Steven Heller

Steven Heller

Steven Heller (image courtesy of Masters in Branding)

Both Damon Styer and Christian Cantiello mentioned his books as a source of inspiration. He has written a small library of them, and his name can be found on many a dusty bookshelf in sign shops and design studios around the world. The American Institute of Graphic Arts wrote this of him:

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.

Steven Heller's Bookshelf

Steven Heller’s Bookshelf (image courtesy of A Walker in LA)

Many of his newer works have been co-authored by his wife, Louise Fili. For today’s post, Steven Heller kindly took some time to answer a few of our questions.

How and why did you first get interested in design?

I was a wanna-be cartoonist, publishing in underground papers. Design was not an issue. I learned to do paste-up and the next step was composition. Design or layout was what came next. My interest evolved as I saw what could politically be said through type and image.

Comics Sketchbooks by Steven Heller

Comics Sketchbooks by Steven Heller (image courtesy of Manuel Gomez Burns)

Do you still see design as a political tool?

It can be. Look at the first Obama campaign. Graphic design is a means, it can be a tool for anything.

Design for Obama Cover

‘Design for Obama’, a book by Steven Heller, Spike Lee and Aaron Perry-Zucker (image courtesy of Taschen)

You’ve written a lot of books about design. Is there any danger that you’ll run out of ideas?

I’ve done 168 books more or less. Ideas come easy. But I am in a niche. There are some ideas I wish I Could do, but don’t have the chops.

Design Literacy

Like what?

I’ve always wanted to do a full length feature film on the history of propaganda.

Propaganda Poster

An image from From Steven Heller’s “Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State”
(image courtesy of Studio 360)

Do you prefer designing/art directing or writing?

I prefer saying things. I loved designing until I reached my limits. I loved art direction but after 40 years I was spent. I love writing, but I’m not that good.

Typography Sketchbooks

A Page from ‘Typography Sketchbooks’ by Steven Heller and Rita Taraliko (image courtesy of Otaku)

Louise told me that she has another book on the way (Grafica della Strada), Were you involved in that one at all?

Only moral support.

Grafica della Strada

(image courtesy of Creative Bloq)

What projects are you working on currently?

A book on Edward Gorey covers, a book on “anti-design,” books on Stencil Type and Slab Serif type, book on design entrepreneurship, a book on design education, a revision of my Becoming a Graphic and Digital Designer, and a bunch of other things.

Masters Series: Steven Heller exhibition documentation

Steven’s SVA Masters Series exhibit 2007

Here in Australia, the stencil is almost an icon of rural culture, because of the stencils used on wool bales. Each farm had its own stencil, with the name of the property. Many still do. That book sounds like an interesting one.

I wish I had known. I don’t cover Australia. The book is part of the series with Scripts and Shadow Type. It’s a compilation of how faces are used as stylistic language. Lots of examples that show the roots of the style and its long running applications.

Wool Bale Stencils

Australia Wool Bale Stencils (image courtesy of Steve Swayne)

Which designers do you admire the most?

Louise, Seymour Chwast, Paula Scher, Ross MacDonald, Milton Glaser, Mirko Ilic, and dozens more.

Bread Alone Bakery Logo

Glaser’s Bread Alone Bakery Logo, branded into a loaf of bread (image courtesy of Milton Glaser)

How did you first meet Louise?

I admired her work and invited her to a book opening.

Have you noticed a resurgence of ‘craft’ in the design industry, in recent times?

Yes. I see students more interested in the hand than ever before. Its great. It will be integrated into common practice. Craft is essential.

Michael Doret Sketches

Michael Doret Sketches from Typography Sketchbooks, by Steven Heller (image courtesy of Grain Edit)

What do you think is behind this trend?

Stuff happens. Too much computer, perhaps. The need for the unique.

Do you photograph old signs on your travels?

Sometimes. But I leave that to Louise. I buy paper and artifacts for my books.

A Page from Shadow Type by Steven Heller and Louise Fili

A Page from Shadow Type by Steven Heller and Louise Fili (image courtesy of 37 E 7th St)

Steve Heller and Louise Fili Discuss Their New Book: Shadow Type from Designers & Books on Vimeo.


5 thoughts on “Steven Heller

  1. Awesome stuff! I do agree too much use of the computer nowadays takes the soul out of the design, but some of us have only ever used a computer!

  2. Good point, Alan. I think a lot of folks in our industry have only ever used a computer. Although some designers manage to produce very fresh designs exclusively on the computer, the technology makes it easier to produce bland and sterile design – probably because its so easy to choose from predetermined options, rather than creating something completely original. At our shop, we’ve found that a pencil sketch is a great starting point for any design, even if we clean it up in Illustrator and Photoshop.

  3. Thanks Michael & Ross. This was certainly an enjoyable interview. I look forward to seeing Steven’s next books. Maybe he’ll even get around to making that film about propaganda!

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