Virtual Memories Show 348:
Steven Heller

“It’s a learning moment of how powerful symbols are and how powerful graphic design is.”

The Nazi swastika is a symbol of evil, but what about the pre-Nazi version of that symbol? With the publication of The Swastika and Symbols of Hate: Extremist Iconography Today (Allworth Press), Steven Heller returns to a topic he’s spent decades on: the power of graphic design and its abuses by Nazis and other totalitarian movements. He rejoins the show to talk about whether the swastika is redeemable to its original purpose as a Sanskrit Buddhist symbol, why it’s uniquely toxic in comparison to other national and religious symbols like the USSR’s hammer & sickle, and Steven’s biggest surprise when he began researching the swastika’s history. We get into how he teaches students about the ramifications of swastika-derived designs, how most Nazi, nationalist and white supremacist groups are variants of the Cross, his sadness about having to revise and reissue this book for our current era (but happiness about giving it a tighter, more effective layout), the ramifications of free speech vs. hate speech, and whether it’s okay to punch out a Nazi. We also tackle my experiences visiting Germany, the coding of modern-day white supremacists, the impact of graphic design and illustration on Resistance, Antifa’s unfortunate similarities to the SDS, and the question of whether he’s obsessed with hate imagery. (We also get into non-swastika stuff, like how he’s staying occupied while his Daily Heller blog is on hiatus, the role he played in giving a number of illustrators and cartoonists their first gigs, the memoir he’s working on, and why he’s not looking to be the subject of a documentary.) Give it a listen! And go buy The Swastika and Symbols of Hate: Extremist Iconography Today!

(And check out my 2018 conversation with Steven!)

“There are all these ambiguities, but at a certain point you have to put your foot down and say, ‘This is how I see it.'”

“Doing the daily blog, you get into a regular groove, and when you stop, you wonder how you can get back into the groove.”

“When I lecture these days, sometimes I feel like the students know more than I do.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guest

Steven Heller, former art director of the New York Times Book Review, is the cochair of the School of Visual Arts MFA Design / Designer as Author + Entrepreneur Program. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than 190 books on design, social satire, and visual culture, including Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State. He wrote the Daily Heller for Print magazine and contributes to Design Observer, Eye, Wired, the New York Times, and the Atlantic. He is the recipient of two honorary doctorates, the AIGA Medal for Lifetime Achievement, and the Smithsonian National Design Award for “Design Mind.” He lives in New York City. His new book is The Swastika and Symbols of Hate: Extremist Iconography Today, from Allworth Press.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Heller’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photos of Mr. Heller by me. It’s on my instagram.

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