Designer Steven Heller Talks Portfolios, Art Direction, and Taking Chances

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Some things you do for money. Some things you do for love. Steve Heller has created an entire life out of fusing these two ideas together. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Steven and talking to him about improving your portfolio, editing books, understanding style, and his groundbreaking MFA Design Program. Steven spent over 30 years as Art Director at the New York Times, and while it’s unusual to find a designer so passionate about their work, it’s furthermore a rare and insightful gift to encounter such a prolific and tireless man. I invite you to sit back and soak up Steven’s words (he’s designed and edited over 150 books so he has quite a few words really).

Never show anything you don’t want to do. Of anything. If you happen to have only one printed piece, or just one piece that shows you are professional, and you don’t like it then don’t show it. If you have five different directions you want to go in, choose two. Those other three will always pop up again at another time. Never show something where you have to say ‘that was just a job’.

We have a large community of artists and designers on the website, who are constantly editing their portfolios, making decisions about the best way to present work, what advice would you give to those who are self-editing, what common mistakes have you noticed when designers put together a portfolio?

Well portfolios have changed over the last ten years, so most of the portfolios are digital, so people are coming in with their computers… I still like to see things where I can turn a page, although the quality and density of the work is better on screen. So whatever one does, you have to look at a portfolio kinda like a book — what are your chapters? First chapter is kind of introducing yourself to whoever is looking at it, and what’s going to be the most representative work that someone can see in 15 seconds.  Make your first chapter connect to the second chapter, so the first chapter doesn’t have to be one image it may be four or five images that show a consistency. Then segue into the next chapter which might be a different media or a new platform. Just make sure there’s a beginning, middle and an end, so that once you’re in the middle (that might be your bread and butter in the middle), the beginning and end can be a little more oomphfy, and the middle can be a little more practical.

There are over 156 books you’ve created published, editing, written and worked on…could you tell us about this process or subjects you’ve come to love more as you’ve worked on them? Has there been just one book you feel especially close to after publication?

Well after 156 books it’s hard to choose a favourite, I like a lot of them and I dislike a lot of them. The ones that are closest to my heart are: Iron Fist: Branding the Totalitarian State, one with Lawrence King and Emma Godfrey right now on design magazines of the last 100 years, it’s those kind of historical books that opens up an area where design kind of plays an invisible role. They’re quite visible but invisible. I did a short book on the Swastika and that was very important to me, I pick out topics where I ask, “how do I channel,” where there are lot of things going on either side of design. So I did a book on the Red Scare in the United States but it was through the ephemera of Communist sympathizers there. I did a series of books with my wife on art deco graphic design and I became interested in that because my wife as a designer uses a lot of tools from the past and makes a contemporary vocabulary out of it. That became a way to get closer to her creative process and we ended up doing quite a few books together.

I guess I’m always interested in what I’m researching until I’m tired of it. And even when I’m tired of it, I always feel a pull towards it. I wrote a book now long out of print called Counter Culture, and it’s a collection of mini mannequins that were used as dolls on bench tops during the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. They’re articulated human figures, some are dressed, some aren’t, some have painted faces, some have quite plain faces, I love that stuff, I have an entire apartment devoted to that stuff, and what I tried to do was make it into an intellectual activity and show it as a part of the advertising industry and the design industry in it’s particular moment. Part of me just enjoyed it for the pure pleasure of having those tactile materials. I tend to be interested in things from two different angles, how I can write about it, and how I can fondle it.

Your seasoned track record suggests your career path came naturally to you, alternatively did you have a path not taken or a chance at another life that you didn’t take up?

It’s a good question, it’s one of those questions that can be answered but also is unanswerable. Because what I’ve done is follow that path, there were always turns in the road, but I think I was blind to them. What I would like to have done is work more in film, but my son is doing that so I can live through him, I would have liked to have more technical skills, I would have liked to have been a better designer, which I’m not, which is why I got into writing in the beginning and why I became an art director because I was good at picking good design. So there were lots of things if I had my life over I would do again, but there are lots of things if someone asked me, “would you do your life over?” I would say “No.” If someone offered it to me for free, sure, why not, if it’s my own choice, no.

During your stint at the NY Times, did you notice any colours, motifs, elements, or fonts that designers returned to time after time?

Well, fashion trends come and go and I’ve written about different things that have occurred, when I first went to the Times people were using a lot of script handwriting. Now they don’t. I think it’s kind of fruitless to talk about the trends. Or the colours of the typefaces. Those shift. What I do think has kind of lasted is the sense of concept. That design might be quite beautiful in a decorative sense, but most people are more interested in telling a story. The term storytelling has become a bit of a cliche but that’s what it is, there’s a desire to express something through design. As opposed to just package or frame.

 And has that influenced your move into the MFA course?

Well it has. The course is now 15 years-old and when we started it we called it The Designer as Author because that sounded more academic than the Designer as Producer or The Designer as Entrepreneur. We embrace the entrepreneur now as so many people do. We were kind of in the lead on that in terms of designers taking their own content and making their own environment for it. So the MFA program is about being highly conceptual and finding a visual language that will express that concept.

The MFA course aims to give students a wide-ranging practical base of skills, could you tell us why this approach is so important for young designers, and if you could encourage a young designer to have one important experience what would that be?

That’s a toughie…because everybody has a different motivation or a different desire. You can’t just put my template onto everybody else. I think for any creative person it’s really good to know other creative people. It’s really good to know the people who came before you. It’s good to know the history, be a student of history. It’s really important to take chances, so instead of just following the rules that were set down at design school, it’s important to do something you wouldn’t necessarily do. They say if you do something that’s counterintuitive to your daily practice like… if you don’t dance, then dance, if you don’t do crossword puzzles, then do crossword puzzles, that will ward off demensia? I think that’s always the case, you should always ask if this is easy, a challenge, but there has to be just one in a time period that you set for yourself. It doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s something you’ve never done or think you can’t do but want to try to do.

And has that influenced your move into the MFA course?

Well it has, the course is now 15 years-old and when we started it we called it the designer as author because that sounded more academic than the designer as producer or the designer as entrepreneur. We embrace the entrepreneur now as so many people do. We were kind of in the lead on that in terms of designers taking their own content and making their own environment for it. So the MFA program is about being highly conceptual and finding a visual language that will express that concept.

The MFA course aims to give students a wide-ranging practical base of skills, could you tell us why this approach is so important for young designers, and if you could encourage a young designer to have one important experience what would that be?

That’s a toughie…because everybody has a different motivation or a different desire. You can’t just put my template onto everybody else. I think for any creative person it’s really good to know other creative people. It’s really good to know the people who came before you. It’s good to know the history, be a student of history. It’s really important to take chances, so instead of just following the rules that were set down at design school, it’s important to do something you wouldn’t necessarily do. They say if you do something that’s counterintuitive to your daily practice like… if you don’t dance, then dance, if you don’t do crossword puzzles, then do crossword puzzles…that will ward off dementia? I think that’s always the case. You should always ask if this is easy, a challenge, but there has to be just once in a time period that you set for yourself, it doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s something you’ve never done or think you can’t do but want to try to do.

 

Be sure to sneak peek at Steven Heller’s fascinating “Cave” of paraphernalia, curiosities, and lots and lots of books in this video tour.

For more information on Heller’s prolific lifetime of work can be found at his website over here. 

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