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If you notice anything peculiar about this particular medalist
essay, it is probably one of the very few that is not written by
Steven Heller, the ubiquitous, tireless chronicler of our design
times, is the author, co-author, or editor of more than sixty books
on design-related topics (with fourteen more due to be published as
we speak). A journalist, critic, and commentator, he has written
for a wide array of publications, including Print, U&lc,
I.D. Magazine, Affiche, Graphis, Creation, Eye, Design, How,
Oxymoron, Design Issues, Mother Jones, Speak magazine and the
New York Times Book Review. Steven Heller has also been
editor of the AlGA Journal of Graphic Design since its
inception as a serious forum for design writing-and criticism, in
the early '80s.
Apparently, all of this has been nothing but a sideline because
the same Steven Heller is also a full-time, salaried employee
(senior art director) of the New York Times Book Review, a
weekly publication that closes on Wednesdays. In this capacity,
Heller has launched and nourished the careers of innumerable
successful and influential illustrators. But that alone would be
worthy of a whole other medal from a whole other graphic arts
If we keep our discussion here restricted to this particular
AIGA medal, then we are talking about lifetime achievement that
comes from a workday existing roughly between 4:30 and 8:45
A.M.—FOUR-THIRTY TO EIGHT FORTY-FIVE A.M.—before a full workday at
the Times, to produce sixty some books; edit a bunch of
magazines; write innumerable articles, reviews, forewords, and
obits; plan the annual Modernism and Eclecticism
symposium; and chair a graduate' program at the School of Visual
Arts. I've known Steve for about twenty years and have never been
able to figure out this math.
In this process of impossible Herculean output Heller has
managed to completely chronicle the past hundred years of graphic
design to such an extent and depth that his influence cannot help
but be felt by every design student and practitioner everywhere in
the world. He is the Samuel Boswell of our graphic design age.
Heller came to his Boswellian role by a strange and circuitous
route. A product of both a military school and a progressive prep
school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Heller never received a
formal art education. In 1968, his leftist leanings led him to the
New York Free Press. He was seventeen years old and became
art director. He had no qualifications whatsoever for that job. He
used his press pass to attend some New York University lectures on
a variety of subjects during the student sit-in strikes. That seems
to have been the extent of college education for this author of
over sixty books.
At the Free Press he met a brilliant young illustrator
named Brad Holland, who persuaded Heller that page layouts and type
choices actually mattered. Heller had been more or less oblivious
to design. He had read a copy of Simplicissimus for its
political content and thought the design “looked nice.” But
Heller's personal tastes ran more toward political cartooning and
conceptual illustration. In 1974, after brief stints at
Interview, Rock, Screw, Rat, and the Evergreen
Review, he wound up as art director for the New York
Times Op-Ed page, home of political illustration, surrealism,
and social comment. His respect and passion for illustration led
him to produce a variety of collections on the subject. The first,
Artists' Christmas Cards, was followed by Man Bites
Man: Two Decades of Satiric Art, Jules Feiffer's America and a
number of others.
By the early '80s Heller had become interested in design, an
interest that was ignited by two important relationships. The first
was his friendship with Seymour Chwast. Both had a passion for
publishing. Heller was interested in politics and history, while
Chwast was interested in type and imagery. Heller knew what was
important; Chwast knew what was good. Together they produced a slew
of books, including Art Against War, The Art of New York,
and Graphic Style, a compendium that has become a bible
for graphic designers.
At the same time, Heller had begun dating graphic designer
Louise Fili, whom he would marry in 1983. Fili was then art
director of Pantheon Books. Heller had sent her a fan letter
because he noticed that all the book jackets he liked in the
bookstores were always her designs. He became serious about
learning about typography, largely because it was a good way to
impress his date. Heller and Fili later became husband-and-wife
collaborators on a series of books for Chronicle on Italian Deco,
French Deco, British Deco and other beautifully designed
compendiums, which have become highly popular with designers
In the early '80s Heller also became editor of the AIGA
Journal of Graphic Design. He turned a chatty, amateurish
newsletter into a serious journal of critical writing, inviting
academics, practitioners, sociologists, lawyers, and so on to
contribute articles on a broad variety of topics in themed issues.
Looking Closer, volumes one and two, are compilations of
articles culled from the AIGA Journal as well as other
publications. The Journal became a forum of lively debate
and ushered in a mature age of critical design writing.
Through the Journal, Heller launched and nourished the
careers of many fledgling design writers now prevalent in current
design publications. Most of these publications, in authorship or
editorial mix, cannot help but, in one way or another, be
influenced by Steven Heller.
There is no quintessential Heller book. He operates in an ad hoc
manner, seemingly a jack of all trades. Some of his books are
eclectic mixes, illustrating specific genres or approaches, like
That's Entertainment, Jackets Required, or Graphic
Wit. Others are “how-to” books that relate to design careers
and business. Others still are portraits of individual designers,
notably the recently published tome on Paul Rand. Design
Literacy was a collection of Heller essays, revisited and
assembled as a view of specific designs he deemed important and
influential for a variety of reasons.
The one common denominator of Heller's work is that the design
and/or the designer is always the star. Heller maintains a
journalistic narrative that allows the design and the designer to
stand out. His compendiums are always inclusive, usually
illustrating a broad and varied range of work. This stands in sharp
contrast with other recent design compendiums where work of a
specific contemporary style is collected and a thesis is written
about the work. While the compendium will contain the work of many
designers, the work appears so similar that the individual designer
disappears and only the author of the thesis is visible.
Steven Heller has been graphic design's biggest fan. There is
not a symposium, conference, show, book, publication or graphic
organization that does not continually rely on his counsel and
recommendations. For any question asked of him, he responds with
twenty ideas, and if those aren't the right ones, he finds another
We easily take for granted our design history books, our
magazines, and our conferences. We are accustomed now to seeing
design work from all over the world and from any time in history
without working terribly hard to find it. But before 1980, design
books, magazines and design conferences were few and far between.
Steven Heller has immortalized our graphic past and made coherence
of our present. The debt that future graphic designers owe him
simply cannot be calculated.
The distinguished AIGA Medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements in the field of design.
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RT @AIGAdesign: Register now for #AIGAdesign Conference, this Oct in NOLA
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