The Designer's Guide to Writing and Research | Steven Heller | Skillshare

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The Designer's Guide to Writing and Research

teacher avatar Steven Heller, Author

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Project Assignment


    • 3.



    • 4.



    • 5.



    • 6.

      Final Thoughts


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About This Class

Design's most prolific writer Steven Heller shares why writing matters and what designers need to know. Presented in collaboration with AIGA, the professional association for design, this 30-minute class will help you bring clear, creative communication into every project.

As a former New York Times art director and author of over 100 books on graphic design, Heller has dedicated his career to illuminating the parallels between writing and design. Now, with this class, he empowers all designers, illustrators, and creatives with a crucial foundation for communicating and "designing" with language.

In three clear lessons, walk through the professional importance of research and writing to designers today, tactical best practices for developing your voice, and creative ways to communicate. Throughout, a short writing assignment helps you put each lesson into practice. Strengthen your skills to say what you mean in every project.

Meet Your Teacher

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Steven Heller



Steven Heller is co-founder and co-chair (with Lita Talarico) of the SVA MFA Design / Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program at the School of Visual Arts, New York, Special Consultant to the President of SVA for New Programs, and writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review. He 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.

Prior to this, he lectured for 14 years on the history of illustration in the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program at the School of Visual arts. He also was director for ten years of SVA's Modernism & Eclecticism: A History of American Graphic Design symposiums.

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1. Introduction: I'm Steven Heller. I was an art director at the New York Times for 33 years. I write about design and popular culture. I've written about 170 books over the last 25 years. I write about design because I'm not a great designer, but I love design. The class I'm teaching here is one about writing. Every designer really should be literate in terms of reading and writing. This course is about writing. What leads into writing is research. What gets you to research but reading? So, it's reading, research, and writing. I'd call it three R's except I know it's spelled with a W. The class is for young designers. The class is for design students. The class is for veterans who have basically stayed away from writing for whatever reason. What I want this class to be is a way to somehow reduce the insecurity about working with the word and also belie the notion that designers are just visual people, because designers are more than visual people. The assignment that I'm giving you today is to write 500 words about an object that's sitting somewhere in your office or home. Explain to the reader, what are the properties and what are the flaws or eccentricities of this particular object. I've been at SBA for over 30 years as an instructor in the NFA illustration program. Before the New York Times, I had gotten a job right out of high school. In fact I was still in high school where I was doing layouts at an underground newspaper. Eventually, as it turned out, I was recommended to meet the art director of the New York Times. The design director of New York Times, Silverstein. To my great surprise because I was at a very strange publication at that time, he offered me a job as art director of the Op-Ed page. I was 23 years old. From then on, it was just this learning curve. An amazing learning curve. At the New York Times. Someone asked me to write a piece for a magazine about a couple of illustrators, and I did. I found that I liked it. So, I started writing these little profiles. The little profiles grew into larger profiles, the larger profiles grew into more reporting pieces. The reporting pieces turned into critical essays. The critical essays turned into the need for me in any case to do books. So, I started doing books. Books to me were the epitome of success. I still write, and I write every day because I have a blog, and I have a column. I have so many outlets. There's no shortage of places to put what I write. In my own world, my biggest inspiration was my uncle who was a Columbia professor in history, but I also have a number of friends and family. My wife is a brilliant designer. She also motivates me to work. I guess I motivate her as well because she's been writing lately. It was in part her own excellence as a designer. Her name is Louise Fili, that drove me out of the design business and into the writing business because I could never compare with or compete with the kind of work she did. Interestingly, now she's beginning to write, she's done a few books on her own and she's gotten critical acclaim. So, I think I have to find some other area to go into. My relationship with AIGA goes back many years to the 1980s, when I went to them in the hopes that they would do an exhibition of political art of the 1970s and 80s. They were very welcoming and very supportive. From that point on, I started engaging with the AIGA as a writer and an editor. AIGA has always been an open place. The archive is an example of their interest in history. AIGA is being the premier design organization in the United States. It has to be the repository of history. I find it an amazing and rich environment to be part of. 2. Project Assignment: Just look around your room or your office or wherever you're watching this and select an object. Not an object that you know very, very well, but an object that's there that you like, that you have some understanding of or at least appreciation why you have it there. Take it, put in front of you, and start writing about it. Create a story that explains either in a very factual way what this object is and why this object exists or in an impressionistic way, how you see this object in the context of your room, how you see this object in the context of public space or a private space, and do a draft, do let's say 500 words, just let it come out. You're putting down all your thoughts and you're not editing those thoughts. Then after you've done that, reread it and see how you can structure it into something that tells a story about this piece. This piece is the star of your story, it's the protagonist. Or you can make yourself the protagonist using this piece as the object of your desire or affection. There are many ways of doing it, but the bottom line is you're going to tell the viewer something about this object, either through your personal perspective or through this perspective of others. Well, I'm going to walk you through a piece today. I wouldn't say it's my best piece, I wouldn't say it's my worst piece, I'd say it's a piece that I like, I enjoy because I enjoyed the subject matter. It's about miniature chairs. The first piece I wrote was for a column I was doing called Graphic Content for the New York Times, T-Style online. So, I wanted to talk about how different companies over time have done miniatures of their key or iconic objects. What I did with this piece was I sat down with a couple of the chairs in front of me and I started waxing poetically about them in my head. Why these are so fresh? Why even though they might have been designed 30 years ago, you still want to have them in your life? Why because of the issue of size and cost, the only thing I can afford is a teeny one that could easily be broken if I stepped on it? So, it became a piece about classic design, as well as a piece about consumerism, as well as a piece about collectability and archive ability. It had a funny bent to it. I want to see 500 words come out of this project. I don't want to see a word under or over. This is a way of disciplining yourself to work within the confines or the parameters that ultimately magazines, or newspapers, or newsletters, or blogs will ask you to do. It's a good warm up for you to start your new career of writing. I chose this as your assignment because it's important to know how to discuss things in your universe. As a designer, you can just show it and that so-called picture telling a 1,000 words or 10,000 words, which is the real statement. It's fairly easy. All you basically are doing is framing the thing that you want the viewer to see. But when you're writing about it, you have to pick the right words so that that viewer if they close their eyes and don't look at it at all can also see it in that darkness of their shut vision. So, this is a way for you to design something through words, and you're going to learn a few lessons. One is that it's not easy to make word pictures, and don't go into your thesaurus because you're not going to find the right words there. Just keep thinking, digging into your own head, and thinking about words that recreate the experience of what you're seeing in front of you. To be a great designer, you really have to be articulate and literate. What I'm looking forward to is seeing how far you take these objects in your own mind, whether it's imaginatively, intellectually, or historically. 3. Research: We talked about reading, but you don't get to write unless you have some subject matter to write about, and you don't get that subject matter unless you do some research. Research is discovery. It's a very simple idea. You need to discover what it is you're going to write about. There are different ways of researching. Obviously, the most common way right now is to go on Google and find things through Google image or Google Books or Wikipedia. Before Wikipedia, researchers had to go out and do some gumshoe work which meant they had to go to libraries, they had to go to collections, they had to go to archives, they had to go to offices and rummage through files, they had to look at papers that had been written. They had to do the legwork that ultimately gave them the original material that they could use. The best thing to do and the most fun thing to do, is actually find something that's revelatory. Something that you can say it's mine because nobody's seen it before. Or if they have seen it before, they haven't seen it in a long time. It's not just paper research, it is audio research and video research that you'd be doing and you're also not just researching things about the object, you're doing the object itself. You're getting the these particular objects. I mean, I've found for example that I was once writing about a Lester Beall poster and it turned out there were four Lester Beall posters done in the same series and I wouldn't have known that had I not gone to a gallery and sifted through their file cabinets. I used to love to go to the Library of Congress, but any library will do and ask for those boxes that contain things that may have been cataloged but haven't been displayed in ages. There's so many libraries that have hidden treasures in their basements, in their stacks. Research is a process of recording what you have found and then ultimately interpreting what you have found, that's part of the research process. When you're researching your objects, depending on the object that you're researching, find where that object derives from or the provenance of that object. Maybe that object belonged to somebody, maybe that object was sold in a department store, or a five-and-dime. That's where you start your research. But ultimately, you determine from your object what your story is to be and then go to the library. Yes, you can go online but maybe that online source will lead you someplace else to a great archive or a great collection and you'll find that maybe your story isn't the real story, maybe your story expands into something else. Maybe your story morphs into a different object. There are all different ways of researching and finding things that you have not expected to find. Miniature chairs was an interesting process of research. It didn't take me a long time and the research process that you're going through for your 500-word piece shouldn't take a super long time either. I had to produce the story in a fairly short amount of time, so the amount of research that I did was enough to get me to write the story. Basically, I wanted to know what the chairs were, that was a simple task because all I had to do was look in for books on furniture. But I also wanted to know more about the company that made them and that was an online exercise where I looked up the company, I found out what else they were making. I bought the miniature furniture at a store in New York called Toy Tokyo. So, I spoke to the manager of the toy store why they had this particular collection of objects there, when what they also had in abundance were super hero characters and all sorts of cartoon characters. This seem really an anomaly. This seemed like it should be in a furniture store. So, they told me about the company's marketing plan. Now, a lot of the things that I found out about the company that made them, I didn't use in the piece but at least I had it in my head. What I ended up doing was talking more about the objects and the phenomena of miniaturization. 4. Reading: Reading is important in the process of writing because if you didn't read, you wouldn't know what writing is. When I started out, I read as much as I could about art history to see how the art historians phrase things and how they described a work of art. I never necessarily wrote about art in the same way, but it always started with the contextualization of what was being discussed, and then it went into a kind of aesthetic discourse of what was going on. So, had I not read that, I wouldn't know what to either do or rebel against. When you're starting out the way, some of you may be starting out. It's important to have read. Now, that doesn't mean that if you haven't read a lot and you're watching this class, and you're about to write, that you're disqualified. By no means, what you should do is read more as you go along. Try to write in a way that you've read before maybe, and you've read a great opening to an essay in a magazine, or you've read a great news story. Just try that approach. You don't have to spend the next 20 months reading books to become a writer in the 23rd or 24th month. I've been asked many times what a designer who is starting out writing should read. Well, they should read virtually everything that's out there that they can get their hands on to see the different approaches. Now, some of those approaches are not that good. Some of those approaches are very pedantic. Some of those approaches are very academic, and at the same time, very stimulating. Some of those approaches are more anecdotal. Some of those approaches show a real personality in the writing, and some of those approaches are more generic. You have to make your decision of how you want to present yourself, your own thoughts, and it could be a combination of all those thing. Then, underline things, underline passages that you like. Don't just copy them verbatim, but underlying them. you may actually use them as quotes in your own piece, and then of course, there are books and there are tons of books. Too many books to mention on the screen here, but it's good to pick up books that somehow, through their titles or through their covers interest you. My favorite book to read for anything related to design or social commentary is something by Ben Shahn called The Shape of Content. It's a series of essays that he did his lectures, so you already get to hear the melody of his prose as he would have given it to an assembly full of listeners, but you can read it as well, and it reads very melodically and very excessively, so you get the best of both worlds. You get that conversational tone or that lecturial tone, and you get the reading structure as well. When I read, there are two ways of reading. One is reading for pleasure, and the other way to read is to read informationally, where you're there with a yellow marker pen and fine tip pen, and you're highlighting as much as you can and writing notes beside them. The notes can be what the subject is you're highlighting, or it can be your rephrasing of what you're reading. It's important to kind of embrace the books that you're reading, whether they are very specific factual books or even more impressionistic or anecdotal books. I want to be consumed by the subject matter. It makes me feel like that's what I should be doing when I write about design. I want the reader to have that experience of either knowing how I am, how I feel. Maybe they'll relate to that, or knowing what the event is or who the people are, that I'm writing about and feel some sort of emotional connection to them 5. Writing: We've talked about reading, we've talked about research, and now, we're going to talk about the third R, writing. It's not that easy, it's not one hour, two hours, and then the third hour. This is something that you have to do as a matter of course, as a matter of discipline at all times. Once you find some material that is worthy of your consideration, write about it. Writing should take place throughout this process and once you've finished with this assignment, writing should take place throughout your practice. Every writer has a different way of starting a piece and there are certain rituals that one goes through. I usually come into the office early, I turn on the computer, I see my Word program in front of me. Usually, I can get the first couple of sentences out. Very often, I will say to myself that I've got to get the first two paragraphs done before I quit for whatever else I have to work on, because what ultimately happens for me is, if it's a long piece that is bound to take a week or so, I paced myself. But if it's a piece that's 500-750 words, I tried to get it all done within a certain time frame. So, I give myself that time frame. It could be arbitrary or it could be based on I can start now and I have a meeting in three-and-a-half hours, I got to get finished before those three-and-a-half hours. Or I'm meeting somebody in an hour, I'll finish this up after they leave, which will be a half hour. In other words, I structure everything according to time. If I can't get through what I'm writing, if it's just not coming the way it should come or I want it to come, I extend the time frame. There are also certain tricks that you learn, like whenever I have really nothing to say in the beginning of a piece, I usually describe the room I'm in. That's happened a few times when I've written profiles where the interesting part of the story, I can't get to it in the front, I have to get to in the back. It's also very hard writing certain things that are structured already, like I wrote obituaries for The New York Times and there's a certain formula that you follow, and the formula should be busted out of and they encourage that, but it's still a formula. So, where there are formulaic things, whether I've created them or they've been created for me and imposed on me, those pieces can be hard or easy depending on who or what the subject is. I try, for example not to do the same formula too much over and over again. But when on deadline, one gets trapped into their way of working. There are times when I have to deal with knowledge about the audience that I'm writing for. If I'm writing in the New York Times, it's an audience that may understand graphic design, but they may not as well. So, I'm not going to write in any jargonistic way. I'm not going to overgeneralize about something or be too specific, there's some place in the middle where I can write. I usually try to put everything in context. I try to explain it. Explaining, it means I would do a parenthetical or some other device that underscores or underlines what I'm talking about. When I'm writing for design magazines, I write any which way I want. I can write in a more impressionistic way or I can write in a very deliberate and scholarly way. I try not to think of the audience as a receiver of the words, but of a receiver of the ideas. How do I determine what I'm trying to say? Sometimes, I don't know what I'm trying to say when I start a piece. Sometimes, I let the piece evolve and by looking at the work or reading about the work that I'm dealing with, it also forces me into a certain position. But very often, I'll start with the idea of saying something specific and that won't be what ends up happening. What ends up happening is the language takes over. I'm interested in or a particular aspect of what I'm writing about takes over. I get bored easily and I get bored with what I thought I was going to write about. So, I write about something else. Developing a voice is very difficult. I don't even know whether I've developed a voice of my own. I know that when I write, there are certain things that I say at any given time that seem to be like me. For certain writing assignments, I have different methodologies like for my column for Atlantic Online, I use a lot of quotes from other people. So, I'll do interviews with my subjects and then I'll sprinkle their quotes throughout a narrative that binds the quotes together. For a piece I do in print magazine called Evolution. It's usually taking an object from its beginning to its end. So, it really works chronologically and all I have to do to top it off, is to do a lead in that kind of puts it all in context and I can put it all in context in a humorous way or in a serious way. But ultimately, the rest of the piece becomes more of a chronology of that object. I don't use many quotes in that at all. When I do profiles, I use quotes and the profiles are fairly easy because there's so much reality there that I can draw from. When I do theoretical pieces, it's much harder because I have to draw on my own interpretations of things and then build it around contextual elements, which could be other people's voice, it could be events that have happened, it could be historical moments. My voice comes out less through the style of writing which I'm don't feel that I have a great control over and more through the theme of writing. There's an umbrella that I write under and that becomes my voice. One of the processes of writing is editing yourself and you can't be the perfect editor. It has to go to an editor who will see it with fresh eyes and also with more experience, perhaps in structure, and a more of an understanding of who you're writing for, I mean where I might not think of my audience, the editor will think of my audience. What I do is, I just keep moving paragraphs around to make sure that the right paragraph is following the right paragraph. What an editor will do, is go into those paragraphs and do mechanical work. If the sentence structure is off, they'll fix it. If the thought isn't coming through clearly enough, they'll query it and ask for additional words and information. So, the editor is a really important part of this process. When you do your own projects, you may not have an editor or you may have somebody who will read it for you and say, this is clear or this is unclear. A lot of people ask how do I know when I'm finished or how does anybody know when they're finished. Sometimes, it's just exhaustion. Sometimes, it's the last sentence can't be beat. You may even have a paragraph that comes after the last sentence, but it's just adding fluff to what's already there. You know when you're through on one level when the deadline is coming near or when you just can't say anymore to make the subject that you're writing about any better. Well, the Miniature Chair piece that I wrote was written first for the New York times as a shorter piece, maybe 550, 600 words, and that went pretty quickly and the editor made some significant transitional changes. Then I had to write it for another magazine, a different version of the piece for Design Bureau and I made it longer and I added objects to the discussion. So, it wasn't just about the miniature chairs. It was about designer toys in general. I brought my personal approach and because it's not like I can write about the history of toys. The only way into the piece was to admit to the reader that I'm a bit obsessed about these things. So, my obsession became the focal point. Therefore, I became the protagonist of the piece and the chairs became as the object of my desire. Here I am kind of OCD about these chairs and ultimately where they took me, in terms of my own knowledge about architecture, interior designer, or furniture design. 6. Final Thoughts: So, in the three Rs, one might think there's a balance to reading, research, and writing, and there really isn't. It's what you get the most out of. If you're reading, you'll read until you feel like you want to write. I mean, what often happens for me is I read a lot and I want to write because that person's doing it, why can't I do it? It's time. It's like going to school or going to baseball practice or something. You see how the pitcher throws the ball, well, it's time for you to pitch. In terms of research, it's really how much can I do in a certain period of time, and that period of time is dependent on the deadline. Whether in writing, everybody has their way of creating their narrative, and you can call them tricks or you can call them tips or you can call them mannerisms. What I try to do is make sure I get a few sentences down and then I kind of build on those sentences, and very often those sentences go away or they get sent someplace else. What I'm looking forward to is seeing how far you take these objects in your own mind, whether it's imaginatively, intellectually, or historically.