Ten Questions for Cheryl Heller

Catching up with the chair of the Design for Social Innovation MFA program at the School of Visual Arts

In December, I interviewed Cheryl Heller, who heads up Design for Social Innovation, a new MFA program launching this fall at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York.

I asked her about the challenges of sustainability, how designers can make the world a better place and the DSI program, which views social innovation as "the application of new strategies and models to solving the challenges the world faces and to strengthening society."

Cheryl was recently part of a panel of experts who led AIGA's "Good Leadership Workshop." Hosted by SVA, the workshop was billed as a workshop "for designers interested in becoming good leaders—and leaders of good—through a deeper understanding of self, business and social impact."

The other workshop leaders included: Julie Engel, executive coach, DSI faculty member and author of Integrating Corporate Citizenship: Leading from the Middle; Hannah du Plessis, designer, Fit Associates; Karen Proctor, vice president, Community Affairs and Government Relations, Scholastic, Inc.; Marc Rettig, DSI faculty member and founder of Fit Associates; and Dave Stangis, vice president, Public Affairs and Corporate Responsibility, Campbell Soup Company.

I had a chance to ask Cheryl some questions about the workshop and get an update of the inaugural DSI program.

1. What was your biggest takeaway from the Good Leadership Workshop?

That there is a real interest and need among designers for the skills beyond design practice. And, that there is not much opportunity for them to come together and work together to learn them.

2. What was the most successful exercise?

Julie Engle, one of our faculty (and faculty member of Design for Social Innovation MFA program), got people started by becoming aware of the role that mood plays in the experiences and outcomes we create. There was a moment when the room went from silent and attentive to ear splitting noise as they talked about it in groups.

3. What was the biggest surprise?

Surprise is probably too strong a word. There were a couple of organic aspects to the workshop that were different than I expected. First, the group was very diverse: some from corporations, some in education, some independent designers and some from larger design companies. But the subject of leadership brought everyone together on the same page. No matter the experience level or area of focus, the things we need to understand in order to lead change are universal. Also, the group was great together, with people getting really involved in helping each other through practical issues they are facing.

4. Two corporate executives were at the workshop—Karen Proctor from Scholastic and Dave Stangis from Campbell Soup. What kinds of ideas from the corporate world did they bring to the table that piqued your interest? How can corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the world of social design meet?

First of all, they were both tremendous, and shared heartfelt accounts of their lives, their successes and glimpses into how difficult it is to change organizations from the inside. What I was hoping was that they would give the audience a useful understanding of the dynamics they face, leading to better relationships and better opportunities. They delivered that for sure. Dave pointed out how much design is needed within corporations—someone who can see across silos and understand the bigger picture. And Karen talked about the need for working at a systems level, determining the real levers to change; again, something that designers naturally do.

5. What makes a good leader?

Good leadership is understanding yourself and other people. I have known many leaders who, in their own words, "couldn't make the trains run on time." Good leadership is a combination of vision, communication (that's two-way, not one-) and compassion. And a sense of humor never hurts. As for group leadership, understanding how to collaborate is key. And it depends on the same three traits. Tough to generalize about that. Collaborating on implementation of something is quite different than collaborating on the creation. I wrote a blog called "Putting the I back in team" that references some interesting research on that.

6. The workshop promoted good leadership through "a deeper understanding of self." Can you explain this notion?

You can never inspire anyone from a place of insecurity or emptiness. Another way to say it is that you can't help other people unless you have something real to give, and that requires having personal resources and strength, and also knowing yourself, your moods and how to work with them. For the workshop, we approached leadership in self-mastery and knowledge, working within organizations to inspire change, and designing communication as a form of leadership both close in and beyond where you have an opportunity for personal relationships.

7. Regarding the DSI program, how many students do you have, where are they from and is the curriculum set?

We have 27 students with a wait list and a few still in flux. They come from China, Saudi Arabia, Spain, India, Columbia, Mexico, Amsterdam, Africa and all over the United States. The curriculum is set, but it always evolves organically based on what the class creates. We also are always looking for opportunities to bring in new ways of thinking with guest lecturers whenever they come through town.

8. What are your expectations for the inaugural semester and what do you most look forward to?

I expect to be surprised and delighted at every turn, and to experience some of the pain of creating the new. I look forward to meeting everyone in person and getting to know them.

9. What's on your summer reading list?

Just read a book I like very much called Naked Value. dMass has a brilliant and critical idea about what our new currency should be, and it's not something you can print.

10. I noticed on the DSI site (under "Board of Advisors") that Kanjoro the Elephant is listed as the "Pachyderm in Residence (The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust)." As an elephant lover, seeing that put a smile on my face, but what's that all about?

Excellent question, and glad you are a fellow elephant lover. He is on our board of advisors because I have always believed that nature is the best teacher for just about anything, and Kanjoro represents her voice and is a reminder to listen—even to those who are silent. As we know, elephants are particularly extraordinary and wise. My undergraduate class worked with Katy Payne and her Elephant Listening Project as well. The history of Kanjoro is that when I was in Nairobi with PopTech for our lab on community adaptation to climate change, I was lucky enough to accompany Erik Hersman and his family to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. I fell in love with the elephants, the keepers and the work they do.


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 about SVA's Design for Social Innovation Program, go to: http://dsi.sva.edu.