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How did you discover you wanted to be a designer? I wanted to be a cartoonist, like Jules Feiffer. I wasn’t nearly as good, so I became an art director. Something clicked. I designed publications for a while and taught myself design. After reaching my limits of talent and skill, I figured, I’ll write about it instead.

With more than 170 published books, you are a steadfast recorder of the design profession. What inspires you to publish books and essays at the rate that you do? There are two answers to that: I am inspired by the designers I write about. They are artists, propagandists, thinkers. There is never a drought, there are always people, events and objects to write about. There are always new things to discover. The second answer is that I had to do something with my life and ego: this was a nice niche, and still is.

Who has been your favorite designer to interview, and why? I’m not sure, really. Some were great people but poor interviews. Some were poor people and, well you get the point. I really enjoyed interviewing Paul Rand over the course of five or six years. But it was a friend of his, a Holocaust survivor of three concentration camps where he worked as an artist, that is one of my proudest interviews.

What do you miss about art directing at the New York Times? I miss my friends. I miss not interacting with artists, editors and writers. But largely I’m happy. I did it for almost 33 years, so the time had come to leave. Although I still go in every month to run a lecture series.

Why did you found a Designer as Author MFA program? Because there was nothing like it at the time. Lita Talarico, co-founder, and I believed that we could make a degree program that gave designers more relevance as authors and entrepreneurs. I think we’ve done that.

What resources do you use to research design history (besides your own books, of course)? That’s a long story. Everything from libraries to flea markets, from living masters to personal archives. Research is boundless.

Do you have a predilection for a certain movement or era in design? Why? Previously, I would have said Art Deco because I’ve done many books with my wife, Louise Fili, on Deco. Why? It was a commercial style with progressive tendencies that became a tool of fascism and other bad stuff. But it was alluring, and that to me is an interesting contradiction.

Now, I’d say, I’m slowly getting interested in contemporary work. Don’t ask why...

Do you have creative pursuits other than designing, teaching and writing? Are there others? I am slightly obsessed with Holocaust history, but don’t get me going.

What personal/pro-bono projects are you working on, if any? Everything I do is for public consumption. I guess that’s part of the ego gratification I alluded to earlier.

What excites you about design right now? I just finished writing a book about traits, conceits and tropes that designers use to convey their messages. I love how smart so many designers are these days. I also did a book on infographics. That discipline is catching my fancy because it is so content and concept driven.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? They should find good people to work with. Those relationships are essential. And watch out not to fall in love with your self, that relationship rarely works out.
Former New York Times art director Steven Heller is the co-chair with Lita Talarico of the MFA Design/Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program and the SVA Masters Workshop in Rome, and he is a contributing editor for Baseline, Design Observer, Eye and Print. He writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review and weekly online columns for the Atlantic. He has written more than 170 books on graphic design, illustration and political art. Heller is the recipient of the Art Directors Club Special Educators Award, the AIGA Medal for Lifetime Achievement, the School of Visual Arts’ Masters Series Award and the 2011 National Design Award for “Design Mind.” Two of his forthcoming books are Edward Gorey: His Book Cover Art and Design and Stencil Type (with Louise Fili).
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