jump to foreign, a national to national, etc.). The Times has more than six daily sections and is packed with news and features, often designed quite well. My feeling is that for the most part people are conditioned to read stories that are placed against advertisements and to follow jumps of page one (usually only one jump per story). And I feel the Times does this well.


6. Experimental Jetset, Amsterdam, www.experimentaljetset.nl
One of the more interesting dynamics in graphic design seems to be the ever-changing relationship between theory and practice. To us, as Europeans, it seems that in American graphic design theory and practice are strongly polarized, or at least more than in European graphic design (if there is such a thing as European graphic design).
American graphic design seems to be divided in two seemingly separate spheres: a commercial sphere that has more to do with branding and marketing than with traditional graphic design, and an academic sphere where theory and history are to certain degree highly fetishized.
(...)
So in short, the question is: how do you view the relationship between theory and practice in American graphic design?

As you point out there is a schism between theory and practice. Always has been because there has long been a schism between academics and practitioners (the former who teach and the latter who work in the trenches, more or less). This is party due to the fact that graphic design was not built upon the philosophies born in design academies of 20th Century Europe. Sure, some American designers adopted the Bauhaus and built upon its foundation, but not across the board by any means. Most practitioners were trained in art schools that were more trade oriented than not. Therefore, theory played a decidedly lesser role in most designers' educations. Getting good work from a smart portfolio was the important thing.
(...)
Today there is a mix of theory and practice. Perhaps it is not as widespread as in European design academies and practice, but depending on the institution design students are asked to read and understand theoretical principles. I for one, however, believe that ultimately practice is the final measure. Theory only takes graphic design so far - and not far enough in terms of the designer's actual job category. Theory is a foundation, not an end product. I think that has been the root of the dichotomy between the two positions. You are correct there is no real dialectic here, but there are points of view and ways of practice. Eventually balance will be established (if it hasn't already) as more designers extend their educations to allow for more complex levels of practice.


7. Delaware, Tokyo, www.delaware.gr.jp
We still love Roy Lichtenstein, but we are boring Pop Art. We still respect Buckminster Fuller, but we can't be interested in New Age. We want to mix Pop and New Age. We would like to design with the things everybody knows (the cloud, smoke, steam, do-re-mi-fa, etc...). What do you think?

Sounds poetic. Sounds fine with me. Sounds like you should do whatever you want to do. Design is about the here and now. It is also about knowing history.


8. Francois Chalet, Zurich, www.francoischalet.ch
What do you think about Swiss graphic design of today?

It's not the Swiss design of yesterday, that's to be sure. Groups like Benzin and Buro Destruct are quite exciting (however, I go crazy every time I go to the BD website with its incesent tinkling sound as the opening page typeface materializes. I can't get that damn tinkle out of my brain. Stop already!!!!! Stop!!!!!!). Other than this small complaint, the stereotype of Swiss graphics that was whittled away by Wolfgang Weingart is totally destroyed by the younger generation. I guess only the red cross is left. (Incidentally, I read that the Red Cross is suing Switzerland for trademark infringement). I wish I could say that new Swiss graphic design has made a splash on American shores. Although the books are published here (and I have many of them), the work is so eccentrically varied that it is difficult, I think, for students to find a single focus. I guess the main difference between the Swiss work today and yesterday is the absence of an ideological focus. It both pleases me and saddens me that rigidity is no longer in fashion.


9. Lizzie Finn, London, www.lizziefinn.com
Whilst there is a great deal of good, well considered typography for retail and billboard advertising in London, there has been a widespread trend of very badly designed signage for municipal buildings, schools and libraries. What do you think can be done to re-emphasise the important role of the graphic designer in public organisations where people seemingly untrained in the basics of typography are using digital technology to create huge lettering which has a huge affect on the local environment?

Involve graphic designers in the overall process early in the planning. I don't know the drill in London, but here in the colonies signage is not high on the agenda. Often when these things are seriously considered the budget is small and the architectural scheme is set. Of course, graphic designers need not run the show, but I've noticed that when they (as opposed to sign people in an architect's office) are asked to participate at a point when it is possible to integrate their work into the total construction, the signage is more effective - and better looking. I'm always amazed when I see new high-ticket, luxury buildings around New York City, like Donald Trump's numerous apartment towers, adorned with second rate signage.

What a lost opportunity to integrate sign and structure. Sadly, the bottom-line usually squeezes out good taste every time. But you can extrapolate this to many areas where designers are called in at the last minute. Some can work miracles but many are hamstrung by meager fees and numerous proscriptions.


10. Ichiro Higashiizumi, Tokyo, www.higraph.com
In the near future, what might be the next big thing that next alters people's way of responding or feeling? What kind of a thing, or mood, do you think allows for that kind of change?

This is a big question and I'm afraid I don't have a high-powered enough crystal ball. But I would suggest that there are many icons that have changed our views of the world. Recently, I saw the cut version of the 40 year-old Zapruder film that captured the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The frames that were eliminated for so long reveal the impact of the bullet(s) and the explosion in Kennedy's head. I still feel the horror and sadness. I was 13 years old and remember the weekend well because all regular programing on television was substituted for continual, real-time coverage of the events. When I saw that piece of film in a recent documentary, all the feelings welled up again.

This kind of image is unpredictable. It is that fleeting moment that interrupts the calm of our lives and makes us aware that life is all too unpredictable.

Since 1963 there have been many images with similar effects, although not all have been so emotionally devastating. I remember the first time I saw a photograph of a 8 month old fetus on the cover of Life Magazine. It awed me in the opposite way. Rather than despair, I felt hope that science could allow us to finally see the mysteries of life.

Anyway, I don't know what the next big image will be, but given my lessened capacity to tolerate shock, I'd rather simply be awed by something wonderful.


11. Joshua Ray Stephens, New York, www.lostpropertyinformation.com
Hi, I am a designer who recently moved to Brooklyn. I was wondering if I can swing by sometime and we could go get some drinks at the Bulgarian Bar in Chinatown?

Hi, be happy to see ya after the holidays. Chinatown? Bulgarian? Would you settle for a chat in the sometimes cozy conference room at the Times?




About Steven Heller
Steven Heller, is the art director of the New York Times Book Review and the co-chair of the MFA/Design program at the SVA, New York. He is contributing editor to Print, Eye, and Baseline magazines and author of several books on graphic design, popular art, and satiric art, among which: The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?, Design Literacy, Design Literacy Continued, Graphic Style: From Victorian to Digital, The Graphic Design Timeline, Design Dialogues, Typology, The Graphic Design Reader, Citizen Designer, Merz to Emigre: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century. He is currently writing a biography of Alvin Lustig.

About Sugo Magazine
Sugo.Undecided writings is a different vision in the world of visual culture, a mix of various ingredients that all together make an inviting, fresh and new magazine. Sugo represents a unique project in the Italian editorial panorama, each issue features the most interesting artists of the international scene. The mag goes through all the different expressions of visual arts - namely graphic design, web design, photography,illustration, video,industrial design - but also, music, writing and cookery - with a special eye to the emerging trends. It is published twice a year and distributed worldwide in the best bookstores. Sugo, is created and published by Studio Camuffo, Venice.