Steven Heller, noted design critic, author, educator and Design Observer contributor, spoke to a crowd of approximately 100 people at UCLA's Design and Media Arts department on Wednesday. A former art director of the New York Times, Heller presented a slide lecture on his latest book, Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State, the first illustrated survey of propaganda art, graphics, and artifacts created by the totalitarian governments of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the Communist regimes of the USSR and China.
He opened his presentation with the observation that it was good to be in warm L.A., far from frosty Manhattan where "snow makes people angry." In addition to sharing insights into the dark side of branding, as evidenced by its continued use in North Korea and other totalitarian regimes, he had opinions on our current state of affairs during the Q&A session. When asked about the proliferation of digital billboards and L.A.'s battles with obtrusive signage, he noted how typography and design must be radically altered to keep up with electronic, immersive environments as we are forced to perceive symbols more quickly-- like reading the side of a moving bus. He shared that one of his students at the School of Visual Arts has "created a new typeface for moving displays, which demand letter forms that are clearer and easier to perceive."
When an audience member asked him about the Obama election branding campaign, Heller said that he had interviewed the campaign designers often. Their responses showed that they understood the power of graphics and gave design elements a lot of thought. They selected typography and colors to communicate that the campaign was optimistic and not old fashioned. The icons of Obama and the campaign shifted subtly upon Obama's election to the presidency, communicating more majesty.
Given his impressive knowledge of L.A. design history, I button holed him after the lecture, asking how he came to know so much local media lore. He explained that while he was based in New York, he has many connections to our city through his research on the influential design legend, Alvin Lustig, who spent much of his career in Los Angeles. Lustig's book jackets for publishers like New Directions during the 40s and 50s reconfigured publishing norms. Indeed, Lustig will be the topic of Heller's next book project.
You can read more about Steve Heller's impressions of his visit to LA at the Daily Heller column on Printmag.com.