Steven Heller Profile
posted: July 9, 2007
A while back, when I posted my profile of Dave Bamundo as part of my illustrator series, Art TalksEdel suggested I do a series about art directors. I thought it was a great idea and would be a terrific way to learn more about the people who hire us and collaborate with us and figure so large in our world. So this is the first in my new series of art director profiles, of Steven Heller, who critiqued my portfolio back in the early '90s and subsequently hired me for the Book Review.

Steven Heller, age 56, ruled over one of the premier showcases of illustration for 33 years, first on the OpEd page of The New York Times, and then as art director of The New York Times Book Review, at the same time authoring more than 100 books. Among illustrators, he's known for his passion for illustration as well as his forthright portfolio critiques for any and all brave enough to listen.

"When I was a kid, I painted, I drew, I did cartoons – that’s how I got into the business. I did cartoons kind of like, but not the same as, Jules Feiffer, but they were darker and they weren’t crafted as well. Later I got to know Jules and I actually edited his book, “America from Eisenhower to Reagan” so that was kind of a nice circle of life. But I always drew. I would lock myself in my room and I would draw pictures and I would make the sound effects and say the dialog aloud, so the pictures would come to life.

"When I was about eight or nine, I went to the Museum of Modern Art art school and was thrown out for bad behavior, running up and down the Bauhaus staircase unsupervised. Now I’m on the MOMA acquisitions board for design and architecture, and when we had a big photograph taken when they opened the new museum, it was on that same staircase. It gave me a twinge.

"I got my first design job when I was in high school. I met Brad Holland when he answered an ad I put in the Village Voice for people to do artwork for a magazine that I was starting when I was 17, called Borrowed Time. Brad actually taught me typography while I was doing the magazine. He ended up laying out the entire magazine and doing all the mechanicals and donated quite a few drawings and I did a few and somebody from my school did a few and then I started getting jobs with these underground newspapers, doing art direction and cartoons.

"In looking at my drawings now, they are only historically interesting from a personal perspective. Some of the jokes were interesting. They were quirky. I mean, I have the same sense of humor now as I had then: it was kind of abstract and pretty dark and I would make certain connections, visually, that I would make verbally now. But the drawings weren’t great.

"My focus shifted away from being an illustrator because Brad Holland never recognized my talent as a drawer. I’m serious! I was doing these things and I always wanted his approval and he was pretty blasé about it, or not even blasé! So I decided, I’m stopping, fuck him, and fuck all of this! I’ll just devote myself to art directing and that means I’ll give him work and I’ll give Marshall Arisman work and I’ll give other people work.

"What I liked about art directing, was that I love working with people and I love pulling strings and love finding artists. And I always liked typography, even though I wasn’t a great typographer. See, an art director can do it all. You can be an editor, you can be a designer, you can be a mover, you can shake things around, you can do formats; I just like the entirety of the process. But as an art director I never really loved photography; I was always much more involved in illustration. I always preferred it.

"I started giving critiques at The Times because, when I was 15, I took my portfolio to Dick Hess, who was the art director of Evergreen Review, a magazine I later became art director of. I'd left my portfolio there for him to look at, and when I came back, I remember he was standing at the window, and all I could see was his silhouette, and my portfolio was just lying there to pick up. I picked it up and I realized nobody had even looked at it. And I just felt terrible. I stopped showing it for about a year or two after that. And I said to myself, 'If I ever get into the position he’s in, I will always look at the portfolios with the people in front of me.' So I did. It was just one of those weird things. And then I got to know Dick before he died and I would tell him that he was the worst influence on my life. Or maybe it was the best.

"In doing critiques, there were three things I learned. One thing was you always focus on the best work in the portfolio: you start with that and then you work down. I had somebody here just a few minutes ago and she was showing me her work and I found the one thing that was good to talk about and then I talked about the other things. In the early days I was a little more arrogant, because I was afraid, actually; it was a scary thing to do. So I might have come off as aloof, which is what people tell me I sometimes am. But in fact, that was just a kind of shyness, or a nervousness.

"I would say to people, 'Look, if you are going to come here I will give you five to 10 minutes, and I’ll look at it and I’ll be very frank.' Did I make people cry? Yes. There was a woman who came in when I was at The Times whose work was directly copied from somebody else and not only somebody else, but somebody who was doing a lot of work for the Op-Ed page at that time.

"So I said, 'Do you know the work of so and so?'

"And she said, 'No.'

"And I said, 'But this is exactly like his, line for line.'

"And she started crying. It’s never fun to have somebody cry, but it wasn’t like I punched her or anything. It’s just that she did something wrong and got caught. I would hear later that other people were devastated by a critique. But I think that comes because you put so much of your person into what you're doing that if somebody doesn’t like it, it’s not about the work, it’s about you. And that’s very hard to take.

"Professional critiques are meant to be auditions, and if you're auditioning somebody, they've entered into a contract with you to be auditioned and to take the critique. I still ask, 'Do you want the hard critique or the soft critique?' It’s up to them. But nobody ever took the soft critique. Though, if I’m looking at somebody and I feel that they're fragile, I'm not going to go the distance; I’ll just say, 'Look this isn’t right and maybe you need to do this or that.'

"Art directing, I've had great work come in and I’ve had the reverse as well. In all the time I was doing the Book Review, 30 years, there were only a handful of things that were so dreadful that I couldn’t publish them. My point of view in the Book Review was I would publish things that weren’t quite up to snuff if that person was working on a regular basis. You let some things fall and you build on the other things.

"One of my favorite illustrators at the Book Review was Ed Lam, who just rendered so beautifully. I mean, my favorite cover, ever, was the Sergeant Pepper Clinton cover, which I gave him and I thought it would come back and it would be an okay collage. And when it came back, it was this brilliant painting, and he had obviously really done his homework. Now that’s an area of illustration that I call collaboration, because I came up with the basic idea and he fulfilled that. And there are other people, you just throw the script at them and they create magic.

"Interpretation is what I care about most. Now, there are lots of painters I used to use when I was on the Op-Ed page, who never could make a good illustration. Claus Oldenburg did a page for me, and it was lovely, but it wasn’t illustration, it was just his own stuff. But there is a magic that happens when you take somebody else’s words and concept and interpret it."