Steven Heller wears many hats (in addition to the New York Yankees): For 33 years he was an art director at the New York Times, originally on the OpEd Page and for almost 30 of those years with the New York Times Book Review. Currently, he is co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author Department, Special Consultant to the President of SVA for New Programs, and writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review.
- Could you give us a bit of background about your work and education?
I was born and raised in NYC and I was always hustling for work in creative places. I joined an underground paper in 1967 and that began my carrier and education and I have worked as art director/designer for Scew, The New York Review of Sex, the New York Free Press and Rock Magazine. From there I want to The New York Times as art director of the OpEd page, the three years later I was art director of the Book Review. Contingent with that I wrote books (I’ve done over 190 or so. And I’m also co-founder and co-chair of the SVA/ New York MFA Design / Designer as Entrepreneur program.
- what made you want to become an art director and lecturer?
It was an accident. I was a cartoonist. A bad one. Art direction was something I could do well.
- What is the most challenging part about being an art director?
I am not an a.d. anymore. I left that 8 years ago, when I retired from the Times. But working with artists is both the most challenging a rewarding. The most difficult, at times, was working with some ignorant editors that do not let the expert or authority do the job.
- How did you select the illustrators you want to work with? Did you have a portfolio of images?
I assume that in the past it would have been a lot of paper-based, print-based illustration, and now it will be all on a tablet…
I met with illustrators every day in the a.m. They had 15 minutes each to show me their work. If I like the work, liked them or both, I’d give out a job. If the result was fantastic Iwould use them repeatedly.
- What sort of skills did you need as an art director?
A decent eye for both design and illustration and a little courage to SELL your ideas.
- Do you feel social media is an important tool for illustrators? Does having a social media presence really change an illustrator’s ability to get commissions?
Social Media has become very important. It’s a good way to reach a lot of people and it represents illustrators on their merits.
- Do you have any advice for someone looking to work as an illustrator?
Be persistent. Be good. Persistence is important but if you’re not good nothing will work.
- What factors should illustrators keep in mind when finding ways to improve their work?
Can they draw well. Can they think and conceive good ideas? Are they reading well and smart? If deficient in any of these places, they better learn more.
- Let’s continue with your experiments as a curator. What do you believe is a key element in being a professional curator?
It depends on what is being curated. Imagination is important and a good sense of space certainly helps. Also, historical knowledge is essential.
- What challenges did you have in this job?
I was not really a curator, although I organized a few exhibitions.
- What do you have planned for the future?
To go on living, learning and experiencing. I keep on doing books, I continually answer the kind of questions you’re asking.