Steven Heller on how an addiction developed into a calling

Graphic designer Steven Heller chronicles how his addictive collection of objects leads to the subject matter for his books.

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American graphic designer Steven Heller talks at the 2013 Design Indaba Conference about how he has been “motivated to chronicle the history of graphic design in broad terms” largely through a massive collection of found objects and products that he has amassed.

“I’m addicted to visual design objects of all kinds – especially graphic design,” he says, describing a collection that spans politically and socially propagandistic printed material to hundreds of avant-garde, alternative and counter cultural magazines to scores of product mascots lining his shelves that are “poised to pounce”.

“I like to think of my collection as an archaeological dig. Typographic styles are indicators of certain types of culture and tracing their timelines is endlessly fascinating. As designers we make marks,” says Heller.

He is less interested in the design objects of commercial cultures themselves as much as what or who they represent. He describes the miniature retail mannequins he collects, for example, as “the Roman or Greek statuary of the 20th century.”

He collects to fulfill a neurotic obsession, but having a loftier rationale is imperative. His “loftier rationale” is the hope that his collection leads to other things that have more of an impact on other people – in his case, a series of authored works.

From books on various forms of typography – one co-written with his wife on shadow fonts was due to be published shortly after the conference – to a study on a hundred magazine designs with English designer Jason Godfrey, Heller describes “the distinct relationship commercial design has with art and how one feeds another.”

He talks about “mundane consumables” and product packaging  – on the aura of a product trumping its function ­– and why certain forms and representations cause people to consume items and others don’t.

“What is the visual code that needs to be cracked to understand consumption?” Heller asks.

Another of his books is a critical look at the “horrific but enigmatic” symbol of the swastika. Heller describes how the swastika had a benign history before Adolf Hitler appropriated it as his own. The book deals with the history of the symbol and its ability to be reclaimed and changed back into its original non-threatening form.

The subject got him interested in how major totalitarian regimes of the 20th century created “visual representations and mythic appearances that captured the hearts and minds of its citizens”, and how fear manifests in popular media.

“Fear is a great way to keep people in line and I’ve been avidly collecting material graphically designed to increase fear levels.”

Heller devised and co-chairs the graduate programme at New York City’s School of Visual Arts. He started his career in the underground press working as an art director and designer for magazines including an underground sex tabloid paper and a rock music periodical ­– publications where he “criminally mixed type fonts” much of the time.

In 1974, age 24, he was hired as the art director of The New York Times op-ed page and later as the art director of The New York Times Book Review. There, he says, he was one of three art directors to have graduated from Screw, naming one of the sex magazines he designed for in his youth.

“Turned out it was like doing Screw but with better typesetting equipment,” says Heller.

“I was able to exercise my love for books, type, comics, satire and popular culture. It was the best job in the world and I lasted there for about 33 years.”

Watch the Interview with Steven Heller

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