Cheryl Heller

Step Magazine by Sean Adams

Cheryl Heller

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 do stellar work that is exceptionally crafted and skilled, mixed with extraordinary and challenging thinking. But that is not enough for her. Cheryl is in the process of creating a revolution by creating 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 together. A major fire raged in a nearby canyon. Erickson S-64 fire fighting helicopters buzzed over us as the smell of burning wood, and a dark haze of smoke descended on us. Somehow this seemed a fitting mise en scene 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’sthe 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 have as a goal developing 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 this program, in which designers can receive grants to work on whatever program they choose, as long as it is for the public good, and 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 uch money over the years. What I didn’t realize at the time, is 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, that when they work, take on a life of their own.

SA: It’s easy to talk about Franklin Gothic, or Warm Red, but you transcend that discussion. This idea of not just making parts, but inventing the whole permeates much of who you are. Can you apply that thinking personally? How would you define your life overall?

CH: Frankly, I don’t think about it. I don’t think anyone can sum up a life accurately and without pomposity. Except if you are Hemingway and you can write something like, “Only bullfighters use themselves all the way up.” But I can’t think of anything like that right now and anyway I am not a bullfighter.

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 on the refrigerator, the Hummells, 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?

CH: This particular day is Sunday and I am in our 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 have been traveling last week, I ran out of time. That gives you the wrong impression, though, because actually I usually work 7 days a week. Anyway I decided to take a break around 3 o’clock 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 jerks. (Schmeckel heads in fact.)

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 (only in size, not ideas) book for AIGA 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 AIGA 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 another 10 step-like-program, and it’s actually 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.

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 farmers 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, because it doesn’t work in the context in which it is needed. But the point is that you have to really work sometimes to understand that there are contexts out there other than your own. And that’s where the awareness and interest in the larger world comes 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: What I find incredible, is that you’re out there on the road and in print imparting these thoughts. You’re not just complaining behind a desk.

CH: You could say that all the things I spend so much time thinking and talking about are to try to help designers understand that in order to create work that is seen, appreciated, relevant and successful you must understand the context in which it will be used. And to do that, you must have a ‘seat at the table’ so that you can see and understand the picture that’s bigger than your fabulous 26″ flat screen Mac Monitor (upon which I happily write).

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 die-cuts.

CH: One thing is very clear to me now. Human beings are not a sustainable species. We are destroying the planet that supports us through greed, stupidity 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 whatever I have ever learned in terms of creativity, or how to move people, or guts, to try to help corporations do the right thing now because it’s the only hope we have. I am still doing all the things I used to do but I only do them now for companies that tell the truth.

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 seem 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.

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. 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 twenty 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. Also, most importantly to me, I believe in systems rather than events. That everything is connected – that “everything is in everything” as Peter Senge says. That 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).