Steven Heller



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.

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 organization.

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 everywhere.

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 twenty.

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.