From Stuyvesant Town to Screw magazine, The New York Times and nearly 200 books, Steven Heller has lived an extraordinary life in design. (Recorded live at the Museum of Design Atlanta.)

Wheat Field

Design Matters Live: Steven Heller

AUTHOR / ART DIRECTOR / DESIGNER / DESIGN HISTORIAN

2018

WRITER / AUTHOR / ILLUSTRATION / THE NEW YORK TIMES / NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW / SVA / LITA TALARICO / INTERVIEW MAGAZINE / UNDERGROUND NEWSPAPERS / SCREW / STUYVESANT TOWN / NEW YORK FREE PRESS / J.C. SUARES / BRAD HOLLAND / SEYMOUR CHWAST / MILTON GLASER / PUSHPIN / RUTH ANSEL / JULES FEIFFER / WILL EISNER / PATTI SMITH / JOHN F. KENNEDY / RICHARD NIXON / ADLAI STEVENSON

Steven Heller terrified me.

I was a new editor at PRINT—a magazine he had been contributing to for some five decades—and I was also on staff at HOW, which he had helped launch as a practical craft-based offshoot of PRINT in the 1980s. Steve has long been synonymous with the strange art of design journalism I found myself in, and anyone who has done a modicum of reading about the industry has no doubt happened upon his words. (We attempted to count the number of books he has published on more than one daunting fact-checking binge, and generally gave up as we neared the 200 mark.)

Since the beginning, Steve has catalogued design history while simultaneously being at its front lines and a piece of it himself. My goal was to stay off his radar; to not rock the boat; to not be discovered and dubbed an imposter. In the magazine world, every editor has their own stable of writers—so I assigned him to someone else who had previously worked with him. It was, I reasoned, a sound means of both preserving PRINT’s incredible relationship with him, and keeping myself as far from his intensely skilled critical eye as possible.

But then that editor left to take another job—and my boss assigned Steve to me. I was, after all, PRINT’s new editor-in-chief, so why would I not work alongside one of its most legendary writers? Shit.

With dread, I wrote to him about the change. And though I don’t have the email any longer, I remember his reply being what I now recognize as quintessential Heller: funny, charming, quirky, sweet, generous, and rife with wordplay and a delightful irreverence. I was a fool for not stealing him out from under his former editor the minute I joined the staff.

Every morning, I’d edit The Daily Heller newsletter, which he would file at one odd hour or another. Thus my day would begin with a one-sided conversation with his thoughts and words, which sometimes led me back to the man himself—can you clarify this? Should we move this one to next week? Do you think I’ll get fired for running this? (At the time, the company that owned Print wasn’t a fan of anything that dipped a toe into politics, and The Daily Heller was often a cannonball.)

To read The Daily Heller is to gaze through a keyhole into the mind of its author: Design. History. Books. Ephemera. Sutnar. Sex. War. Nazis and the Holocaust. Comics. SVA. Italy. The list goes on. Many writers tend to develop voices to write in; they channel the art of ventriloquism to fit the mold of whatever market is buying their words. But Steve’s voice is his own. What’s on the page is what you get in life, and vice versa.

His process is uniquely his own, too. There are legends in the design world about the incredible pace with which he produces. They’re all true. When working on a new issue of PRINT, I’d send him the theme and subject we’d be focusing on, and a reply would seemingly ping back into my inbox instantaneously. Before I got used to it, I’d assume it was just an Out-of-Office note. Instead, these emails would contain a medley of on-target pitches. After I’d greenlight one or, greedily, two, Steve would ask for a deadline a few weeks out (contrasting most writers, who usually want at least a month). Then, that afternoon or the next day, an article a couple thousand words long would materialize in my inbox. An hour later: “READ THIS ONE.” After about 20 minutes more: “READ THIS ONE xx.”

His feedback on each issue served as my North Star. While some writers pull punches or are effusive in their praise to editors to score future gigs (which works), nothing can benefit an editor more than honesty. And Steve provided it. Once, during a photoshoot for a special New York City–themed issue of PRINT, I harassed him throughout the week for his opinions on various creatives. “Why are you asking me about all this?” he asked, exasperated, toward the end of the shoot. “Because I trust you,” I replied. No one knows the industry like Steve. And so I leaned heavily on him (on that day, at least, until he left to resume World War II in Colour).

A couple of years ago, my wife and I were having dinner in Florence, Italy, and we looked to our right and saw a young woman reading The Cognoscenti's Guide to Florence by Steve’s brilliant wife, Louise Fili. I complimented her on her selection, and mentioned that I knew the author and her husband, and their recommendations were to be trusted.

I later recounted this in an email to Steve.

“You don’t just know me,” he replied. “You edit me.”

To know Steve and to have him understand the importance of that dynamic meant the world.

Collectively, Steve’s words are the glue in the bindings of design history, and with them, the industry has a past—and, given their influence on the millions who consume them, a future.

Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
 

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman