The Day Steven Heller Came to Visit–via Skype

On April 1, 2014, Steven Heller, former art director at the New York Times, author/ co-author, or editor of 200 books on graphic design, illustration, and political art, and co-founder and co-chair of the MFA Design Criticism Department at School of Visual Arts, joined Communication Arts sophomores in their History of Graphic Design, Advertising, and Illustration class. At 12:45 sharp, Heller’s larger than life persona magically appeared on screen before 60 sophomores eager to engage in dialogue, thanks to Skype.

To prepare for the conversation, students submitted their questions a week in advance. To keep the conversation flowing, I grouped the questions into broader categories, from professional advice, to thoughts on originality, current trends, and personal reflections. Heller generously took 45 minutes to answer these pressing questions, including the  things he would caution emerging designers against; what he looks for on a resume of students fresh out of school; jobs he has refused on moral grounds; and where he goes for inspiration. He was honest,  amusing, and generally, encouraging. The conversation opened a fascinating window into the minds of students, and of course, gave us a glimpse of what matters to Heller.

“Be expansive” was the message of the day–intellectually expansive and technologically expansive. Then, you don’t need to worry about the current state of print media if you are an illustrator. Open-mindedness and a willingness to work with others–these are always desirable traits in the outside world. Know what you stand for so that you can feel good about your work and your contribution to society.

Heller’s words reinforced the importance of connection–across time, across space, and certainly across liberal studies and the studio. In under an hour, his sage advice merged the necessity of thought, theory, and practice. Students were spellbound, and the value of his message was priceless.

Hardly a day goes by without me cursing the blessed computer. But, on April fools, I was singing a different tune called, “I love technology”–no joke!