Why I Write
Designers & Books, a new website, is devoted to “publishing lists of books that esteemed member of the design community identify as personally important, meaningful, and formative.” The 50 contributors have offered book lists of volumes that may have nothing to do with art or design but are intended to “stimulate emerging designers, energize established designers . . .”
I was asked by the creator and editor in chief Steve Kroeter to also provide one of three essays. Mine is:
Why I Write by Steven Heller
In 1942, Frank Capra directed “Why We Fight,” a series of short propaganda films explaining the reasons for going to war. I am an unapologetic punster and Capra fan, so I chose “Why I Write” as the title for this essay, which explains why I write design books. Any further similarity to Mr. Capra’s splendid films is unintentional.
Why do I write?
I write, therefore I am. I need the intellectual and emotional stimulation that the act of putting down ideas in the form of words on paper and screen gives me. Writing is the culmination of a process of conceiving, researching, analyzing, ordering, and structuring. Writing is design.
So, it makes sense that I write mostly about design.
As a kid, I thought I wanted to be a historian. My uncle, a former Columbia University professor and American studies historian, taught me the pleasure of studying American history. I loved reading historical tomes (especially about the Civil War and The New Deal), yet I had little patience for the rigors of academics. I was never a very good student for various reasons that I won’t go into here. So I compensated for my scholarly deficiencies by writing and drawing. Indeed I once handed in an illustrated paper on “isms,” which was entirely plagiarized from a text that was, predictably, familiar to my teacher (at least he hadn’t written it, now that would have been embarrassing). I received an “F” for the paper but he gave me an “A” for the satiric artwork. It was a wash.
This act triggered an epiphany. My pictures were visualized words, and if I could conjure my own images, I could also write my own words. Although I didn’t bother to rewrite the “isms” paper to get a better grade as my teacher suggested, I did begin to do more original research and write more original prose for subsequent history assignments. I wrote incessantly and took uncanny enjoyment in rereading my own words aloud to myself. I wanted to get the rhythm right. The one thing I missed, however, was a real focus for my writing.
Every writing teacher says write what you know. Passion is the ticket to success. And my particular passion was for art, but not just any art—I favored the satiric kind. But not just any satiric art, either, rather the radically strident political commentary that shot barbs at fat cats and besotted cows—images that were caustic and indelible, like Goya’s stern Disasters of War. I found my initial métier was writing about how satire fought folly (and sometimes won).
As fate would have it, all those pictures paid off. When I was 24 I was hired as art director of the New York Times Op-Ed page. Years before I began, that valuable real estate opposite the editorial page was already a revolution in journalism and journalistic illustration. Its visual personality was built on a foundation of satiric art history, and in order to do a credible job I delved into the study of 18th-century English master satiric printmakers—Hogarth, Gilray, and Rowlandson—and then the 19th-century French caricaturists—Daumier, Grandville, and Doré, and the American Nast, and finally the twentieth-century Germans Grosz, Dix, and Heartfield.
My method of learning, retaining, and refining what I learned was to curate exhibitions of work that interested me. I’d write essays for the exhibition catalogs, which I’d eventually expand into books. My first two full-bore exhibitions at Goethe House and Alliance Française, respectively, in New York, were devoted to Simplicissimus, the acerbic late 19th-century German satiric magazine, and L’Assiette au Beurre, the startlingly graphic French equivalent. I reasoned that these periodicals and the amazing work contained therein, attacking the mores and morals, religions and monarchies, and society and culture of their times, were the basis for contemporary graphic commentary—the kind that appeared on the Op-Ed page. Instead of simply filing away the knowledge I was gathering in the back of my brain, I wrote numerous articles about my discoveries. The artists I learned about were touchstones for more detailed commentaries about current practitioners. I learned as I wrote.
The old chestnut that knowledge is a tree with many branches is true. While researching satiric art I’d climb different limbs full of wonderful discoveries. The principal satiric artists I was interested in, it turned out, were also graphic, interior, and product designers, and that led me to write about design. Finding that Bruno Paul, for instance, one of the sharpest graphic wits in Germany, was also a respected advertising poster artist, furniture designer, and the head of a major design school in Berlin, was a revelation. Learning that John Heartfield, the “inventor” of satiric photomontage, was also the art director and typographer at The Malik Verlag, a communist book publisher in Berlin, was eye-opening. Discovering that Lionel Feininger, the creator of the comic strip “The Kin-der-kids,” was one of the founding Bauhaus masters was extraordinary. The connective tissue between art and design by artists who had been passed over by art historians became a rich mine of material for many of my essays for many years.
Mainstream art history had been pretty well mined, but with this new vein of historical material I could keep prospecting for years—and I have.
Nonetheless, I am not a trained historian, and chronicling history has never been my sole interest. I have no desire to devote years or decades to one specific individual or topic (even though I’ve authored two professional biographies). My curiosity is just too broad and attention span too limited. So I turned to popular culture as my “beat” and have been writing, among other things, about contemporary designers and illustrators over the course of a couple of decades. Focusing on their respective influences on the zeitgeist, I find many of their lives to be ready-made narratives, the best of which are models for others in the field. More important, I use their individual stories, in part, to alter the stereotype of “trade” journalism.
With notable exceptions, most design writing, from the early to late twentieth centuries aimed at providing a professional audience with news, views, and tips. There was little criticism in the form of serious analysis. It may have been thought that shining a bright light on contemporary work would diminish or harm it (unless, of course, it was unquestioning praise). Yet other arts had a long tradition of critique—if only as consumer “reviews”—so why should not design in general and particularly graphic design have a critical language? The real challenge was determining what vocabulary was appropriate—and accessible. Many of the arts have been insulated from public discourse through self-referential jargon (architecture is a prime example). I felt that following the theoretical convolutions could relegate graphic design writing to an arcane footnote.
Yet rather than ignore theory, I simply chose refrain from spouting excessive academic newspeak (I even curtailed the use of words like modality, taxonomy, and paradigm). I decided the best approach was a transparent writing style that is accessible and entertaining.
I employ various methods, but the one I most enjoy (and if I enjoy it, maybe the reader will too) is building narratives directly from the voices of my varied subjects. The key is linking quotations together through the glue of descriptive and discursive prose. There needs to be a narrative arc at all times; starting out strong, settling down, building up, and ultimately packing the finale with solid idea making for a satisfying read. I’m pretty good with segues from paragraph to paragraph, but always have trouble with endings. I’m grateful when, at times, the stories actually write themselves from start to finish.
My biography of Paul Rand (titled Paul Rand) was such a book. Written as a series of essays, each chapter is held together through commonalities in ways that even surprised me. Rand’s story was so compelling, the quotations I used directly from him and others who knew him were so evocative, and the anecdotal material was so illuminating, I couldn’t fail as long as I didn’t mistakenly erase the entire manuscript.
Recently I completed writing a professional biography of Alvin Lustig (Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig), a designer from the same period as Rand, who left behind a wealth of letters and notes. Sadly, he passed away in 1955 at age 40, so unlike Rand, I never met nor interviewed him. His detailed letters, however, chronicled the professional and personal aspects of his life almost as well, if not better, than face-to-face encounters. The letters allowed me to engage his voice; then I filled in the gaps with reporting and commentary. I don’t always enjoy being the neutral narrator, but in this case it was appropriate—and pleasurable.
All writers have an insatiable need for gratification, so pleasure is the supreme perk of writing. The process of writing, the act of editing and being edited, and then the ultimate climax—the publication, the re-reading and reflection—this is why I write.