Steven Heller on ingenuity and addiction

by Kitty Drake in September 2019

The author of over 180 books on graphic design, Steven Heller describes design as his “addiction”. The former art director of the New York Times Book Review, while still a teenager Steven began his career working on publications including the first underground sex tabloid, Screw, as well as the New York Review of Sex. He has said of that time: “I was arrested twice for pornography, once when I was a minor. I should have been arrested for mixing […] type styles”. Steven is the current co-chair of SVA’s MFA Design: Designer as Entrepreneur programme. His books include Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the 20th Century and 100 Classic Graphic Design Magazines (with Jason Godfrey), Graphic Design Rants and Raves, and most recently THE MODERNS: Midcentury American Modern Graphic Design (with Greg D’Onofrio). He is the recipient of the 2011 Smithsonian National Design Award.

Steven is judging Art Director of the Year at the Stack Awards. As entries close, he told us about the kind of print that makes his heart sing. 

You’ve spoken about being “addicted” to graphic design. What is it about design that is so addicting?

I’m addicted to the ingenuity on one hand and the craft on the other. I’m addicted at times to many different things. But graphic design is what I practiced, what I study, what I teach. If I’m not wrapped up in it body and soul, then what’s the point of living a life devoted to it? Addiction may be the wrong word. But I am obsessed with the things design says and does, and with many of the designers who do it.

What do you look for in a magazine’s design: is there anything that immediately stands out to you, when picking something up?

I must say that I want to know at the outset what I’m about to read. But just as important is the shock of the great. Still, when I look at those old Esquire magazines with George Lois covers, I’m blown away by the conceptual acuity of them. I want to be moved. I want to think. I want a viceral chill to go up my spine. Then inside I want to see a certain indescribable visual intelligence. Surprises. Smart surprises that make me feel someone had a wonderful time making this magazine.

Is there a magazine in your life that you particularly love, or which has had an influence on you?

I mentioned Esquire. I still adore PORTFOLIO designed by Brodovitch. For content I am still looking through old MAD magazines.

Enter this year’s Stack Awards: deadline, 27 September

Close Icon

Join our magazine club! Subscribe to Stack and every month we'll pick a different independent title and deliver it to your door. You never know what you'll get next...

Subscribe now