An Education part I: anchoring points with Steven Heller

Published:  August 17, 2015


Steven Heller

‘Anchoring points’ is part 1 of a 4-part mini interview series on design education, from the August/September desktop. 



Design, as an activity and a field, has expanded in all kinds of directions. How have you seen design education respond to this?

Education in general has been very fluid. Graphic design, for instance, is not just about type on page (or screen); it is about user experience in multiple forms. It’s about criticism and research, it’s about motion and sound. At SVA we’ve not only added this to the existing curriculum, we’ve built entirely new programs that focus respectively on product, interaction, social innovation, entrepreneurship and more. In fact, all these programs overlap in terms of the critical mass of media and platforms and conceptual focus they offered.

Education has gone beyond the trade and craft of design as service, to teaching and encouraging design as intellectual property and social equity.

Illustration by Daniel H Gray.

Illustration by Daniel H Gray.

What should we teach future designers – what skills are necessary in a commercial climate?

It is boring and pedantic to list the needs. Aesthetic, business, strategic, social and more skills and talents are useful. But the major concern for me is thinking, making, distributing – how to get ideas manufactured and out to the publics that want them. This is beyond the usual problem, solution, refinement model.

Designers are in a particularly advantageous position for conceiving and materialising. For too long education ignored history and criticism because it was not a marketable skill. But it is an insurance policy against stupidity, which pervades a lot of commercial practice. If we are not aware of our history or aware of how design functions, we are just playing with ourselves. That’s fine, but that’s not the best use of talent, skill or intelligence.

What lies at the foundation of graphic design practice? What ways can we use new technologies to carry this? 

Thinking! However, if you cannot make your thoughts concrete in some meaningful manner, then what’s the good? I think design is now reliant on collaboration. So, the foundation is no longer the sole form giver, but the eager collaborator whose thinking is transformed by trusted colleagues working towards the same goal.

Where do you see the design industry heading, and how can education (both institutional and within professional practice) take it there?

That’s the big question. And I’m not sure I have the vision to answer it. Twenty years ago I could say without hesitation that it was entrepreneurship; that was the big idea revolution of the 21st century. Today, entrepreneurship is integrated into much of what we do. But how do we integrate that with service design? I hope that designers increasingly became engines of progress or at least independent thinkers, not tied to style or fashion, but leading it somehow. If we know that is a real goal, we’ll find teachers and mentors to get us there.

For 33 years Steven Heller was an art director at The New York Times, for almost 30 of those years with The New York Times Book Review. At New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA) Heller is co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author Department, and special consultant to the president for New Programs. He writes the ‘Visuals’ column for The New York Times Book Review.

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