As Tiffany Meyers observes in her overview of the 100 winners, one can’t peg 2009 as the year of any specific color or typographic convention. But the winning projects are reflective of today’s increasingly diverse design discipline. In fact, one has to wonder if there is any longer such a thing as a design discipline—in light of today’s fast-changing and even amorphous practice, the word discipline seems a little out of place.
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Balancing commitments to socially responsible clients while augmenting her reputation for aesthetically relevant design has become a labor of love for Cheryl Heller. 
Nov/Dec 2006
Q&A: Sean Adams Interviews Cheryl Heller
by Sean Adams

Lou Danziger once said, “a career is based on a series of solid successes, not one big splash.” Cheryl Heller exemplifies this idea explicitly. Clearly, the easy path for Cheryl would be to continue to do stellar work that is exceptionally crafted and skilled, mixed with extraordinary and challenging thinking. But that is not enough for her. She is in the process of creating a revolution by developing and teaching a process that enables corporations to play a leading role in alleviating the social and environmental issues facing the world. I spent time with Cheryl in Sedona recently while we judged the Mohawk show. A major fire raged in a nearby canyon. Erickson s-64 firefighting helicopters buzzed overhead as the smell of burning wood and a dark haze of smoke descended on us. Somehow this seemed a fitting mise-en-scéne that included the energy and intensity of Cheryl's presence.

SA: Cheryl, it’s easy to blame the business world, current cultural attitudes, clients, other designers, and your parents for a lackluster design solution. It’s the attitude of “blame others, deny everything.” The undercurrent of your thinking with corporations and the public good, and your thoughts on a successful design practice, seem to point to a different idea of responsibility. Your work clearly points to the idea of taking responsibility. For instance, I’m a huge fan of the Ideas That Matter program. How did that come about, and what are you most proud of in this instance?

CH: That was one of those moments in time that I’ll never forget. I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, when Eugene van As, the chairman of Sappi, showed me a wall calendar with endangered species that they had been doing for clients there, and asked if I would develop something like it that could be used globally. I told him that we should develop a program that had more specific relevance to Sappi customers and a stronger connection to what Sappi stood for as a company. Knowing that designers are by nature inclined to want to work for the public good—and that many of them are already involved in various causes—I developed the concept for a program in which designers can receive grants to work on whatever program they choose, as long as it is for the public good and it involves paper.

For the first two years I vetted all the entries as well, which was fascinating. I’m pleased that the program is still around, and that they’ve given away so much money over the years. I didn’t realize then that this would be such a clear prototype for the types of things I want to do now. I have just always enjoyed inventing programs like this. When they work, they take on a life of their own.

SA: One thing I love to do is look at the corners in portrait photos. To see the objects around the subject: the cereal boxes by the refrigerator, the Hummels, the objects in a room that start to define the subject. Maybe that’s a better way to get to the “wholeness.” So where are you and what are you doing today?

From Heller's home in Connecticut. “The bowl-o-rocks is actually about 24 inches across—it's giant. They are from every continent and island I've visited in the last several years.”
CH: It’s Sunday and I am at my house in Connecticut (as opposed to New York City). It’s been a beautiful day, and I have spent the whole of it at my computer, since about 7:30 this morning. Tomorrow we have a big presentation to World Wildlife Fund, and since I was traveling last week, I ran out of time. That gives you the wrong impression, though, because I usually work seven days a week. Anyway, I decided to take a break around 3 p.m. and take pictures for you of some of the things I like looking at when I’m here. Besides, one of the things I really love to do is take pictures.

SA: When I look at these images, my first thought, as a shallow materialist, is, “Cheryl’s got some very cool stuff. I need that bowl of rocks.” But these images say, in a very clear message, that you have a varied and full life, that your interests, environment, and relationships define you, not the last logo you made, and that you have taken time and energy to make this happen. Where does your professional life fit into this?

CH: I have spent my life helping companies grow. All because it was my job and I thought I had to. Here’s some important advice for young designers: You have much more choice than you can ever imagine at the time. Many clients I believed in and still do. Many I love. Some of them didn’t matter one way or another. Some of them were schmeckel heads.

SA: The article you did for Adobe Proxy, “A Seat at the Table,” explored the ways a designer could achieve a level of respect in relation to real issues, not just Cyan and Hobo. First, why do we want a seat at the big table, and then how do we get there?

CH: This relates to much of what I’ve said about choice and responsibility, and the notion that life is about systems, not individual parts. Being connected to real issues is the only way to ensure that your work impacts real issues. If that’s important to you, the way to get there is simply to develop an interest in the larger world outside of design and begin the conversation.

SA: Your interest in the public good is clear with your long-standing relationship with AIGA. You were a national board member, organized conferences, and your recent little book for AIGA (only in size, not ideas) is a remarkable distillation of very complex ideas into a simple and universal publication. What was your thinking in this instance?

CH: Actually, the introduction was the hard part, and it has relevance to everything we’re talking about today. It occurs to me that it’s all about context. The process for innovation in the book is only useful if you understand what it’s for and why it’s a good thing. Which is what the intro tries to do. Without that context, it’s just like another 10-step program, and it’s meaningless because you don’t know how it relates to you or how to use it. We as designers say we solve problems. But unless the solution works in the context of the company’s objectives, in the context of the audiences’ interests and means, it’s not a good solution.

The latest in a series of ads for Creative Edge Parties. “The fancy chickens take off on their egg logo, and have come to represent their clients. The headline says, ‘Don’t despair if you have not yet worked with new york’s best caterer.’ The positioning line, which we don’t always use on ads is ‘Not just another chicken dinner.’” PHOTOGRAPHY: Stephen Green-Armitage.
My friend Paul Polak, who founded an organization that helps people earn their way out of poverty, talks about products that are designed for poor people. If an irrigation system for a farmer’s field is the most exquisite thing ever designed, but it costs $2,000 and the farmer makes $300 a year, then it doesn’t work in the context in which it is needed. But the point is that you have to really work to understand that there are contexts out there other than your own. And that’s where the awareness and interest in the larger world come in.

The same thing applied to the Ideas That Matter entries. It was important for the designers who entered to understand and be relevant to the context in which their work will be seen. Many designers submitted proposals saying they wanted to design a poster campaign, with no thought as to what it would say, where it would hang, who would hang it, or what someone was supposed to do when they saw it. They just wanted to design a poster.

SA: I know I may seem obsessed by this idea of responsibility, but it appears to be the subtext of much of your work. You seem to be excited by exploring the ways a designer can achieve a level of respect in relation to real issues, not just squiggly lines and diecuts.

CH: One thing is very clear to me now. Human beings, in our current state, are not a sustainable species. We are destroying the planet that supports us through greed, stupidity, ego, and laziness, and taking all other forms of life along with us. To quote Ishmael, “The earth is lying bleeding at our feet.” So I’m trying to use what I have learned in terms of creativity, or how to move people, or sheer relentlessness, to try to help corporations do the right thing because it’s the only hope we have. I am still doing all the things I used to do, but now I only do them for companies that behave responsibly.

SA: That’s brave. It sounds easy, but it requires letting go of a large piece of potential business, and changing your role from a “type-maid” to a conscience. Is that what we do today as designers?

CH: I’m not sure what designers do, and evidently neither are many of them. We recently ran an ad in Craig’s List for a junior designer. We were overwhelmed by responses from smart, talented, energetic, and ambitious young men and women with books exemplifying varying degrees of perfection in type handling, good use of stock photography, cleverness, and overall neatness. But what are they going to design? None of them seemed to know.

SA: So let me see if I’m getting this right. Design is not the Holy Grail? It won’t solve every problem known to man? Darn.

“The cover of a brochure for the World Wildlife Fund that presents its new conservation strategy to donors. The headline says, ‘We have reached a critical moment in the history of the earth.’” PHOTOGRAPHY: Steve Bloom.
CH: Design is only a means to do something. It isn’t an end in itself. Unfortunately, design doesn’t always translate into vision. And what we need now is to see more clearly than ever. We need to see that it’s not OK for some people to spend $28 million on an apartment when so many have nowhere to live.

SA: What is the most common mistake we make as a profession?

CH: We make the same mistake that every profession makes. We become insular. We see ourselves as specialists because that makes us feel special. We may be special as hell, but that kind of thinking also makes us myopic. We are communicators, and great communicators understand their audience and are conversant in all the necessary languages. Great communicators have important things to say. I think we can all work on that.

SA: So back to this idea of the gestalt. I think it’s easy for many of us to go to work day after day, and then wake up and realize 20 years has gone by and we’ve designed a lot of brochures. What kind of advice would you give to allow a designer to experience a more substantive process?

CH: I think the most important thing is to tell the truth, to see that there is no “someplace else” anymore, that the boundaries we create between professions, life, love and work, between one company and another and even one person and another are nothing more than boundaries we create. They are arbitrary and inhibiting. And most importantly to me, I believe in systems rather than events. That everything is connected—that “everything is in everything” as Peter Senge says. Just like every cell contains our entire DNA.

So what is my sage advice to designers? I’m not sure what a designer is. I think there are only whole people, and that every whole person has to see that the stakes are higher now, and has to try to be a force for good. I don’t mean typography.


Announcement and call for entries ad for IDEAS THAT MATTER. “We launched the program at the AIGA conference in Las Vegas, then followed with ads in trade publications,” Cheryl Heller explains. “We had a big fight with the client about the logo, But that’s another story.”

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