Influence and Inspiration, Part 2: Jeri Heiden

[Editor's note: This is the second interview with AIGA/LA's two newest Fellows, who were honored last Thursday (01/20/10) at Palihouse in West Hollywood. The first, with John Coy, is here].

From the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, Jeri Heiden was boosting the fame of Madonna, k.d. lang, and many others with her graphics for Warner Bros. Records. She began under the guidance of legendary music executive Jeff Ayeroff, and eventually became creative director at Warner and A&M. Hundreds of campaigns later – for Christina Aguilera, Sheryl Crow, Rod Stewart, and on and on – she currently operates as SMOG Design with husband John Heiden. For more biographical info, see AIGA/LA’s recent feature profile, here.

Following the format of my earlier exchange with John Coy, her fellow Fellow, Jeri itemizes the whos, whats, and wheres that helped build her career.

Jeri Heiden accepts her honors. Photo © 2011 Nick F. Carranza, Planet Speck.

On L.A. living

For me, it’s always been important to live near my work. I was never willing to commute a long distance for a job. That time is too precious. In that way I have rejected one part of L.A. culture. At SMOG, I can walk to work, bring my dogs, and eat and shop in my own neighborhood. Silver Lake is very conducive to that. It allows me to maintain a calm focus on life and work.

When I do venture out, I enjoy L.A. because I’ve chosen to traverse this vast city for a specific reason – friends, food, art, entertainment, et cetera… I’m not constantly on overload.

On high school

I owe a lot to my art instructor at Lompoc Sr. High, Michael Polino. He was very forward thinking and really inspired us to open our minds to all types of visual expression, including architecture, fashion, sculpture, printmaking … you name it. Traveling to Los Angeles and being exposed to some amazing art and architecture in my formative years certainly influenced my future career path. The Pacific Design Center presented the most modern, whimsical architecture I had ever seen. It blew my mind.

I had a similar reaction when I first visited the Art Center campus in Pasadena. It was inspiring. I knew that I had to expand my horizons if I wanted to be a competitive visual artist.

On college

Sadly, I don’t remember much about my instructors. My time there was too brief, and I was so very young. I did, however, make lasting friendships, and still work with many of the people I met while at Art Center. Photographers like George Holz, Just Loomis, and Victoria Pearson. I worked with each of them on a number of early album covers.

On fellow L.A. designers

When I was starting out at Warner Bros. Records I couldn’t help but notice a few British transplants – Michael Hodgson and Martyn Atkins – milling about on a regular basis, and winning everyone over with their spare, smart typography.

Then there were the Dutch transplants – Henk Elenga and Rick Vermeulen. The Dutch designers started turning all of our heads, mixing every kind of media in their work. Nothing was off-limit and everything was off-kilter.

And of course, Margo Chase was wowing everyone with her brilliant logo design.

I loved the work coming out of ReVerb Studio, and commissioned them on branding projects for Reprise and A&M Records.

Michael Rey of Rey International – now Intersection Studio – has always done crisp, modern work.

When it came time to move from drafting tables to Macs around 1986, designer Mike Diehl came in-house over several months and taught everyone in the art department, one-on-one. We all owe a lot to Mike for laying a solid foundation and helping us make that transition… no man – or woman – left behind!

The designers that I hired at Warner Bros., A&M, and SMOG are of course my favorites and have influenced me more than any others.

On music

When designing for music projects I have always felt that my job was to interpret and bring to life the recording artist’s creative vision. So collaboration always begins with listening to the music, and doing a lot of digging into the lyrics and album title. I’ve never felt compelled to put my own unique stamp or personal style on the design, or have it look like “me.” It should wholly reflect and compliment what you are about to hear. When a cover really feels like the music, that’s when it’s a job well done, and most memorable.

I’m hugely influenced by music – it’s omnipresent, and what led me to design in the first place – but I also find lot of inspiration in literature and film. When conceptualizing a project my sources of inspiration may extend to favorite films, books, screenplays, or characters.

On industry people

Jeff Ayeroff was a great influence on me. He showed me that it’s okay to reach for the moon. He would always throw out these wild concepts – some of which seemed completely improbable at the time – and I would be in the position to try to make it happen. I had to think outside the box, turn things inside-out and look at them a different way. I learned through that process that mistakes, budget constraints, and tight deadlines were often a really, really good thing.

And of course, each of the recording artists that I’ve worked with have taught me something. Regardless of who has initiated a project, the recording artist is ultimately our client. And they are artists first, not salespeople, CEOs, or marketing managers. They come in all shapes and sizes, with varying levels of visual sophistication and ability to communicate their desires. I ask a lot of questions, listen very closely, and take a lot of notes!

On mentors

Art Center has a terrific mentoring program. I’d say if your school has a similar program, by all means take advantage of it, it benefits you. Spending time with experienced designers who are willing to answer your questions, to critique your work, and to offer their advice is invaluable. Even if what you take away from the relationship is, “I don’t ever want to be like that person!”

Also, so many designers are accessible through their Web sites or blogs that you really can follow anyone who inspires you. I find that our younger designers spend more time on blogs than looking at books. The information is out there. It’s free and it’s very democratic. Go for it.

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John Coy and his brother-in-law John Jacobs, and AIGA/LA’s Michael Hodgson and John Clark observe from the sidelines; Jeri doing a grip ‘n’ grin with AIGA/LA president Jimmy Moss. Photos © 2011 Nick F. Carranza, Planet Speck.

The L.A. design community assembles to honor Jeri Heiden and John Coy. Photo © 2011 Karina Rivas.

DJ Daisy O’Dell and motion graphics by Brittney Backos provide the appropriate atmosphere. Photo © 2011 Karina Rivas.

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