Cheryl Heller: An Exclusive Justmeans Q&A

Cheryl Heller is the chair of a new MFA program launching in the fall of 2012 at the School of Visual Arts in New York called Design for Social Innovation, which views social innovation as "the application of new strategies and models to solving the challenges the world faces and to strengthening society."

Known for her pioneering work as a communication design and business strategist, Cheryl is the founder of Heller Communication Design, the Board Chair of PopTech and a two-time nominee for the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Communication Design. I had a chance to ask Cheryl some questions about the new program, her inspirations and how designers can make the world a better place.

Reynard Loki: What would you like to bring to the world of social innovation?

Cheryl Heller: A sense of beauty and hope.

RL: How is that connected to the challenges we face today?

CH: There's a great piece by Curtis White in Orion magazine, "The Barbaric Heart." He talks about the link that has existed in our culture from the time of the ancient Romans between success and violence. You won, you plundered. He argues that beauty is the only thing that can replace this ideology. Beauty has the power to replace our need for winning and violence. This also includes the spiritual aspect, which has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the soul.

RL: Connecting the dots between design, social change, beauty, hope and spirituality -- it sounds like Design for Social Innovation is not only a new degree program, but a blueprint for a new way of thinking.

CH: Yes, but the people who are most aware realize that we are doing that with every facet of life these days. We don't really know what a sustainable company looks like; we've never seen one because it doesn't exist. We don't know what a truly just society looks like, or an equitable economy, for the same reason.

RL: What about looking to the past for socially innovative thinking that may be been lost along the way?

CH: One of the things I'm working on is how this new way of thinking about design can be applied to American cities. I've gone back to read Joseph Ellis's The Founding Brothers and now I'm reading Charles Cerami's Dinner at Mr. Jefferson's. If you think about what this country was supposed to be, it was a pretty extraordinary design vision.

RL: By 2050, 70 percent of people will be living in cities, which do 75 percent of the damage in three areas: Cities consume more than 75 percent of the world's natural resources, use approximately 75 percent of the world's energy and are responsible for 75 percent of the world's carbon emissions. Should we be devoting a quarter of our time and energy into designing cities?

CH: What we have to change more than cities are people, and in particular, our level of connection with nature. The problem is in our society and the expectations we've developed. Changing any one part isn't enough. It has to be systemic. We have to be doing all the things we’ve been doing, but should be doing more of these things in collaboration instead of in competition.

RL: How can a new connection to nature help foster systemic social change?

CH: Two things that I am absolutely certain of are that spending time in nature is healthy and calming for human beings and that creating is the most satisfying activity in the world. Imagine if we could substitute this hole that we have to fill with consuming and competing with nature and creativity?

RL: If we don't change how we consume soon, specifically our fossil fuel infrastructure, we will reach irreversible climate change in five years, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Business-as-usual will make it very hard for the 9.3 billion people who will be crowding the planet by 2050.

CH: Books like Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide and other studies in neuroscience make it clear that human beings don't have the capacity to be nervous about things that are still in the future. But it's up to us to figure out how to live within these limited natural resources. We keep thinking we can escape it, but we won't. It’s a silly expression, but nature does bat last.

RL: How can designers help figure it out?

CH: There is an element of design that doesn't get much attention, which is that in addition to seeing systems and developing new connections and ideas, designers know how to get stuff done. We know how to start a seemingly too-big-to-tackle project, how to manage it and protect an idea through it, get through the middle, and finish it -- and then we know how to iterate and improve it once it's done. We aren't just about ideas. We are also about manifesting things.

RL: Did anyone in particular serve as a primary inspiration for Design for Social Innovation?

CH: About eight years ago I met Paul Polak, the founder of International Development Enterprises (IDE) and the author of an incredible book, Out of Poverty. He's responsible for bringing more people out of poverty than 90 percent of the people who talk about doing it all the time. He developed the first pedal-pump irrigation system, among many other radically affordable tools. He's interviewed some 3,000 poor people. DSI is, to a certain extent, the product of my experience working as a designer with some extraordinary social innovators and figuring out how to use my experience to help realize these new models for businesses, economies and communities.

RL: The School of Visual Arts was founded specifically to help returning World War II veterans get a unique education that combined humanities with traditional studio arts. It seems like Design for Social Innovation shares that founding spirit.

CH: SVA is such an extraordinary, entrepreneurial school. Our program couldn't exist within the traditional world of academia because there are so many rules and silos in place that can’t be overcome.

RL: What's the most exciting thing about gathering a body of knowledge for a new course of study?

CH: The most exciting part is what's coming up from the bottom, not what's coming down from the top. And it's not that people and organizations from all levels of society aren't doing good things, it's just that the new and exciting things are coming from places that we don't normally hear from. The program has been so blessed in the way it has evolved -- people have shown up from the most extraordinary places to be a part of it. And yet we're always aware that we're setting out to create something that has never existed before. It feels amazing.

RL: Are you recruiting from emerging markets?

CH: We have networks in Mexico and Columbia. We’re also recruiting in China, Korea, Turkey, India, Africa and Singapore.

RL: Some of the most innovative ideas are coming out of the developing world -- emerging markets in Africa or newly industrialized nations like India. Are we more likely to find ways to do more with less when we simply have less to work with?

CH: A lot of exciting things are happening in emerging markets precisely because there are limited resources. It forces people to be more innovative. Also, a lot of our social entrepreneurs are going to work in these countries. Sometimes, because of various regulations and the expense of launching enterprises, it's easier, sadly, to work in developing countries than it is here. And it's hard not to fall in love with Africa.

RL: What is the biggest opportunity you see with this new program?

CH: We have an opportunity to create a model for a different way of being and thinking, of connecting to the things and values that truly matter and creating a sustainable economy based on these values.

RL: What makes you the most hopeful?

CH: Young people.

RL: What is your biggest fear?

CH: That we will succumb to our culture's desire to reduce everything to a quick-fix soundbite. We have to work against that in the same way that peace has to work harder to sustain itself than war.

About Cheryl Heller

Cheryl is the founder of Heller Communication Design and Board Chair of PopTech, a laboratory for disruptive innovation focused on technology and social change. She is a pioneering communication designer and business strategist, and has twice been nominated for the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Communication Design.

She has been successfully practicing social innovation and sustainability for many years, with major corporations, including Seventh Generation, Mars, L.Oreal, Hachette Filipacci and Sappi, as well as non-profits such as WWF, Audubon, IDE (International Development Enterprises), the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education and the Girl Scouts of America. She created the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi in 1999, which has since given over $10 million to designers working for the public good. She also advised Paul Polak and the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum on the exhibit "Design for the Other 90%."

Cheryl has been a core faculty member for the PopTech Social Innovation and Science Fellows, mentoring social entrepreneurs as they create and scale new models for solving issues in poverty, water, health care, energy and conservation, often through the use of technology. She has also served as core faculty for the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship.

About Design for Social Innovation (DSI)

The MFA in Design for Social Innovation curriculum encompasses a broad range of issues including poverty, aging, women's rights, food and agriculture, racism, environment, working conditions, fair trade, education, community development, justice, service delivery and health.

The program is geared toward designers looking for meaningful and engaging work through which they can make a significant contribution to society, as well as for graduates in other disciplines who want to learn to harness the power of design to create positive change and transformation.

Applicants from a variety of backgrounds, experience and interests are encouraged to apply, including fine arts, graphics, new media, product design, technology, business, science, engineering, social science and economics.

For more information, go to: