Thursday, March 18, 2010

Steven Heller, interview

Steven Heller spent 33 years working as an Art Director of The New York Times and more than two decades as a contributing editor of The Print, Baseline, Eye and ID magazine. He is now an editor of AIGA Voice: Online Journal of Design. As an author, co-author and editor he published more than a hundred books on graphic design and popular culture. With his wife, a well-known designer Louise Fili he wrote about twenty books for Chronicle Books publishing house. He teaches History of Design at The School of Visual Arts in New York. He is the author of numerous influential exhibitions and has won a number of prestigious awards: AIGA Medal for Lifetime Achievement, Herschel Levitt Award, Richard Gangel Award, Art Directors Club Hall of Fame etc. He is one of the leading authorities in the field of critical thinking in graphic design.

What’s the impact of graphic design (compared to TV appearances, rallies and spoken word) in U.S. political campaigns?
With the notable exception of the Obama campaign for the presidency, I’d say it was pretty insignificant. And in the aftermath of the election and the current economic crises, it doesn’t mean much more than a form of branding in the big scheme of things.

How much do they tip the scales? I’m thinking about the latest U.S. presidential election and visual representations of both parties compared to the history of US political campaign imagery.

I am honestly not certain how it tipped scales. BUT I am totally convinced that the graphic output in favor of Obama and the identity that stemmed from the Obama camp had a positive effect. It made constituents proud to be part of the grassroots effort to elect the first black president. Sender’s logo and Shepard Fairey’s poster for Barack Obama (Fairey’s poster was not an official part of the campaign, if I’m not mistaken) are visual staples of his campaign that transcended US borders, and became contemporary symbols of hope and change.

How much did the actual images contribute?
Sender’s logo was official. It was commissioned by the campaign. Fairey’s poster was not, but ultimately was embraced by the campaign. Yes, they were symbols of hope. But the entire campaign was a manifestation of hope.

Would you mind giving a comment on the Fairey “controversy” (using AP photo, tampering with evidence...)? Seems to me like it casts some bad light on this image of hope and change. Usual designers clumsiness or something else?
I know that Mirko feels otherwise, but I am not too exorcized about the Fairey controversy. I think his biggest error was lying. But legally he came clean before it was too late (for him). Overall, I think the poster was a great piece of visual propaganda. It lionized the lion. That there was so much buzz helped. That there was so many parodies, only goes to show how important images can be. I still love some of the parodies more than the original. But without the original, there’d be not parodies. Should he have used the photo? Well, I’m of two minds. He altered it plenty and that’s the nature of art. And certainly the nature of street art. I believe the image doesn’t belong to Manny Garcia or Fairey. It belongs to Obama. It's his face and if anyone should be upset by its usage, it is he. But he wasn’t. Although in a later iteration I understand the campaign asked Fairey to give him more of a smile.

I have read some analyses of Fairey’s appropriation method that implied he randomly used politically charged images stripped of their context to create consumer goods (and earned big bucks for it). Would you agree that capitalism swallows former revolutionary images, such as Fairey’s images, and spits them out as sterile products of mass consumption? (Some political images such as Soviet posters or Che Guevara have already lost their power, but some of them are still pretty potent.)
Yes, of course, everything that has some popular culture value will be co-opted and Che is the prime example. And then there’s the peace symbol. Then, wait, Jesus Christ is the prime example. Look how many iterations there are of him. But fame has its downside. A face or symbol, unless protected by draconian law, is free to be done with as any artist or marketeer will. Jospeh Goebbels understood that, so he enacted the law for the protection of national symbols. I think most things on the planet can benefit by being neutralized through commerce. Although I will bite my tongue now. I don’t think the swastika or the holocaust should be so trivialized. Sometimes the appropriation is obvious, but very often the audience is not aware of what it is buying or looking at.

Is there a proper way to use such a method?
Time has a way of making cultures forget. The peace symbol is also a sign of death. Who knew? It was embraced by the young and repurposed. Appropriation without contextualization can be stupid, but I don’t think there is a proper method. I think that everything rises to its acceptable or unacceptable level. Designers’ responsibility is a widely discussed topic from a variety of angles (how you can change the world, can/must you affect social issues, educating the audience, what does it all mean in the corporate world...).

To what extent is that taught in schools, if at all?
It is addressed in more schools than ever before. I think global warming, sustainability, greening are all buzzwords, but the efforts behind them are integral to design and the future of all. I have a program starting this summer called “Impact: Design for Social Change” at SVA that will be a six week course in social entrepreneurism and culminate with students doing something worthy for New York City.

I find Cameron’s movie “Avatar” to be very flat both politically and visually, for a movie made for viewing in 3D. The most annoying aspects for me are a very sketchy fictional world and a celebration of sheer production excess. However, it seems to have found an audience, and in fact it turns out to be one of the highest grossing movies ever. Do you see a problem there? (Reading your blog I realized that you are not fond of the movie either.)
Right. I am not fond of it. Boring in many creative ways. Fascinating in others. But like all film in times of stress, it seems to take the mind off real problems. I guess that’s good. But this is the year for all these apocalyptic films. I used to love them when I was a kid, because we were told things like that couldn’t happen. Ha Ha Ha! Now they can. And thanks to CGI and other technologies we really can see them happening in real time.

Do you think having so many capabilities, options and shortcuts in the digital world makes designers lazy? (I’m actually targeting the difference between some very fine examples of “analog” movie effects/design and digital mannerism).
Lazy is not the word I’d use. I think the more options means the more need to come up to speed. I think certain things are perhaps easier to do in film. But technology has always made some things easier and others harder. Lazy is not an issue. Ignorance may be more of a concern. With so much media we become stupider about the world, not smarter.

Laetitia Wolff told me once that while working on the Massin book she found out that his unusual visual language for that time period was heavily influenced by a Dada exhibition held in France at the time. Recently we were able to see the biggest Bauhaus exhibition in MoMA since 1938. Do you expect that exhibition had some influence on the design scene?
Actually no. I don’t know how many people saw the exhibit. But the days when a great historical retrospective sweep was that influential is over - I think. That could be wrong, given the context. But the Bauhaus will continual to be the spiritual god of modernism, but it will be kept in perspective.

Briefly, do you find (graphic design) images to be a symptom or a cause nowadays? And to what extent one or the other?

I’m not sure what you mean. Graphic design is but another form of communication along with video, painting, sculpture, video games, etc. etc. It is, I guess, a reflection and a motivator of culture. Its all things depending on who is making it and what’s being made.

text: Aleksandar Maćašev
photos: Steven Heller's archive
Published in KVART magazine, no.16
, March 2010.

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