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Interview: Graphic Designer Stephen Doyle

© Christopher Wahl

National Design Award–winner Stephen Doyle talks to Departures about the future of design.

The first project Stephen Doyle’s fledging firm took on in the mid-1980s was designing the cult magazine Spy. Since then, Doyle Partners’ work has included branding and logos (Martha Stewart, Cooper Union), editorial art (The New York Times, The New York Review of Books) and book covers (Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Stephen Colbert’s I Am America). In his spare time, Doyle builds intricate paper sculptures out of lines of text cut from books like Kafka’s Trial and Machiavelli’s Discourses, and last year he was honored at the White House with a National Design Award. Lately his studio has turned to architectural collaborations, working on design elements for Heritage Field, a new community park opening this fall in the Bronx (on the site of the former Yankee Stadium, which was torn down last year). And then there’s the exterior of the new shark tank at Coney Island’s New York Aquarium, set to open in 2015.

You seem to approach your subjects with what one might call the “euphoria of ignorance.”

Absolutely. To think your way out of a problem, you have to surrender to possibility and potential and imagination; otherwise it’s too overwhelming.

And what does ignorance afford you?

With my clients I often use the word “naïveté.” You have to think, What is it like for the user? How is someone who is uninitiated in this kind of thinking going to respond and react? We get to deal with things on a very human, personal level.

How do you go from Heritage Field and baseball parks back to designing covers for books by [Russian émigré novelist and Lolita author] Vladimir Nabokov?

It’s all about storytelling. Sometimes film actors come back to Broadway just to practice their craft. So to do an occasional book cover, like the stories of Nabokov, where I try to make the type come alive and tell a story, that’s where I get my kicks.

What’s the connection between design and storytelling?

Design is all about storytelling. Design is communicating with an audience through images and language and color and type and scale and nuance and subtlety and texture and tactility. Design is all those things and how they affect our senses.

What, to you, are the iconic images of American design?

The funny thing that springs to my mind is being in a Russian town called Saratov, on the Volga River. Horse meat was on the dinner menu, and afterward we were served four sticks of Wrigley’s gum on a silver tray. First the horse, then the chewing gum. I can’t get that image out of my mind: being in such a distant place and having something so familiar, so American, so iconic as a stick of gum.

The other thing, and this one is a little sad, is the Saarinen TWA terminal at JFK. When it was built, it expressed such optimism, such futurism, such buoyancy of spirit. Now JFK is a mess, worse than airports in some third world countries I’ve traveled to. These days we don’t have that same kind of gesture toward the future. I’m sad that New York hasn’t built any bridges in quite some time.

So that could be a design in the future—would you be interested in helping with that?

Just as long as I don’t have to do the engineering. Where are our big civic gestures? The optimism of building a bridge. We seem to be missing the chance to reimagine how we live.

Designing Heritage Field

The new Yankee Stadium, which opened in the Bronx in 2009, was built on land once occupied by a city park, so when the old stadium was torn down, in 2010, its site was set aside for a new park, opening this fall. To the design of Heritage Field, as the park will be called, Doyle Partners has added subtle yet powerful touches to tell the story of the stadium’s heritage. Done in blue threads of artificial grass, an outline showing the exact position of the original baseball diamond will be sewn into the turf. The site will also have binocular-style viewfinders showing 3-D images of historic events that took place there—Nelson Mandela’s 1990 visit, the 9/11 memorial—while other dates will be commemorated on hexagonal paving stones. “We’ve infiltrated the space with storytelling,” says Doyle.