Cheryl Heller | An Island Press Author

Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA and President of the design lab CommonWise. She was recently awarded a Rockefeller Bellagio Fellowship, and is a recipient of the prestigious AIGA Medal for her contribution to the field of design. She founded the first design department in a major advertising agency and as president, grew the division to $50m in billings when it was spun off as an independent entity. As a strategist, she has helped grow businesses from small regional enterprises to multi-billion global market leaders, launched category-redefining divisions and products, reinvigorated moribund cultures, and designed strategies for hundreds of successful entrepreneurs. She has taught creativity to leaders and organizations around the world.

Her clients have included Ford Motor Company, American Express, Reebok, Mariott International, Renaissance Hotels, Sheraton, MeadWestvaco, StoraEnso, the Arnhold Institute for Global Health, Medtronic, Pfizer, Mars Corporation, Discovery Networks International, Cemex, Herman Miller, Gap, Bayer Corporation, Seventh Generation, L’Oreal, Elle Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, The World Wildlife Fund, Ford Foundation, and the Girl Scouts of America.

Heller is the former Board Chair of PopTech, and a Senior Fellow at the Babson Social Innovation Lab. She created the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi in 1999, which has since given over $13 million to designers working for the public good, and partnered with Paul Polak and the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum to create the exhibit, “Design for the Other 90%.”

A Busy Woman

Something I learned in 2001: unlike classic psychiatrists, who will drag out a conversation for years without giving much away if they can manage it, psychopharmacologists will, after half an hour’s probing, tell you bluntly what they think is...

This post originally appeared on Cheryl Heller's Design Observer blog and is reposted here with permission.

In this personal essay, the founder of SVA’s Design for Social Innovation program and former AIGA Women Lead committee member Cheryl Heller reflects on the insights gained over the arc of her career. Through corporate success, betrayal, and reinvention, Heller found a new sense of strength in the face of uncertainty—and an understanding of what you just shouldn’t stomach anymore.



Something I learned in 2001: unlike classic psychiatrists, who will drag out a conversation for years without giving much away if they can manage it, psychopharmacologists will, after half an hour’s probing, tell you bluntly what they think is wrong with you. Their aim is to diagnose quickly, then prescribe meds to make the symptoms go away. Root causes are left to those tear-basted, rearview-mirrored journeys on the couch.

I was sent to a meds-dispensing doctor by a query-dispensing one at the end of a year that imploded all assumptions I had based my life upon and filled my belly with fear.

The cause for escalation of treatment came on suddenly. Sitting in a restaurant, lunching with two people whose names I would no longer recognize, I took a spoonful of soup and could not will the muscles I needed to swallow. Holding the soup in my mouth, I lost connection, too, with the conversation at the table, one in which I was being offered a job in San Francisco. It is disorienting to lose control of the body, of such an unconscious act, too, that everyone around but you seems to accomplish without concentrating. The first sensation is of suffocation; then panic. Blood drains from the brain until reflex kicks in and it becomes clear that the nose still works to take in air. But a restaurant, on a job interview, is not the easiest place to sit frozen with a mouthful of soup, unable to speak. Unlike a bit of gristle or the occasional thyme stem, a mouthful of soup cannot be deposited in a linen napkin with discretion. And in that context, when it does finally, awkwardly, slide down your throat, the incident is not one you want to explain.

I didn’t want the job, I had only flown to California because I never decline to talk to someone who says they want me for a great work opportunity. 2001 was the loudest moment of the Internet boom, with everyone rushing madly to blow into the bubble, counting on their own hot air to turn to solid ground beneath them, and telling stories they convinced each other were true. The Internet was the answer to everything.

I had recently escaped a job in a global company where I created obscenely expensive identities for multi-national corporations. My title was Executive Creative Director in an organization of about two hundred and twenty five people. We were high-priced consultants, trained to sound and act like friendly but imperious experts even in areas in which we weren’t. We were called in when companies merged or bought another business or got sold, or simply hit a slump and needed to be reinvented. 

Every once in a while, we would get an amazing assignment, like when MOMA sent a letter saying, “We’re the Museum of Modern Art and we just bought a contemporary art museum. What should we do?” But mostly we changed the shade of blue on someone’s logo, or switched it from a Roman font to italic, then told them to repaint their trucks and charged them a million dollars or two.

I am exaggerating, but only somewhat. I’m cynical now as I look back, but we were really only doing what companies hired us to do. They felt younger with a new shade of blue, more forward looking and modern in italic, were energized by seeing freshly painted trucks with their name on them, and didn’t feel they got something important unless they paid a lot of money for it. 

In this busy work environment, everything (including the busy-ness) mitigates against stopping to think about the big picture of what it is one is actually doing. I came to love my clients, who were trying hard to do a good job and take care of their employees; who believed in the essential rightness of American Industry. They were not corporate monsters, but people with kids who played soccer and broke arms. They were people who worried about their companies doing well, and I was there to help them. There were moments, in fact years, when it felt almost noble.

The identity business was a big one (maybe still is). We made people happy while we minted money, and I had great fun at this particular company for eight years. Then the founder decided to buy the company back from the people he had already sold it to, brought in investors and asked a small number of senior people to become partners. That’s when things went to hell. I got a higher percentage than most (meaning, more than some men) when it came to distributing ownership, because I was bringing in sixty percent of the company’s income.

After the pseudohandshakes and PR photos and the toasts with champagne in plastic glasses, a number of my partners, who before this moment had played together nicely, turned into a nest of pit vipers lying in wait to land a fatal fang.

The reason this was so important to them at that moment was that the Internet gold rush for money, or multiples, as profit was called then, caused otherwise normal people to lose their minds. These were the years when “millionaire” became a non-starter and billionaires became the new normal. People we actually knew were buying airplanes and condos in Aspen. My two or three percentage points of additional ownership could mean, in my partners’ greedy imaginations, a weekend house in the Hamptons.

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Dear Jeff Bezos, Have You Ever Been to the Amazon?

This letter is a response to your request for ideas—for the philanthropic strategy you’re thinking about. You say you like long term, but you’re drawn to “the other end of the spectrum: the right now.” I get that, and have the perfect answer for...

This post originally appeared on Cheryl Heller's Design Observer blog and is reposted here with permission.

This letter is a response to your request for ideas—for the philanthropic strategy you’re thinking about. You say you like long term, but you’re drawn to “the other end of the spectrum: the right now.” I get that, and have the perfect answer for you, one that serves both ends at the same time. I hope it also has personal resonance.

That was a brilliant choice of name, by the way. You must have planned from the start to build a company of unimaginable scale, supplying all the things people need to live (and now Whole Foods, too). Over four hundred and eighty million products in the U.S. according to Google, with an average of four hundred eighty five thousand new ones every day. That’s remarkable growth, and it doesn’t include your drones or the Amazon Cloud. (Clouds are another thing your company has in common with that eponymous rain forest, the one that generates weather for the entire planet.) We read that you added another twenty billion to your net worth in the last six months as well. That’s no-joke growth. Congratulations.

The Amazon rainforest is not doing as well. It’s shrinking at about an acre and a half every second. The indigenous cultures that lived there without destroying it are mostly gone. Their knowledge is lost and their cultures abandoned. The president of Ecuador has opened up his country to mountain top mining, destroying what a biologist I met called “the most exuberant example of nature left to us.” Illegal logging is rampant and we’re losing species at a dizzying rate. But you know all that.

All of this is just abstraction until you go there, though. Until you go, these facts live only on a computer screen. They are not as compelling or urgent, even, as searching for the next item or doing the Amazon single-click purchase, which I have done a million times, it seems.

Have you been there? You would probably not want to go where I went—a tiny, remote biodiversity station requiring six hours of river travel in a low slung wooden boat and two hours in a bumpy Rover, not to mention the flight from New York or California. You wouldn’t feel safe there, and your life is too important to risk. 

It’s impossible to describe the peace that comes from letting go of the instinctive human need to control our surroundings, of feeling vulnerable and therefore more alive than you’ve ever been; or of disappearing into something greater than any human being or even country could ever be, filled with species so exotic and beautiful they make civilized life, even virtual reality, seem drab. 

The local guides don’t care who you are, or know how to order online, but they know every plant and trail in their part of the rainforest and how to survive there. They lead you on an adventure filled with five kinds of monkeys and just a few of the more than one thousand species of ants in the region who “basically run the place.” I learned a little about ants from the E.O. Wilson books I bought from you. There are leaf cutters and fire ants and “the ants that make you take your pants down” because they so quickly make their way to the tender places where you’re not looking for company, particularly in overwhelming heat and humidity. Then there are ants that taste like lemons when you put them on the tip of your tongue. They live in little bulges in a certain kind of palm tree.

Some things are almost predictable, like seeing your first anaconda or caiman. Or watching a still creek turn into a roiling stew when its piranha population senses something living hit its surface.

There are things no one mentions because they’re so commonplace but strange for us in North America, like that the most incredibly colorful butterflies come in kaleidoscopic swarms, like a flock of starlings or an airborne school of fish. Or that the jungle at night is louder than Times Square, or that there are plants, known only to ultra locals, that cure liver disease or cancer or arthritis. 

The thing is, it wouldn’t really be that hard to save the Amazon. Especially for you. There was a plan to do it, for the rich countries of the world to pay the Amazonian countries enough to make saving the rainforest more profitable than destroying it. But the rich counties stopped, they got caught up in other issues, which, it’s safe to say, won’t be sorted out for a long time.

The short term, the “right now” as you call it, is that you could watch land and species and knowledge being saved minute by minute. The long term is that, since the Amazon is literally, as it’s called, the lungs of the earth, you’d actually be saving the planet. What if technology could be put to use to help, to make it something everyone knows and cares about?

It would be a very sad thing if at some point, there is only one Amazon left in the world and it is your company. I guess we don’t really need to worry about that, though, since there likely wouldn’t be a world.

I can’t imagine what it feels like to be the person of Amazonian strength and scale who could save the Amazon. But you can. Doesn’t this have your name on it?

Thanks for your consideration.

Best regards,
Cheryl Heller