“Think With Your Hands.” The Words and Work of Stephen Doyle

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photo by christopher wahl.http://www.christopherwahl.com

Official bio: Stephen Doyle won Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Award for Communication in 2010 for his “ability to give words a deeper meaning.” Doyle Partners, a design studio of 10, focuses on creating work across a broad spectrum, from branding (including Barnes & Noble and the US Green Building Council) to packaging (for Martha Stewart, David Byrne and Stephen Colbert), architectural signage and environmental graphics (including work at Rockefeller Center and Brooklyn Bridge Park) and way-finding, animations and even constructions (for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and Wired.) Environmental graphic programs include projects at two New York City parks, one at the site of the old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and at the Battery, as well as a new skin for Toronto’s 72-story 1963 skyscraper First Canadian Place—at a quarter of a mile high, our largest packaging project to date. Also on the boards is a collaboration with Ned Kahn for a kinetic skin for a new shark tank building at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, and a permanent installation in Times Square that commemorates the 40 theaters that comprise the official Theater District. The studio has also created motion and animated pieces for the US Green Building Council, Wired Magazine and American Express. In Doyle’s world, humanity rules, ideas cast shadows, and color talks. Doyle received the AIGA medal in 2014, which cited him for being the “designer’s designer.”

Originally from: I’m from Crab country, and I’m a Scorpio, which makes me a scavenger with a lethal stinger, from Baltimore, Maryland.

Path that led you to design: Getting thrown out of my painting classes at Cooper Union (for intellectual insubordination) was a pretty good instigator, especially since it propelled me into the hands of design teachers like Rudy de Haraak, Milton Glaser, Herb Lubalin, Seymour Chwast and George Sadek, who all embraced and encouraged that same insubordination.

Your career, in a nutshell: Esquire to learn about storytelling, Rolling Stone to refine that classic/modern typography thing, M&Co. to learn how to color outside the lines, and then, at 28, my own studio, to at least give it a try, and then to put its inevitable failure behind me. Still waiting for that failure, 30 years on.

Design Philosophy: Think with your hands.

The key to good design: Compassion, humanism, a little magic and a really good story to tell. And a little insubordination (see above).

Work of which you’re most proud: I’m proudest of the work that borrows from my personal work and gets away with using it in a public platform, like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Wired. For me, this is the real alchemy of design, to be able to create a new visual language that asks as many questions as it answers, has evidence of being created by hand, and lingers in your memory like an unresolved koan.

Moment in your life of which you’re most proud: If this question is pre-qualified by the word “professional,” then (Hubris Alert!) it would be the lunch at the Obama White House when I won the National Design Award, perfectly synchronized with the 25th anniversary of my studio. So my moment was when Mrs. Obama personally thanked me for my contribution to American Culture on July 21st, 2010, at approximately 1:47 in the afternoon, Eastern Standard Time in the Blue Room. (Which, curiously, is mostly yellow.) That was my moment. Yup, very proud.

Cause that means the most to you: This question is too easy! It’s gotta be taking care of our planet, but that answer comes up because my first knee-jerk reaction to that query is that the most important thing to me is parenthood. I think it’s easy to make the leap.

Favorite designer: Also, easy … that would be my wife of 28 years, Gael Towey. A strong woman with an incredible eye, she has reinvented how we all see things, with 22 years at the creative helm of Martha Stewart Living (and all its ancillary enterprises, magazines, books, products and etc.) and she has facilitated millions of men, women and children to get in touch with their own creativity and potential. She is not, however, my rock. She is my lighthouse; she keeps me from the rocks.

Favorite typographer: That would have to be the nonexistent love child of Jan Tschichold and Imre Reiner. Tschichold for the wackiness that he derived from a sense of ordered classicism, and Reiner for his swan dive off the diving board of Wackyheim. Extreme typographers, both, and fearless adventurers.

Favorite artists: Tom Friedman, Roxy Paine, Tony Cragg, Kiki Smith, Per Kirkeby, Tara Donovan, Fairfield Porter, Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney, Ai Weiwei, Olafur Eliasson, Yayoi Kusama for starters …

Favorite city: I’m not a homebody, but after traveling to all the wonderful runners-up out there, there is truly no place like home when you live in New York. An ideal harbor, New York was fine-tuned by the advance and retreat of a glacier, 20,000 years ago. That same North and South motion is echoed every day, when the Hudson River, which is actually the Southernmost fjord in the Northern hemisphere, charges North to Albany and then flows back to Manhattan twice a day in an aquatic commute. Here, salt water mixes with fresh, natives mix with visitors, ideas mix with reality, and the friction that started with the glaciers is embodied every day, where people come together to make things and make things happen. The whole town is electrified … it’s not just the third rail! I (heart) NY.

Biggest inspiration: I head to galleries and museums for inspiration, not design annuals or magazines. I look for work that is surprising in its impact, the transformation of common things, and I wonder how a painting or sculpture can haunt you with “rightness” and how paint or matter, in the right hands, can become infused with so much power.

What the East region means to you: The East is where the cities were built before there were cars, which forces a certain wonderful proximity on its residents, and this proximity, at least in New York, translates to energy, like a static electricity that charges your batteries, simply by osmosis. Being near the ocean, our skies are clear … brittle in the Winter and vivid in the Summer, and it forces a clarity on subject and shadow alike, those powerful opposites we need to keep gravity in place.

Motto: “Are you ready for adventure?”

How does it feel to be labeled “The ultimate designer’s designer”? Honestly, I hope that was a typo. Because I’ve endeavored hard to be the “un-cola” the “un-designer.” I’ve tried to play on the edge of the profession, and my process is not logical, and my habits are n
ot tidy. I’ve turned my studio into a laboratory for experimentation and making things to try to tell stories and enchant diverse audiences. Building book covers from sticks, making posters out of pools of water, creating constructions out of books, typewriters out of plaster, making words with a band saw seems pretty far from being a “designer’s designer” to me. I think the best light in which to see that quote from the AIGA’s medal ceremony, well, I would hope it would mean that perhaps designers are jealous of how I get to play, experiment and generally, stay, well, insubordinate to the world of design.

Venn Stools

This construction was created to illustrate a story in Fast Company magazine, which chronicled a company that mixed up their own seating plan so that divisions were eliminated in order to facilitate cross-fertilization and the hybridization of ideas.

Jane's CarouselSeptember 15, 2011EFF - BBP © Julienne Schaer

A refurbished 1922 carousel now sits in a new home, a clear box designed by Jean Nouvel, in Brooklyn Bridge Park. This mash-up of traditional polychrome horses in a beautifully ornate carousel tucked into a crystal box made for an interesting challenge for graphics. We couldn’t put anything vertical into the space or on the box, because at night the carousel becomes a magic lantern, shadows of the spinning horses projected onto a scrim that appears when the sun goes down. Doyle Partners rose to the challenge by creating very ornamental type, which was set into the pavement in steel, so that its baroque styling is offset by its minimalist installation. The name of the carousel, then, becomes a giant welcome mat to anyone who approaches the carousel, reflecting the color of the sky from the pavement beneath your feet.


To illustrate the idea of schools that actually teach character, we installed the names of the character traits into the schools themselves. Seen from a one-point perspective, the words appear to float in the schools. Step aside, and the words become dramatic distortions, bringing a new sense of wonder to the idea of “point-of-view.” These temporary installations were created at Kipp Academy in Harlem and at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx.

Here Lies Love

The soundtrack for David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s “operetta” musical about the life of Imelda Marcos. “A booty-shaking blast of pure joy!” says Vogue.


Think Magazine was a quarterly magazine distributed by IBM to CEOs and CIOs. This issue, whose topic was risk, adds an element of chance to the famous IBM command: think!

Machiavelli The Discourses

Machiavelli: This construction transforms some pages of this classic diatribe into a replica of an M1A1 tank, the tanks that the US used in the invasion of Iraq. Machiavelli observes: “Those who wish to deceive, must first find those who are willing to be deceived.”


Truth illustrates an op-ed piece in The New York Times by Stanley Fish, attempting to understand terrorism, and relativism. Called “Condemnation without Absolutes,” it was about looking at truth from different points of view.

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