Meet the maker

In the second of an occasional series of American profiles, Michael Johnson talks to hands-on designer Stephen Doyle about his work. Michael Johnson is design director of Johnson Banks.

You don’t really expect to talk about sculpture when you meet graphic designers. Type, yes. Photography? Definitely. Illustration? Occasionally. But sculpture?

You see, while Stephen Doyle might have a great reputation as one of New York’s smartest graphic designers, he’s not really happy with that. He wants to carve things. He wants to make books out of concrete. He’s an expert at making type rust on metal.

But what’s this got to do with graphic design? Well, in Doyle’s case, quite a lot. The almost literary work that comes out of his studio is the product not of looking at a hundred thousand books on design but of an extremely fertile (and one might say, a little disturbing) imagination.

He gets into bugs? Lo and behold bugs appear in a paper promotion. He noticed that painting the word “was” on a saw was an interesting juxtaposition. Eventually the saw becomes a poster.

I’m making light of the way his mind works. Let’s face it, it’s odd. But it’s not as though Doyle Partners (previously known as Drenttel Doyle Partners) is hanging around just doing posters. Martha Stewart, The Transit Authority and Princeton University are just a few of the pretty high-brow clients that the studio of around ten works for.

Doyle cut his teeth in magazines (Esquire and Rolling Stone) before arriving at the Eighties graphic zeitgeist known as M&Co. Most observers would cite the work done by Doyle and Alexander Isley (among others) under the watchful eye of Tibor Kalman as some of the most influential of the last decade. Doyle himself is unconvinced that the work then was particularly ahead of its time. “I can’t tell you if it was ahead of its time”, he says “I was there… it just happened that way. It’s important that graphic design is part of its time, but you want to be going somewhere, to be leading, not following. Maybe the way to lead is not to follow.”

He admits that he’s not up with what’s going on in the design profession: “I’m not a graphic design magazine junkie. I can’t name more than a dozen or so firms. Somehow I just feel a little bit removed.”

But somehow he keeps an edge to his work that consistently surprises the viewer. He describes his work as “not normal” or “anti-slick”. “There’s always something irritatingly wrong about our work – but if it looks too weird we can always bring up the violins and make it a bit more beautiful,” he says.

The clunky, made-in-the-basement look to some of the work is intentional, but he wouldn’t want it to be perceived as ugliness. “It’s about a hand-crafted quality. I find a real comfort in things that haven’t been Photoshopped. All those things where you take two photos and smear them together, it gives me the willies. It’s making the culture nauseous. That’s why we’re banging out stuff by hand. We’ll even carve the type out of wood if we have to. You figure out a way to make a thing and the evidence of that thinking becomes part of the thing itself.”

Doyle’s DIY aesthetic even applies to his own office. The day I was there he had just finished applying the final touches to a presentation of new colours to a paper client. But if you’ve got a mental picture of a pile of Pantone paper and a few Dulux chips, think again. Doyle had painted his specially mixed colours on to a rough wooden screen and stood it up in reception for the day to see how the colours felt.

This particular client, Champion, hadn’t appointed Doyle because of some whizz bang graphics or an 800 page marketing proposal. Doyle had won the job by suggesting that they let him develop a whole range of recycled coloured papers (called Benefit) to his colour specifications. Now how many English paper mills would place that kind of trust in their designers?

The faith that his clients have in him is clearly very high – the “children’s” books that the group has been doing with William Wegman and his famous weimaraners are another good example; the photographer arrived with a pile of trannies for the most recent project and no particular story. He welded the project together into a book with Doyle’s editorial help.

You can’t help but notice the sheer cleverness of the work. For a book cover of a collection of stories by Vladimir Nabokov, the famous lepidopterist (that’s butterfly collector to you), the letters of the author’s name are cut out and suspended on pins in a board. Just about as far away from crashing out the cover on a Mac as you could possibly get.

When quizzed on waves in American design and who’s hip and groovy, Doyle is suitably enigmatic. “Groovy is interesting to watch, I guess, like the diving competition at the Olympics, but there’s a new crowd every four years. I think work that stands up over time is a better barometer.” The tendency of American schools to bury graphic design in theory and obscure European semantic texts is also given short shrift: “It seems that they’re building a scaffolding around themselves. Why bother to do that when you could open up a café?”

It’s pretty clear that Doyle’s own brand of graphic subversiveness is a covert operation. A recent piece of work was a simple reminder that it is eight years since the announcement of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. But rather than design some screaming, agitprop piece of design, it takes the form of a beautiful piece of type, printed on bible paper that is simply inserted at random into books. So the idea just creeps up on you when you least expect it.

Although, like everyone in America, he moans that “D&AD is just so damn hard to win,” he is a great fan of British design. “There’s a wonderful freshness, brightness and clarity to the work that is missing here.”

Doyle’s admiration doesn’t just stop at the graphics either, citing Abbott Mead Vickers’ work for the Economist as “So smart, so clever to just let the colour hold it like that.”

But when the conversation turns to life outside graphic design, we inevitably end up back at sculpture. “I just want to get things and glue them together. I think that designers can create more problems than they solve – it’s nice to have this other place, to have a monologue. It doesn’t have to answer anybody’s need, it can feel like work and then it can feed back into your real work.”

And guess what? When you sit in his office and look at all the bits of concrete, rusty spades and painted bits of plywood, you really want to join in. Perhaps we should all chuck our Macs away and get sculpting. Who knows, it might just help us too.

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