The TH Interview: A Quick Chat with Steven Heller


Steven Heller is a critic, author, and design thinker. He's worked as an art director for the New York Times for over 30 years, and also writes book reviews and obituaries. Last week, a retrospective exhibition of his work opened at the Visual Arts Museum in Manhattan. Inspired by the wonderful interview he just did with Gothamist, I wanted to know more about him, and his ideas for graphic design's green potential.

TreeHugger: What did you want to be when you were 10 years old?

Steven Heller: A PR person in the Air Force. Who knew?

TH: How does your current work as an author, educator, and design thinker feel different from art direction?

SH: No big difference, really. I still have to "direct" things. And being a "design thinker," if indeed that's what I am, is what all art directors must do. If they don't think, they got nothing. The only difference is I don't buy illustration anymore. That's a bit sad.TH: As the production of design becomes more and more decentralized, do you think criticism becomes more important?

SH: I don't think one has to do with the other. Criticism is important because it gives us a language (indeed a lens) by which to discuss and view design. And since design is all around us and serves so many roles, we need to address it from with sophistication. Criticism may help.

TH: What about graphic design, as opposed to other design disciplines, moves you?

SH: I like all design disciplines, I just happen to be rooted in this one because that's how I began. But what I love about graphic design is its immediacy. I guess the web has taken over there, but graphic design can be made quick, produced quick, and reach a lot of people. It also becomes landfill quick. Oh well.

TH: The green design message has mostly been broadcast to architects and industrial designers. How could graphic designers make their work more sustainable?

SH: The sustainable mantra is definitely in the graphic design arena. It was loud a clear at the AIGA NEXT conference, and AIGA has inaugurated various initiatives too. Funny CNN is apparently doing a green week, so their CNN bug is green. Maybe that's the most some designer can do, maybe they can actually specify materials that are friendly to the environment. Maybe, but just maybe, they turn down jobs that will defeat the goals of sustainability.

Mr. Heller is currently the founding co-chair of the MFA Design Department and founder of the MFA Design Criticism Department at School of Visual Arts. His retrospective runs through December 1st at SVA's Visual Arts Museum, 209 East 23 Street New York, NY.