On Jeffrey Docherty’s desk, there’s a marked-up copy of the science and culture magazine Seed, where he works as art director. He flips through a recent issue, pointing out a handful of practically imperceptible design errors he has tracked for future reference, until he lands on the cover story about science’s relationship to the arts. “The only one unscathed,” he says wryly. The spread features a photo of an Alexander Calder sculpture, a spidery mobile with dangling, perfectly balanced wires and abstract shapes—an ideal intersection of art and engineering. As with all of Docherty’s work, the story’s design is the model of restraint even as it offers an extra flourish: A silhouetted re-working of the mobile links both headline and the photo and repeats throughout the article as a visual echo.
This nuanced fusion of art and content is all over the native New Zealander’s work, starting with his time at Australian architecture magazine Inside. There, Docherty was responsible for art directing and creating custom typefaces for each issue. Even when grouped together, each issue of the magazine feels distinct from the next. “I don’t really have a schtick,” says Docherty, who’s hesitant to name one influence lest he forget a more important one. “There’s an information overload; you see new stuff every day.” He eventually cops to spending a lot of time on Flickr.
After Docherty moved to New York in 2006, he freelanced for The New York Times Magazine, where he appreciated the challenge of pushing the boundaries of a storied, structured layout grid. Not surprisingly, he’s attracted to the permanence and educational value of a magazine as opposed to branding work. “I kind of got tired of spending a month designing a business card and thinking someone will just throw it out. …A magazine has a life span.”
Docherty may be making his name in magazines, but he has a wide range of skills. His diversity stems from a broad education at Christchurch College of Art & Design, as well as his advertising background in New Zealand and Australia, where he learned that there’s no room for specialization. “You really thin yourself out a little bit,” he says. “But that was a good thing because a lot of jobs would come in and there was no budget for illustration, so I would take it on. You would do everything.”
Perhaps as a result, he flutters from bold to delicate easily: the eye-catching covers of Richmond House, a book of Polaroids; his illustrated version of the Paper logo, which, with its line art and dangling daggers, hints at heavy metal music and geometry class; and the complex line drawing on the cover of Meredith Bragg’s Silver Sonya CD.
Things didn’t always come so easily to Docherty. As a 16-year-old, he owned an Omega 600 but had no internet. “A friend of mine ran a snowboard company and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll try and use my crazy fonts on my computer.’ And there were those amazing Corel Draw CDs,” he laughs. “I probably thought they were cool.” It’s a long way from clip art in Christchurch to high-end magazine work in New York, but Docherty, with his sophisticated craftsmanship and endless curiosity, has made the trip look effortless.