Cheryl Heller is a communication strategist, writer and designer “on a mission to use communications to create a new model for business and life.” As the founder of Heller Communication Design, she has worked with organizations ranging from Fortune 100, entrepreneurs, social innovators and non-profits. She is the Board Chair of PopTech, and Chair of MFA Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts, a program launching in fall 2012. The primary question she explores is how we can develop a shared vision for the things and society we want.
What’s the project you’re best known for?
Despite all the work I’ve done, I’m not sure I’m known for projects except maybe the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi. Sometimes people tell me they remember a campaign I did, but It’s more likely I’m known for breaking down some boundaries - between art and design, design and business, women and leadership roles, for launching the first design department in a major advertising agency, for giving it all up and moving to New York, for marrying communication design with sustainability so long ago, and now for launching the new MFA program at SVA in Design for Social Innovation.
What's interesting you most right now?
I have spent a lot of time studying systems — systems thinking and living systems — and thinking about the role that communication plays in our culture and our world. My conclusion is that communication is the key to everything. Communication creates relationships — between machines or between people, and relationships create our entire web of life. Wherever you look, in business, society or quantum mechanics, it’s all about relationships. I realized that what I really want to design is communication itself, beginning with the invisible systems behind the campaigns and the stories and the events we see.
In any system, to create change, you look for the most “upstream” part — those levers that impact the rest of the system and shift it in lasting ways when you tinker with them.
What’s upstream in communication — and communication design — is language. So, now what I am excited about is designing language and conversations as the most efficient way to impact issues and change behavior. That’s what's coming up now in terms of what I see everywhere and where I see the biggest opportunities.
The potential of design to have an influence on the future before any decisions get made, before any planning or prototyping is done, is really exciting because we are designing opportunity at the point where a shared vision for a new future can be defined and envisioned.
It happened fairly organically, but a lot of the work I’m doing now begins by designing conversations and language — with large companies in food, publishing, beauty, with various types of communities that need to align around a vision for the future and create a path for getting there. It is the creative process applied to things that aren’t visible. We need more people and organizations to understand — and live — the potential of design for imagining an abundant future and making it real.
What underlying question does your work address?
The underlying question is: can we really develop trust? Can we really learn to hold both our own need for identity and purpose and still seek a common good? And can we develop a shared vision for the things that we want instead of the things that we don’t want?
I learned something important when I got to NY and bought my first fancy bicycle. The salesman took a look at me and knew I was buying a bike that was faster than I would ever need on the streets of the city and therefore a little dangerous. He said “let me give you a piece of advice — don't look at what you want to avoid." I hadn’t thought about it, but if you’re out on the road biking and you look at the pothole, you’ll go in it, and if you look at the inch beside it that you need to be on, you’ll go there. It’s actually quite a profound insight. It occurs to me that our society, because of the media, because of the sorry state of our political system, because of what we talk about and read about constantly — all we do is focus on what we want to avoid. We talk about global warming, what's wrong with government, what’s wrong with healthcare, violence and corruption. Instead, we have to keep our eyes on all the amazing, promising technologies and ideas and new models being developed. We have to remember to look where we want to go.
Can we as a species hold a common vision for what's possible and hold it long enough and in a rich enough way so that all the tribes and factions can see themselves in it, so that we can start to move toward that? I think that's a job for design.
Why do you do what you do?
When all is said and done, I care most deeply about nature. I care about the amazing, magical diverse creatures and cultures that we destroy in our relentless drive to overpopulate and develop this planet. I feel a responsibility to call on peoples’ higher selves to rethink what happiness is, and what it costs.
What’s next on your horizon?
I’m Chairing a Masters Program in Design for Social Innovation, at SVA in New York. It’s central now and everything else I do connects to it. We have two objectives, typically ambitious: We want to prepare the next design leaders in social innovation, and accelerate the impact of social innovation everywhere through design.
I’m also Board Chair of PopTech, an organization that continues to do awe-inspiring work. And my husband and I are renovating a factory in Norfolk, Connecticut, in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. It’s 107 acres of land with an old knitting factory on it. We've always wanted a place to bring people to imagine and create the future where nature is part of the conversation. Where people aren’t sitting in a high rise looking out at another high rise or in some windowless room in a hotel conference center. We’re planning to grow as much food as we can and create an extraordinary container for those conversations.
What do designers need to understand to take on larger systemic problems?
First of all, immersion in the context. If you want to work on water, it's important to understand what's been done, what’s been tried and what the issues really are. As with any design project there is a learning phase whether you’re designing a product or launching a company. That’s the same way work takes place on the social level, it’s just at an exploded scale.
And then there are the tools and skills applicable to social innovation, which include design skills for sure, like idea generation, prototyping, visualization design, mapping. There are also critical skills like leadership, facilitation and strategic skills that aren’t typically taught in design school.
I’ve been teaching an undergraduate class for a long time called Design for Good and there are two big things we focus on. One is getting in touch with your own purpose, because I don’t believe you can sustain a life in social innovation if it’s not deeply satisfying at a personal level. And the second one is recognizing the gap that exists that between what you try to communicate and what gets understood.
Designers are trained fairly narrowly and encouraged to think about self-expression more than the influence they can have over others. That’s lovely, but if we want to inspire change, there’s quite a lot more to learn. I spent many years in advertising, which were some of the most unhappy years professionally, because I didn’t want to be there. But as I look back, that was some of the most important learning I got. How ever we feel about advertising and its contribution to our consumer driven society, it is the discipline that has made a science of understanding an audience and distilling a message so that they understand it. We should’t write off the tool because we don’t like how it’s been used.
That experience has been more important than any design training I’ve had, and it’s a huge part of Design for Social Innovation. Whether you're making a product, or a cure for HIV and AIDS, you need to have the facility to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Human-centered design is just a pretty, new expression for something that advertising has been doing brilliantly for a really long time.
What do you find most inspiring?
This is a cliché, but working with young entrepreneurs. People who have the passion and the commitment and don't yet feel the constraints of their own success. They don’t have a position to protect, they don’t have an investment in a way of doing things. They’re open and they’re strong. I see that they have the ability to hold a vision, and that’s incredibly hopeful. And because they’re so fluid, they’re open to collaborating and sharing what they know.
There's a time in your life when you meet someone during the summer and they say: come to Mexico with me and you say, OK. And your life changes. And then something happens as we grow up, even when we desperately try not to get fixed in a place. We get a house, a job, a yard, a dog. I don’t think those serendipitous opportunities go away, but you don’t say “yes” as easily. We feel too many restraints and responsibilities.
This younger generation is coming into the world at a time when the emergent is more valued and recognized not only as a viable process but as the only viable process for navigating a future as unknowable as ours is today. Perhaps we can help them stay fluid and emerging longer so they can lead us to the change we need.
Where do you see the richest potential for a more shareable world?
When I consider the notion of Shareable it’s obvious we haven't gotten to the profound — or upstream — dimension of that yet. When I think about this sweet planet, we live here with a frighteningly diminishing number of indigenous cultures and other species and we are not sharing. We view this place, this earth with an assumption that it's here for us to manage and manipulate when we need to share with nature and other ways of being in a totally different way. And I know that life will be so much better and richer and more abundant and joyful when we do.