Véronique Vienne

The Self-Taught Design Critic. [...]

Véronique Vienne was a magazine art director in the USA when she began to write to better analyze and understand the work of the graphic designers, illustrators and photographers who collaborated with her.

Today she writes books and conducts workshops on design criticism as a creative tool.


Voir, regarder, apprécier : tout un programme. [...]

Véronique Vienne a été directrice artistique aux USA avant de commencer a écrire pour mieux comprendre ce que faisaient les graphistes, illustrateurs et photographes avec qui elle collaborait.

Aujourd’hui elle écrit des livres et anime des sessions de travail sur la critique du design graphique comme outil de création.

Steven Heller needs you

A most prolific author, Steven Heller gets his readers to write his books

Anyone who mentions Steven Heller will, invariably, in the next breath, marvel at his creative output.

  “He wrote more than 200 books!”

  Two hundred books with his name on the cover.

  If you were to line up all his books side by side on a bookshelf, you’d have about ten solid feet of colorful spines pressing against each other. Of uneven heights and formats, they are a motley crew, yet they all feature similar titles: Anatomy of Design, Citizen Designer, The Education of an Illustrator, Graphic Design History, and so on. How can one topic generate so many books? Ten feet? That’s the length of a very comfortable sofa, the kind that’s long enough to snuggle up with a pile of books on, while someone else naps beside you.

  How do you write 200 books?

  Imagine consigning to paper about three million words (six time the number of words in War and Peace). Is it even humanly possible to accomplish such a feat? What kind of writer can fill up 30,000 pages recto-verso with his prose, and actually get it all published?

  A genius of some sort?

No. Steven Heller was a talented art director when one of his first books, Innovators of American Illustration, came out in print, but he had yet to garner a reputation as a prolific wordsmith. No one could have predicted that Innovators, a modest survey of 21 creative illustrators (Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, and Marshall Arisman among them) would become a template for success. However, the book turned out to fill a niche no one else had identified so far: the smart-looking reference manual. For one thing, it was an easy read. You could just flip through the pages, glance at the color reproductions, scan the captions, and feel that you had learnt something.

Steven Heller had taught himself to write the same way he taught himself to design: step by step, taking things apart, figuring out how the various pieces fitted together, then trying to re-assemble them on his own. A tinkerer, he had begun to collect graphic paraphernalia, a wide variety of objects and publications, from promotional paper novelties, to bric-a-brac, to vintage food labels and antique type specimens — and each new acquisition had become the pretext for a new research topic. Soon, digging information became his passion. But, be that as it may, making sense of it all was a challenge.

  You can collect things, but how does one collect knowledge?

  There are no two ways about it: if you want to test whether you understand something, try writing about it.

  Steven Heller, the pack rat, the amateur of retro paper products, the hoarder of commercial kitsch, soon found out that behind every artifact now crowding every surface of his apartment was a story waiting to be told. Most disturbing was the realization that none of them would ever be told unless he did something about it.

Visual Literacy

Today, Heller’s body of work is a huge patchwork of facts, recollections, and narratives. Put together, it recounts the last two centuries of the evolution of the graphic design profession, a trade dedicated to the advancement of visual literacy.

  Visual literacy?

The non-verbal expression of human intelligence.

  Pictures that are worth a thousand words.

  Mental acuity made visible.

His books, for the most part, are illustrated with countless reproductions of graphic artifacts that are designed to speak directly to the mind. Book covers, posters, pamphlets, billboards, logos, charts, or street signs — they all combine words and images in such a way as to stimulate your imagination, tease your curiosity, and make you feel smarter than you were a minute ago.

  On the other hand, what differentiates Heller’s books from others in the field of graphic design is their deliberate, non-intellectual approach. They are written for an audience of problem-solvers who have little patience with jargon. Weary of theory, Heller systematically eschews academic newspeak and avoids footnotes. However, there is a streak of activism that runs through his narratives. It comes with the territory. Graphic design attracts creative types with an eccentric bent. Inside every graphic designer lives a militant poster artist ready to challenge the status quo.

  Steven Heller was 24, with a reputation for being a maverick magazine art director on the counterculture scene when he was hired by The New York Times — first as the art director of the celebrated Op-Ed page before being promoted to the weekly Book Review. There, in this most distinguished institution, he got a sneak peek into how “serious” articles were written and edited. Nonetheless, he never tried to mimic the journalistic objectivity advocated by his employer. He remained an idiosyncratic writer whose prose was informed by his personal enthusiasm and avid curiosity.

  From the start, his favorite method of inquiry was sending queries not  only to designers but also to assistants, former colleagues, and ex-students. He’d compare notes, collect anecdotes, cross-reference hearsays. By the time he sat down to write (usually flipping open his laptop at 4:30 in the morning), he couldn’t wait to share with his readers the results of his findings.

  To this day, the prospect of gathering, sorting, and processing information is what gets him up before the crack of dawn. He writes with the same urgency about the Arts and Crafts reaction against the industrial revolution in England in the 19th century as he does about the proliferation of European avant-garde publications after World War I.

  He is as excited when describing the various conspiracies surrounding the branding of 20th century totalitarian states in Germany, Italy, or Russia as he is exposing the mafia connections of the various underground presses in the heyday of the sexual revolution in the United States.

  The biography of the designer Paul Rand is the opportunity for him to discuss the development of an insidious corporate graphic language in America.

  The introduction to a collection of essays on the political responsibilities of professional designers is a warning about the dangers of putting your talents at the service of an insatiable consumer culture.

A book on the latest trends in art direction highlights the contribution of women to a field traditionally dominated by men’s egos.

  There is no shortage of subject matter to keep his brain on fire. How about Art Nouveau calligraphy, eco-conscious packaging, vernacular advertising, Cuban antiwar posters, Soviet propaganda magazines, Italian menu design, or Futurist collage?

If you have a question about graphic design, look no further. The chances are that Steven Heller wrote about it.

The Death of the Author

In his famous 1967 article, The Death of the Author, French literary critic Roland Barthes put forward the idea that readers, not authors, are the ultimate authorities when it comes to interpreting a text.

Steven Heller is probably not a fan of Barthes’ postmodernist theory; however, he has contributed to proving him right.

He could never have written 200 books had he tried to hold on to his status as their sole author. Even though his name is on the cover, the contents of his books are, to a great degree, generated by his audience.

Trained as an art director — as someone whose job it is to assign projects to talented artists — Heller knows how to draw upon the creative resources of an entire community to achieve a culturally relevant result. Getting others to write the bulk of his books was not only an expedient — it was first and foremost a brilliant design choice. 

For each title he would propose to a publisher, he had a co-author in mind — a colleague, a former student, a friend in the business, or a designer whose work he particularly admired. He’d call beforehand and pitch his ideas to him or her. At first the person would refuse, but Heller would be insistent.

  “Here is a guide to graphic design’s most celebrated mannerisms, quirks and conceits” he is likely to say, and then launch into a defense of style over substance.

  Or he might plead: “How about a book on design disasters? You know, embarrassing career moves, bad choices, painful lessons learned.”

  He has a knack for advocating the most provocative subject matter: anti-art typography, politically incorrect design, or pastiche as a legitimate creative process. 

  Listen to him for five minutes, and his ideas for a book begin to appeal to you.

Of the three or four dozen people Steven Heller has recruited as co-authors for his 200 books over the last three and an half decades, only a handful had written about design before receiving his call — or had any desire to do so.

  Never mind. They would learn.

  What you have to say is more important than how you say it.

  The point of the exercise isn’t literature but literacy.

      Literacy is first and foremost a social practice that allows individuals to develop "the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential."  As luck would have it, literacy’s greatest advance was in the last two centuries — the same period during which visual communication went from being a minor craft to being a full-fledged professional activity. In 1820, when only 12% of the world’s population could read and write, the most sophisticated examples of graphic design were probably the wanted posters assembled in the back of printer shops.

  Today the global literacy rate is 87%.  This means that, in our day and age, only 13% of all the world’s population will never need reading glasses! One could argue that they are better off than you and me. Illiterate people do not bother with to-do lists. They never struggle to fill up applications. They never look up the spelling of a word in a dictionary. They lead simpler lives, relying on their memory to figure out what’s going on, what people said, and what they are supposed to do next. 

Statistically, however, they are at a huge disadvantage. Today, literacy is considered the most reliable indicator of a person’s chances of survival. Over the 12 years of follow-up, readers experience a 20% reduction in risk of mortality compared to non-readers. In other words, today, those who own a library card will live longer than those who don’t.

Your level of literacy is your destiny.

So, when Steven Heller calls you and asks you to write something for one of his books, either as a co-author or as a contributor, do not demur. Think of putting your name next to his on the cover of his next publishing project as a contribution to to the longevity of future readers.