Interviews, Essays, Etc.

Author Q&A with Steven Heller: 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design
April 12, 2012

Steven Heller talks about the new book he has written with Véronique Vienne, 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design (Laurence King Publishing, April 2012).

Designers & Books: How did the two of you get involved in writing this book in the Laurence King “100 Ideas” series, which includes also includes architecture, fashion, and film?

Steven Heller: Véronique and I did a book for Laurence called Art Direction Explained, At Last! Laurence wanted another book, and he had cooked up this series. Seemed like I was a good candidate, and I thought Véronique and I would make a good tag team.

D&B: In the introduction to the book, you talk about what constitutes an “idea” versus a trope or a conceit. Can you speak about the definitions—and ultimately how you know one of the 100 ideas when you see it?

SH: An idea has legs. A conceit is fleeting. The former is a foundation, the latter builds upon that. But sometimes, honestly, they are one-and-the-same.

We made lists of anything from isms to formal definitions of art and design and then analyzed which of these was not a forced label. Véronique often tackled the more abstract ideas; I focused on the more transparent ones.

100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design (Laurence King Publishing 2012). Cover design by Angus Hyland

D&B: Did you have any fears that you would end up with substantially more than 100 ideas?

SH: Fears, no. But we knew there would be a longer list—and there was. So we had to condense notions into single ideas. The list was vetted and re-vetted by Jo Lightfoot, our editor at Laurence King. She would often, talmudically, send back e-mails questioning our choices, and then questioning our answers.

D&B: Whom do you see as the primary audience for the book? We have heard it said that history doesn’t get enough attention in design education these days. How much, if any, of that position were you thinking about when you decided to write this book?

SH: We speculate when we talk about audience. But this book filters history, which to many students might be daunting, into usable parts. For the professional designer it is a means of explaining or even validating what they do instinctively. For the general reader (or at least the non-designer who is interested in media) it is another look at visual phenomena that might otherwise be invisible or overlooked.

D&B: Idea #1 is “The Book.” What do you think? Will “the book” still be around when you do the second edition?

“Idea #1, The Book”

SH: The idea of the book certainly will be. This book should have a life as an e-book or its equivalent.

D&B: Idea #25 is “Manifestos.” How many important ones have there been—and have they had any lasting impact?

“Idea #25, Manifestos”

“First Things First" manifesto

SH: Dozens, maybe hundreds. A manifesto can be a group brain drain or an individual’s statement of principles. Paul Rand’s Thoughts on Design was the latter. “First Things First” still gets discussed. But most manifestos are timely and easily forgotten.

Animal Farm, from “Idea #37, Dust Jackets”

D&B: Two of the ideas—#37, “Dust Jackets,” and #86, “Record Album Covers”—seem to be heading toward extinction or are already there. Can you recap the importance of these two ideas—and can you talk about any new emerging digital formats that might provide designers with similar opportunities, challenges, and inspiration?

SH: Dust jackets are still around, if only as vestigial. And as long as there are hardcovers, there will be jackets. Album covers, well, they still make a few. These were both essential because they were “advertising” that required design concepts. They became hybrid forms. They were, in a sense, unessential packages that became totally essential to the essence of the product. Unessential in the sense that records were sold on shelves, spine-out. Books were sold in the same manner. The jacket and cover brought them out of the shelves.

D&B: If you had to cut the 100 ideas down to 5—could you do it?

SH: Absolutely not (particularly, not after all that work!).

Elvis Presley, from “Idea #86, Record Album Covers”

D&B: While it was obviously a mammoth job, you must have had a great time selecting the images to illustrate the ideas. Which two or three ideas do you think are most interestingly illustrated?

SH: There could have been so many more illustrations. I love monumentalism, though we don’t even scratch the surface. I’m also fond of diagonals. I did a book a few years ago called Anatomy of Design, where my co-author and I looked at individual pieces of design and then dissected them according to trope and conceit. For each piece we then found at least a dozen historical works that used the same ideas. I satisfied all my visual hunger and obsession in that book.

D&B: What if you were writing a book called “10 (not 100) Designers Who Changed Graphic Design”? Who would you put in the top ten most influential graphic designers of all time?

SH: I actually have had an idea sitting around for a long time called “Formgivers of Graphic Design.” I have been reluctant to jump into it because that’s really a hard one. There are the obvious names—William Morris, A. M. Cassandre, Toulouse-Lautrec, Herbert Bayer, Frederic Goudy—but these are all over the lot. There are many, many others. W. A. Dwiggins coined the term “graphic design.” He gets in the pantheon if only for that alone. Please don’t make me name more—it is exhausting.

“Idea #9, Monumental Images,” featuring A. M. Cassandre’s advertising poster “Watch the Fords Go By” (1937)

D&B: You and Véronique are both prolific authors. What books are you each working on now?

SH: I am doing a book for Laurence King on “100 Essential Design Magazines” and a few other projects. Véronique is working on a novel about graphic design—watch out, Chip Kidd!

All images courtesy of Laurence King Publishing.


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