One could argue that Steven Heller wrote the book on graphic design — in fact, he’s written more than 80 of them. And when Heller isn’t writing about design, he’s putting his theories into practice. He spends his time as the senior art director of the New York Times and as cochair and founder of the Master of Fine Arts program in design at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Heller has seen it all in his career — from the days of hot-metal typesetting to the advent of computers — with the Mac playing a crucial role.
Q: When you’re doing the layout for the New York Times Book Review, what are you using?
A: Well, now it’s a Mac, of course. And we’re on the QPS system. I was here when the first Mac was used, and that was brought in by Gary Cosimini, who now works for Adobe. He actually brought in a little laptop keyboard. And from that he went to what became the Mac Classic, and then he helped inaugurate other Mac products in the New York Times.
Q: What do you use at home?
A: I use an iMac. I have two iMacs and an iBook.
Q: Which iBook?
A: They go by color, don’t they? It’s the graphite iBook that was the top of the line last year.
Q: That was the time when they came out with the Lime Green one.
A: Right. This one has DV movie, the system is 9.0.1. My iMac is the graphite iMac, and it’s 9.0, and my son’s is the first iMac. And that’s on 8.5.
Q: And you haven’t upgraded that?
A: No, no. I don’t know how to do it.
Q: So, you do graphic layout and design in QuarkXPress. At the School of Visual Arts, where you are co-chair of the MFA program in design, do you also use the Mac?
A: At SVA, I don’t personally use the Mac at all. It’s mainly teaching there. I would love to be able to use PowerPoint, but it seems like just getting the stuff scanned and put into PowerPoint is more trouble than its worth since I have thousands and thousands of slides and trays. But at SVA, the requirement is that students must bring their own tools and computers. And they have to be at a certain standard. What they’re getting now are G4s. The standard is a G4, although some people have others. We prefer them to have a monitor and a tower, but if they come in with a laptop, and they come in with an external screen, it just needs to be something that they can do their work on in the studio because the way we set up the design studio, it’s set up like a design firm. And they are networked by our tech person. They’re given e-mail and Web accounts. They’re connected to some sort of Ethernet, and they can output to our various output devices, but they have to provide their own machinery.
Q: The students keep their machines in the studio?
A: They keep them there, and they have 24-hour access. Except the holidays. It’s really like going to school with pencils and papers and rulers. You don’t get that for free. You bring that with your loose-leaf binder, which you also have to provide. It’s the same idea. It’s just like capital expenditures that have to be updated on a regular basis.
Q: In your books, you’re a great chronicler of graphic design, approaching it as though it were art history. Why don’t you include much of your own graphic work?
A: Well, I don’t really design that much anymore. I mean, I do my daily or weekly book review section, and if you look at the last year’s edition of the [American Institute of Graphic Arts] annual, you’ll see my work in there, because they gave me the AIGA medal in 1999. So stuff of mine is in there, and stuff of mine ends up in some annuals here and there. But I don’t go out of my way to promote my own work. And when I do another book, another designer will design it. I don’t feel that I bring anything new to the design of books, and so I’d rather have somebody who has another point of view interpret what I’m giving them. My wife and I do a number of books together. She has a design firm, Louise Fili Limited, and she used to be the doyen of book jackets when she was the art director of Pantheon for over 11 years. She did three or four thousand book jackets. So when we started doing our Deco series, she did all but one. And we’ve done a few other books together: Cover Story, Typology, Design Connoisseur, and we have something coming out in the fall called Counter Culture.
Q: So how do you see yourself — as an art director first. As a historian?
A: I see myself as an art director. That’s how I got into this field. And I think of myself as an art director and as a writer, because I write. I think of myself as a chronicler or historian because I research and chronicle. I think of myself as a critic when I’m in that mode, when I write critically about the field. I think of myself as a critical historian when I look at the field through that eye and bring to it what I already know as a practitioner.
Q: What is your background?
A: I worked in underground newspapers, and I went to the School of Visual Arts for about six months to get out of the draft. Then I went to NYU for about a year and a half to see if I could get a college education. Which I couldn’t. So I left that. So I don’t have a diploma, or anything. But my education is the street, basically. I learned what I learned, and there are limitations to what one can learn on the street, which is why I’m not as good a designer as, say, my wife or as a bunch of other people who I have a great deal of respect and admiration for as designers. But I do know how to judge work, and I do have an encyclopedic mind, and so I address things through my strengths.
Q: In a recent interview, you’re quoted as saying that you consider a designer as more than just a service-practitioner, more of an author. Isn’t this a little dangerous, since, after all, design is a commercial venture, and we as designers supply our talent as a service?
A: Well, let me argue that point, then. When I use the term designer-as-author, I am using an academic term . . . . What I end up saying in fact is that we’re talking about the designer as something other than a pair of hands. Somebody other than a manipulator of form. Somebody who brings a concept and idea to the table. And the step further that we go, in our program, the designer is expected to create from scratch, to create a product. And where we diverge from any kind of more academic post-structuralist mumbo jumbo is that our products are quite practical and utilitarian. We don’t deal in the world of theory. We do not deconstruct in any theoretical sense. We construct in a very real sense, in a very functional sense.
So our students may turn out to be authors in a very literal sense of the word, or they may turn out to be authors in the figurative sense. But what they are, in general, are producers, editors, and entrepreneurs. And the entrepreneurial term is the one that doesn’t get you approved by the State Board of Regents. The entrepreneurial idea becomes more of a trade or vocational idea, when in fact entrepreneurship really means that you’re taking a risk. And the risk is that you’re putting your idea on the line to see whether indeed that idea works, and whether that idea works in a marketplace that may or may not be defined by one. What we do and what we emphasize in our program is that graphic designers have a number of skills and talents. Everyone has a different degree of skill and talent and we encourage and therefore direct those people to use those skills and talents to create products/projects. But products is the word I always use because we want them to develop something from whole cloth.
Q: So your students are not merely developing the product, they’re giving it its market context?
A: Well, presumably they know what the market is for this. Presumably they’re taking the product out of the air, but out of the air that they breathe. Which means that they are going to spend a year of their life doing something that they wouldn’t ordinarily do, that has some resonance for their life. Some products may be complex, some may be quite simple, but the ones that are most successful come from a desire, if not a passion, to fulfill a need that they have for seeing this product in the world. And one of the students, for example, did something that’s quite amazing. He created a whole package of signage proposals that could be used by the FAA to avoid runway collisions, and while it seems that might be something an engineer might produce, he, as a graphic designer, felt that his expertise in design could help this. And then he could create it as a product.
Now, you can see from this the word product is quite broad, but he felt that he could develop a package that he then licenses or sells to the FAA or airports. Then on the other side of the fence is someone who is publishing a book that was meant to be a magazine, but it also worked as a book. And it is being published this fall. It’s a collection of visual essays/visual phenomena that are anthologized into this book. They’re all original pieces, they’re not from other places, but it runs the gamut from someone who is indeed an author in the official sense of the word to an author of ideas that is not so conventionally used.
Q: So you use the word author for lack of a better term?
A: Well, yes. But really it is a reasonable term because who is to say that an author just works with pen and paper?
Q: But I think that there’s the connotation of the term author. You’re getting into that gray academic area where it sounds like it’s ego-inflating for the critic to become the author, and put himself in front of producing art.
A: In the sense that a graphic designer has traditionally served a client, that’s correct. And the analogy of a critic taking over an authorship role is true. However, you have critics who are indeed critics/authors. If you take it to the auteur theory, you have Truffaut, who was a film critic but then he turns his attention to making film so he knows the language already. In fact, he knows it better than some people who pop out of film school without that critical sensibility.
Q: So, you’re trying to give your students a real environment where this is a real studio and this is the real thing?
A: Exactly. We’re in the business of saying that they all have something coming in. And what they do with that something is up to them and up to the marketplace.
Q: What are the requirements for getting into this MFA program?
A: Officially, they have to have a 3.0 GPA, they have to speak English. They have to have a very good creative portfolio.
Q: Are they all coming from the same graphic design school background?
A: No. In fact, we want people who are not graphic design school people. We want people who have been in the world a couple of years so that when they come into the program, they are designers. They know the language fluently, and they can reapply the language in a way that allows them facility. They’re not coming in to learn better typography. They’re not coming in to learn how to make a page. They should already know that. That said, we do allow people to come in who may have had film backgrounds, may have had photography backgrounds, may have never picked up a stylus, may have never used QuarkXPress. And so those people we integrate into the program. We give them remedial training. Some of them take three years instead of two years.
Our program does not use the word graphic in the title. It’s called “MFA Design,” which doesn’t mean we’re self-hating graphic designers. It just means that design is an all-encompassing field, that the skill level of graphic design is something that should be applied across the board. If someone out there is a really good writer, we’re not going to take them into the program unless they can show facility. If they can’t show the facility, we’ll recommend they go someplace else, or try it out for a short time. Because some people who are writers say they want to be designers, and once you put them into the designer context, they don’t have the inclination or talent. They just have the desire. And the desire isn’t necessarily enough.
Q: Oftentimes, though, do you find that this falls in the space between art director and designer?
A: We’d bring in art directors who aren’t designers because the bottom line is we want to see if they have ideas. It’s pretty easy to see in the first months of schooling, but it’s harder to see in their portfolios. So we interview them, and we try to get a sense of where they’re coming from and where they want to go. If they say the right words, we’ll take them. If they say the wrong words, and they have a 4.0 GPA, we won’t take them. Because they have to be able to know what our program is about coming in. And we certainly give them enough aid in the Web site to figure it out.
Q: How much of a portion of this program deals with the new medium of the Web?
A: Well, interestingly, a lot of people who come to us have worked on Web sties. And they don’t want to do that any longer. They’ve reached some sort of dead end, or they’ve reached some point at which they feel secure in it. Whatever, there are many different reasons. So they come to us because of the variety that we offer. And if you go down our course list, primarily we’re giving tactile, three-dimensional courses. We have two book courses, one somewhat experimental and the other is very commercial. It’s a merchandising course. We give a music course. While the students have to decide on music they want to package, it’s ultimately making a musical environment and then packaging it in a variety of ways. We have a television course, where they have to create IDs and other ancillary materials and that is new media and old media. We offer them a magazine program where they have to create a magazine from whole cloth, and it has to be a viable possibility, although it has to be something we’ve never seen before. We do have one full year of what we call New Media, and it’s taught by Peter Girardi of Funny Garbage. But Peter is not telling them how to develop Web sites. What he’s teaching them is what the Web site can be used for, and how it can advance their ideas.
A lot of people do come into the program and they don’t know Flash, and they don’t know HTML, and they don’t know this and that, and all the things that I don’t know. So we give them a lot of workshops.
Q: It seems to me that when you got into graphic design, the digital technology hadn’t yet taken hold and was still the hand-cut, pieced-together medium that made Milton Glaser and others of his generation famous.
A: Well, the first thing I ever worked with was an IBM [Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter] computer in 1968. Or maybe late ’67. It was the first time I was introduced to what typesetting was. And when I came to the New York Times years later, I worked on hot type, Linotype, hot-type chases, on the stone. I was actually the last person to work on a hot-metal page at the New York Times. An art director or pasteup editor would stand over the printer who was putting type into the page. And you’d watch as they put the slugs of metal onto the page. If you’ve ever seen the movie Farewell Etaoin Shrdlu, which is about the last night of hot metal at the New York Times, that I understood. And that was the way it worked, on a regular basis. I worked with rotogravure printing, but when I came up I learned you printed it out on the MTST, you cut it up and pasted it down with wax. You’d get Velox, you’d cut those down, you’d make silhouettes, you’d make borders, with ruling tape. And then later on, when we lost so much money that we had to give up our MTST, we kept the Selectric part of it. So I used to do justified type by hand, which was one big pain in the ass. You remember, you’d calculate it and you’d have a little dial on the right-hand side, and you’d put your pica width in there, per line. So when I finally learned Quark, I really felt like I was learning a new language. I felt like I’d finally learned French.
Q: Did you develop the design curriculum at the School of Visual Arts on your own?
A: Yeah. It’s my baby. I have a co-chair, Lita Talarico, who runs it on a daily basis. I was asked to produce it by the chairman, Silas Rhodes, who is a great man, and who started the School of Visual Arts over 50 years ago. And he asked me. They had not had an MFA program. I could have just done a normal program with classes, but the only way I would want to be educated is this way, so it is indeed authorship. I tell the students, “You come up with an idea that affects you, that influences you in some way, or that you would be influenced by, and do that.” So this was mine. And they went for it.
Q: Are there any other designers that you think carry through from traditional to the new media? I’ve been interviewing designers like Milton Glaser, Ed Benguiat — men who made their names in the past 50 years, and who are either making the transition or not. The digital age is in its adolescence, and it seems to me that you’re aware of it and have no real problem with that.
A: Well, someone like Milton Glaser is an iconic figure and an articulate one. And I’m not sure of the age he’s troubled by or how much of the fact that there are new generations that have come up. You know, Milton has changed as well in many senses. There have been many articles lately about Bob Dylan — Milton did the very famous Bob Dylan poster — and the whole idea about, as in Ann Power’s recent article, there are the “New Dylans.” And she cites people who have been cited as New Dylans, and what a mantle that is to live up to. But the only person who is the new Dylan is Dylan, because he continues to reinvent himself. And I think Milton comes close to that in many ways. But there are certain hurdles that one must jump. And he’s not going to do it. And there’s no reason he should do it. But there are flavors of the month, that come into being, and he’s not going to go crazy keeping up with that.
Q: Glaser said that the computer allows people to come up with very quick, well-developed, but thin ideas.
A: I would argue that the computer may allow people to come up with thin ideas, but people with good ideas will always come up with good ideas. They’ll use the computer to facilitate that, and that’s what we do with our grad program. Some of those ideas are thin, but that’s not the fault of the computer, it’s the fault of the student. And it will always be that way. The other thing that Milton has said that is very true is that there is always the same ratio of talented to mediocre. It does not change. Just because more people come into the field doesn’t mean the ratio will change. So I think that’s the nature of the game. I found that I was much, much sloppier when I was working with glue pots and wax. I look at some of my old work and I think, “There’s some charm to this” only because it’s so sloppy. But one has to decide if the sloppiness is part of the aesthetic or is it in spite of it. So my feeling is the computer is an amazing tool that I would not give up in a minute. I feel like my grandparents, in a sense. I lived to see color television. The computer is great and I’m glad to be alive to have bridged both realms. I don’t have any great compulsion to have my students go to hot-metal presses.
Q: But is there a value to having them learn that?
A: I think it’s important for them to know, if nothing else, what the terminology is. What lead really is. But I’m not going to say to them, “Go and use some arcane method” because it behooves me to have them act in a quaint and historical way. On the other hand, it shocks me when I give a class on the history of typography and I say to them, “How many of you have heard of hot type?” and nobody raises their hand. But that’s the reality of life. There are certain things that become arcane, and they become quaint.
Q: When you write, do you do so longhand?
A: I only write on the computer. I can’t write longhand. In the old days it took me three times as long. I write in Microsoft Word.
Q: Have you tried Mac OS X?
A: We have an OS X beta at school. And I think it’s like learning something altogether new. But I’ll wait until all the bugs are out and I’ll be a techie nerd just like anybody else.