Department Dossier: Steven Heller and Lita Talarico

May 14, 2010

The latest in a series of one-on-one conversations with SVA department chairs.

The MFA Design Department (aka, Designer as Author) is an intensive graduate program co-chaired by Steven Heller and Lita Talarico. Together, they founded the program more than a dozen years ago and have developed it into an incubator for products and design concepts that can end up having a real impact in the marketplace. Students in the program each create a line of ready-for-market products or services (along with collateral materials) that fill a need or solve a problem in society. Following the department’s 2010 exhibition of its graduate thesis projects, Heller and Talarico answered questions via e-mail about what makes an MFA Design Department project work and what’s changed in the program over the years.

What are the hallmarks of a successful thesis project?
: There must be some immediacy to the idea. Each student has to develop a product that will go to market, and that market has to be in the present. It’s not about some distant dream; its about now, and it must be real.
: Originality doesn’t hurt. But even if not entirely original (i.e., not from whole cloth, but rather building on an existing foundation), it must fill a need, address an audience, have social, cultural and/or commercial value. And most of all it cannot be blue-sky—it must WORK!

You write and co-write a lot of books and articles each year. How does that feed out of and into your role as department chairs?
Heller: Running a department is a holistic enterprise. We are not simply administrators or teachers, we must be active participants in the fields we are representing. We must be models, standard-bearers and provide guidance through our own work and activity. So, my writing (and the work Lita and I do together) is essential to the health of the program.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the program over the years?
Heller: Lita and I founded the program in 1996, and it began a year or so later. The idea to make it a program about ‘design authorship’ was new at the time; its evolution into design entrepreneurship was also new. Today it is an essential part of the 21st-century designer’s practice.
Talarico: We’ve seen our students come from many parts of the world, each with concerns that blend their unique perspectives with the universal language of design. Its very special to see who joins our program and what they contribute, and it’s constantly changing.

What do you look forward to when preparing for a new academic year?
Talarico: We always look forward to how the new class will gel into a community. It’s a truly wonderful thing to watch happen and participate in.

How would you sum up what excites you about the program in a 140-character Twitter post?
Talarico: For two years doing what you’ve never done before, join MFA Design.

Images: photos by Amy Stein.

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