John Heskett has throughout his life influenced a lot of people – both on a professional and on a personal level. Below, are stories about John Heskett collected by Sharon Poggenpohl and Christine Tsin.

If you have a story about John Heskett that you would like to share, please use the comment area below:

They come as a pair

By Kigge Hvid

He is the giant. When guests pour into Denmark to attend INDEX: Design to Improve Life® events and we throw ourselves into a whirlwind of uncertainties, only one thing is certain. Everyone – especially our interns – wants to meet John Heskett.

They read all his books, and silently they sneak into meetings to listen, to learn, to debate. They position themselves by the door to be sure to meet him, and they post on social media when they finally get to shake John’s hand.

Countless are the times I have been asked if it would be appropriate to ask for an autograph. It is, though I doubt it ever happened, because they know that it’s not really how we do it in design. And John? He makes himself available.

What they might not know, though, is that John is not alone. He is part of a pair. Pamela and John.

She is petit and together they travel, write, research, love, laugh, listen, engage and cook – or rather she cooks. It’s not that she is the woman behind the man. No, they simply come as a pair.


Your own Curiosity
By Shanon Poggenpol

True to your own curiosity, whether ancient, modern, or contemporary, you investigate and know objects. You share your enthusiasm and critical perspective through teaching and writing; bringing us the best of your thoughts and experiences. But you go further into the context of design, asking how design fits in life’s value proposition, both in terms of individual satisfaction and economic viability. Always thoughtful, it has been my pleasure to share academic and leisure time with you in Chicago, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Taipei, and now Hove.

As Kigge mentioned, you are a pair—traveling, thinking, creating, and exploring life’s possibilities together. I imagine you dancing together, the long and short of it, in perfect harmony.


John’s assistant
By Christine Tsin

Without knowing exactly who/what/how in advance, in 2003 I was suddenly transferred to assist an important person for an important project for the School.
Looking at you I puzzled: what I could offer to this giant? Looking at me you looked troubled: what I could assign to this assistant, do I ever need one? Thereafter, I started to learn and witness how you have been Shaping the Design Future of Hong Kong, then from East to West, from West to East.

There were students enrolled in the MDes aiming to meet the Design Giant for Design and Value Creation, enquiries do not stop even today.

With good fortune I could attend your lectures every year, and remember how you teased me: “You just like to watch old movies!” Of course, I gradually found something better than Casablanca.

I enjoyed all your lectures, stories and discussions: from serious design issues, history, to work, life and leisure; impressed by how remarkable are the multiple roles you have been playing, as a design giant; leader of the school; educator; father (and grandfather!); lover of Pamela.

Once you described how you were exploring in a museum by yourself and conversing with Pamela all the way in your mind. Love and admiration spill from your eyes. Likewise whenever Pamela talked about you. I must argue that you and Pamela are ONE.

You taught me, took care of me in every aspect, not by words but demonstrations. You said life is about fulfillment, as you have well demonstrated.

You are loved and respected not only for your intellect and knowledge but personality: an amiable giant with a sense of humor and self-effacing modesty.


What I learned from John?
By Ilpo Koskinen

Not that I want to put myself into the company of giants in any way, but when I’ve gotten grey, I’ve realized one thing. Clifford Geertz, the doyen of American anthropologists, once told that he doesn’t tell his students stories about anthropology. He tells stories about anthropologists.

This is what I do these days. My lot, of course, is even better than Mr. Geertz’s, though. I have a chance of telling stories of designers who – I think – are way more fun than anthropologists (and sorry Marty and Raimo, I’m not thinking about you only).

Not being of Geertz’s eminence, though, I know my lot. I leave stories to masters and do anecdotes instead.

My anecdote of John goes back about ten years. Back then, I asked him to give my doctoral students a talk in Helsinki. Him being a kind spirit, he agreed, as he was on his way from Chicago to Hong Kong.

Listening to him, I was thinking more about his method than what he said. For me, he was an old European academic at work. His lectures were not about what he thought. No. Rather, his slides were full of quotes. Smith. Schumpeter, Friedman. (I must add that that I didn’t understand. I thought he supported teams in red shirts. Catholic working-class lads, that is. But let’s leave the minefield of British football and bet and get back to the story).

Quote. Story. Explication. Opening up the world behind a word. Another word. A sentence. A paragraph. He was working like a French semiotician or a German theologist. Unpacking meaning, showing how the best minds of history were working at those points when they formulated things that created the world as we know it.

Thanks to John, this method lives in me. I promise him that I will pass it on to my students in Europe and in Hong Kong. I promise I will keep quoting Behrens, Sotsass, Branzi, and – sorry – Heskett. I know the students enjoy this. I know it from their thoughtful eyes, wrinkled foreheads, cautious sentences. They know this is the stuff of design. They know we are thinking with designers who created the world of design. They know we live with larger-than-life figures (and no, this is not a pun, even though John is tall). Like an architect in awe in Campodoglio in Rome, we coordinate our thoughts and lives with great minds that came before us and who will be after us.

There is a method in my madness. I may be a fellow who only tells anecdotes, but these anecdotes open up worlds for me and my students, we could not dream of them without those great minds who talk with us in the classroom. We know they built a home for us. We will build new and better homes one day, but we can do that because we build on their shoulders.

Thanks, John, warm thanks. You’ve been a teacher from that rarest of categories: someone who changes people.


Alan Brickwood

I first met John when I joined Coventry University, then a Polytechnic, as Head of a relatively new Department of Transport Design in 1976.

Restructuring of the curriculum was a high priority and this included jettisoning much material being provided at the time by a Department of Art History and Complementary Studies in favour of more relevant supporting studies. John was terrific. He readily rose to the challenge and both devised and delivered an excellent and popular programme of design history studies for our students.

A few years later, in 1982, he and I were part of a delegation that was responsible for visiting the then Hong Kong Polytechnic and providing advice to the HKUPGC on the upgrading of their HND courses in Product, Graphic and Interior Design to degree level. For many, and especially for John, this visit marked the beginnings of long lasting relationships with art and design higher education in Hong Kong.

The attached photograph is of that delegation taken in Hong Kong at the close of the visit.



Beverley Nielsen

I visited John and Pamela at their apartment in Hove, Brighton shortly after they returned to the UK. It was November 2010 and I enjoyed a wonderful and memorable weekend.

John and Pamela could not have been more hospitable hosts. Entering their beautiful home was a bit like walking round a design museum. Filled with objects providing ‘balm for the soul’ I was able to appreciate the beautiful Han Dynasty artefacts in the hallway, lighting by Louis Poulsen, furniture by Gilbert Rohde, Børge Mogensen, Arne Jacobsen, Niels Diffrient and others too numerous to list. Of particular interest to me as a Midlander were the Marcel Breuer chairs designed for renowned former West Midlands’ manufacturer, PEL, one of the many businesses that should still be in existence today and with continued great design and innovation probably would.

Following this John kindly presented visiting lectures to the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design and contributed to a debate on the economic value of design at the Conservative Party Conference October 2012, when I launched my report,‘Looking for Growth, Sack the Economists and Hire a Designer’!

John’s approach to design has been unique, embracing teaching that instils not only creativity but the disciplines required to produce things that customers mightdesire. He has linked value created through a designer’s focus on ‘use’with economics and its focus on ‘transactions’ to develop a real design methodology to move business up value chains. Through his meaningful analysis I very much hope design will come to have a well earned seat at the boardroom table, no longer remaining the ‘Cinderella’ of the business world, but the bridge into new market creation that can regenerate western economies through radical new market growth and development.

Beverley Nielsen


Jeremy Myerson

John Heskett is a pioneer in the design field. He was among the very first design writers and thinkers to chart the path globally from the old industrial form-giving role of the designer to the strategic consultant in management. If he hadn’t mapped the route, then designers would not have found a way into the upper echelons of business and many big brand names would not have enjoyed the same resonance.

That is John’s legacy and it is big one.


Jan Stael von Holstein

I first met John Heskett when he was a Professor in Chicago at IIT’s Institute of Design in the nineties, on my annual trek there to participate in their strategy conference.
His quiet Anglo-Saxon personality struck an early cord and we became firm friends.

His work and views on design history and how design creates financial value has been an inspiration and valuable source for my own work and thinking since
I started my academic career in China. He gave me wonderful encouragement to take this up more seriously from the start and continued to share his experiences and thinking about design.

I knew that he had aspirations of moving out to Asia after visiting and lecturing there, and I was not surprised when he took up his post as Chair Professor at PolyU.
He steered this leading institution of design forward with a firm hand, adding many elements and bringing in top local and international teachers.

It did not take him long to deepen his knowledge of the Pearl Delta region and to get involved with local Government to advise them on developing new strategies and roadmaps to further innovation – so necessary in China.

More surprising however was our encounter in Beijing some eight years earlier. We were both approached separately by The V&A in London as consultants to advise on an exhibition of Contemporary Chinese Design they were organising. This turned into a major success when it opened with many hundred thousand visitors and introduced China’s design capabilities for the first time in Europe.

We were both invited to attend a three day meeting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing to help in the selection for the the Museum of Architecture,Graphic Design, Packaging and Fashion. Apart from their Dean
Min Wang and other CAFA professors, there were fifteen more from other Universities around China and some local journalists covering Art and Design.

It was my first real introduction to Chinese design and as with so many other experiences in China enlightening and enriching. At that time there were already some 350 Design Schools in China. Little did we know that eight years later there were to be 1550!

I think our selection today would be quite different and demonstrate an extraordinary development in every field of design. Big international events like the Olympics and EXPO, did of course help raise the barrier and inspire Chinese designers to new heights in every field.

We both agreed to give a lecture when we were there – an easy one for John with his long academic experience. Little did I know that mine would lead to an annual event for me at CAFA, and the chance to introduce a pioneering course in Brand Strategies and Design Management. Both subjects lacking not only in Academia but even more so in Industry in China. This was virtually the start of my academic career, which has since expanded into a permanent position at the College of Design and Innovation at Tongji University.

Our friendship expanded and continued in Hong Kong, as I became involved with Business of Design Week (BODW) which I have attended every year since it started ten years ago. John has been a mainstay of this event – now the biggest and most important event in design in Asia. He was not only a major influence behind the scenes to raise the level and content each year, but also literally on the scene introducing top speakers and moderating workshops and seminars. A prolific participant and always fun to talk to about the performance and participants contributions. Caustic and critical, but still always generous in his praise with a full understanding of cultural differences and the shifting sands of design advance and innovation.

I was very concerned when I met John at last years BODW, and learned that he had just discovered a very serious cancer condition. His recovery has been remarkable and testimony to his stamina in more ways then one.

With all this it was however, it was not surprising to find that his tenure and role in design in Asia was coming to a conclusion. But knowing it is not the end of his role as a historian and prolific writer and I am sure we will continue to hear about and from John in the years to come.

It is a privilege to count him as a friend and colleague in the roller coaster world
of design.

Jan Stael von Holstein


Sue Willis

To you, John, whom I admire so very much, and honestly I don’t know anyone even remotely like you. Grace and humility are rare qualities in context with genius like yours, but you lead with these qualities, never showy with your accomplishments nor full with bravado.
I recall you sharing your grading standards with me when you were a professor at IIT in Chicago, citing the importance of a student’s ability to create a challenging concept and rise to it, much like an Olympic high-diver who performs a difficult series of dives and executes them perfectly.
The student is graded like the diver, you wrote, rated on the challenge of the concept as well as the execution, and this perfect execution of a difficult challenge merits an “A”. I embraced your grading standard as the answer to every professor’s dilemma, which occurs when a student executes a concept well enough but the concept lacks challenge.
This would be the first grading standard which students understood, and I shared it openly with colleagues and applied it every semester, knowing there’s still more to it to become like you, John Heskett. There’s no blueprint for executing this challenge–the standard is wholly unattainable, and it’s a rare gift to know you.
With love and good wishes, Sue.

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