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AIGA Design Leader Interview Series: Cheryl Heller

Former and current Women Lead committee members based in New York; top row from left to right: Cheryl Heller, Debbie Millman, Jada Britto, Heather Stern. Seated, from left to right: Lynda Decker, Deborah Adler. Photo by John Madere.
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For AIGA Women Lead’s first interview series, we sat down with women pioneers at colleges, design studios, agencies, and large companies to share their unique stories: the journey from mentee to mentor, frank assessments of women and the design field today, and how they’ve demonstrated a commitment to gender equity in the workplaces they now lead.

As chair and founder of the School of Visual Art’s MFA design program, “Design for Social Innovation,” Cheryl Heller is constantly looking toward the future, and how design can change what society considers the norm. Fellow design organizations may want to take a cue from Heller and her team, or they may soon represent workplaces of the past. Heller spoke with AIGA executive director Julie Anixter about the work that has to be done to reach an equitable future in the workplace (and elsewhere), the difference between social design and your typical hierarchical organization, and why companies looking to hire women should look beyond those candidates that are great at promoting themselves to center-stage.

What does your organization do and what do you do?

I’m involved with multiple organizations, and do slightly different but connected things through each one. At SVA, I chair a graduate program that I founded, MFA Design for Social Innovation. We’re accepting applicants now for our sixth year. CommonWise is the design lab I founded with my partner Gary Scheft. We work with a variety of clients, from foundations to corporations. Through an organization called MutualCity, I work with Matt Enstice, CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, to bring their holistic method of city-revitalization to other cities and organizations. And I partner with Cheryl Kiser at the Babson Social Innovation Lab, on a new, experience based approach to corporate learning.

What I do in each organization can be called communication design, but then I think everything could be called communication design in one way or another. Education and curriculum design is communication, in that it connects students to new ideas and opportunities. Inspiring individuals and giving them a new sense of agency in their own future is communication design. So is leadership of all kinds. Everything in life depends on relationships, and relationships are built through communication.

Healthy relationships—desperately needed now—depend on open and trusting communication, which can be designed.

What do you think is most challenging for women in the creative industries?

It’s funny (not in the humorous sense) but I would have answered this question differently before the 2016 election. Before then, I would have said that the biggest challenge is resisting a definition of what we do that is superficial and secondary. By that I mean that creative industries have been viewed by many as not deserving of a seat at the big boys’ table; that we are not capable of being leaders or decision makers, or that it’s something to be taken up after all the important strategic decisions are made.

The election, and its nauseating run up, has brought an element of disrespect for women into the open that was easy to forget existed. As people have said about political incorrectness in general, the tenor of a certain campaign has allowed some to be comfortable in their misogynist skin.

So we have work to do, to resist regimes and the lies we oppose, to fight for science and justice and the earth, and at the same time to continue to push for equality on the professional front. But we’re used to taking on big challenges.

How does your organization create a culture that supports women?

Wow. That feels like asking a fish how the water is. I have worked in organizations that were male-dominated and structured with inviolate roles and hierarchies. So I work to develop the opposite of that, where people have the agency to contribute, create and grow. The men who work with us have to enjoy being in the company of strong women. And it’s important to laugh. A lot. Except about the election.

Social design is designing for relationships, and the invisible dynamics that drive human behavior. Typical hierarchical organizations are about control, and about the concentration and protection of power.

You’ve had great mentors and role models. What have you learned from them about leadership?

Thanks for making me think about this question. Some of the people who’ve inspired me have done it by not accepting limits, and by demonstrating that having lofty goals and big ambition is the first critical step in getting there.

I have often thought that the difference between people who accomplish big things and those who don’t is simply that they imagine it in the first place, and because they see that picture of themselves; they believe it’s possible.

I’ve gotten to watch people live that principle. Another kind of inspiration was one person in particular, who created a culture without politics or striving. He was the CEO of the first big company I worked in, so I didn’t appreciate how rare it was at the time. He just made it clear that politics would not work in the company he ran, and the result was that people just weren’t political or catty. It was an amazing collaborative environment and I have never forgotten it.

What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced and how did you deal with it to become a leader?

I was betrayed by some (male) partners and it turned into an entire year of misery and depression. What I realized was that I had given them the power to hurt me, and that I would never give anyone that power again. So far so good.

What have you learned that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

That much of what I worried about then doesn’t matter.

What advice do you have for companies that want women leaders?

A man who was responsible for a global company’s acquisitions once told me something very wise. He said that when he meets companies wanting to be acquired, he listens to all those who present themselves as leaders or power brokers in the first meeting, and then discounts them. He said that the people who really make things work are not typically the ones who show off. I would say to companies wanting to hire women to follow this man’s advice—to listen beyond those who are good at marketing themselves. Women are not typically the ones who try to take over meetings or conversations, usually we’re not the ones who prepare for meetings by practicing clever sound bites. When someone truly puts co-creativity and shared goals first, when they have the good of the organization at heart, they are likely not the people who know how to grab the stage. I would ask employers to look for them, they are more often than not women.

During Women’s history month, AIGA is launching the Gender Equity Toolkit, a cardgame and tool to address gender biases and encourage empathy in the workplace. We asked Heller to answer a question from the “Building Connections” section of the kit: What skill would you like to instantly learn and master?

How to increase the number of hours in a day, and have time for all the things I want to do and explore.

About Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller headshotCheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA, founder of the design lab CommonWise and winner of the AIGA Medal for her contribution to the field of design. She is a business strategist and communication designer who has taught creativity to leaders and organizations around the world, helped grow businesses from small regional enterprises to multi-billion global market leaders and helped design strategies for hundreds of successful entrepreneurs. She created the Sappi Ideas that Matter program, which has since given over $12 million to designers working for the public good.

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