• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Why I’m MAD About the Design Biz (Spoiler Alert)

Self-Analysis Run-On Sentence Department


While spending excessive hours neurotically reevaluating my life—an overdue existential-self-reckoning-self-indulgent-anxiety-provoking-stress-triggering-late-life-whiling-away-of-the-pre-post-pandemic-aftermath—one of the obsessive mind games I play is pondering why, after all the years of being in and around the business of commercial art, graphic design, illustration, and related punditry, I entered the design biz in the first place? Was it an undefined passion to make creative things and ultimately earn accolades as a result? Or was there something more specific … more existentially complex?



If you really want to know, read on. (If not, have a good day.)

From around 5 to 7 years of age I desperately wanted to be in the child actor biz for commercials, game shows, plays and whatever else would shine a spotlight. Many of my friends had similar ambitions (or actually, their parents did) and some seemed to get bookings for minor and major parts (at least until they reached their tweens and teens). After two years of attending open-call auditions (and having to dye my hair blond, which was a necessity for black-and-white TV work), I reluctantly accepted the harsh reality that I was not one of the chosen.


So I pivoted. I decided that satire was my calling!


I learned to love topical satire from listening to my uncle (a history professor) Walter's LPs of routines by Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Stan Freberg, Nichols and May, Bob and Ray. Brilliant all! He introduced me to work by cartoonists Jules Feiffer and Walt Kelly, my comics heroes. However, my favorite "textbook" on the practice of great satire was MAD magazine.


Digging through my memory cabinets recently, I found a cache of early MAD paperback anthologies from the late '50s and early '60s—most from editor/artist Harvey Kurtzman's great epoch, featuring the artists Will (the) Elder and Wally (the) Wood.


To buy them I'd collect the deposits from bottles and cans that people had thrown into the verdant vacant lots sprinkled around Long Beach, Long Island, where I summered as a kid during those years. When I had scrounged enough coins, I'd bike down to the Cozy Nook luncheonette to buy the latest offerings off the paperback rack (and an Orange Crush). The cheap newsprint pages are now ragged, torn, yellow and moldy, yet nonetheless priceless. And I've saved them all these decades because they are my roots.


MAD is why! I didn't get into graphic design just to make typography (I didn't even know what typography was in my 8s or 10s or even my 17s) or design handsome pages for books and magazines—although I greatly admire the folk who are maestros. My gut desire was to conceive clever ideas that would, through words and images, cause readers to laugh out loud. Hearing (and witnessing) a full-throated, honest belly laugh, not just a pleasant polite chuckle, is the best feeling I can think of.


MAD magazine, especially its early years as a comic book under Kurtzman's direction, produced that brain-to-belly synapse in spades, diamonds, hearts and clubs. As I reacquainted myself with the few typically brilliant, sardonically witty pages I salvaged intact, I am reminded that I could never make it to MAD, but nonetheless why I entered this business in other roles (my first assignment as art director of The New York Times OpEd page was to commission Kurtzman to do an essay and illo of the Alfred E. Newman family tree). I'm not unhappy, but wish I had the ability to do what the old gang at MAD did on the remarkable pages below.


MAD was glorious Madness! Sublime Madness! Pure Madness! MAD!







MAD predicts the future of retail …
MAD predicts the future of technology (minus the phone) …

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