The Process Behind Stephen Doyle’s Intricate, Playful SVA Subway Posters [Video]
April 21, 2017
by Emma Drew
MFA Design faculty member Stephen Doyle hopes you’ll look closely at the latest installment of SVA subway series posters: each of his three designs, now gracing platforms around the city, invites a deep dive into the intricate sculptural forms he creates—playful, often labyrinthine constructions of text and image.
Doyle’s SVA posters build off of his long-standing and ongoing hypertext pieces, wherein he carefully dissects printed texts and constructs three-dimensional structures out of them—improbable feats of engineering, design and imagination. The models he builds reflect the same energy, ingenuity and audacity he sees embodied in the pursuit of art in general and the College’s programs.
Since the mid-1950s, SVA has featured the work of practicing faculty members as part of a promotional initiative staged on the New York City’s subway platforms. The subway series posters promote the College and showcase the individual artist’s vision, offering a thought provoking and visually exciting appeal to potential students and fellow New Yorkers as part of their everyday life. Featured artists have included Louise Fili, Steven Heller, Ivan Chermayeff and Milton Glaser, among many others. SVA Executive Vice President Anthony P. Rhodes has served as creative director for the posters since 2007.
I spoke with Doyle, an AIGA-award winning designer, about what it was like to turn his attention to designing about art and design and in a particularly site-specific way. “It feels so great to get my moment out of the sun, and in the New York subway stations!” he says, excited to join the ranks of his peers and idols underground.
What were some of your influences for these three designs, and how are they different than your other work or your approach in other situations?
The more I design, the more I become convinced that the most personal ideas are the most universal. Conceiving of this series, I turned immediately to the work I do that feels the most personal, the most specific, and the most specialized. Rather than using the language of design, I relied on the magnetism of art and intrigue, the enchantment of craft, and of course, a good story, for those who wanted to spend intimate time with the works.
What about the hypertext structures make them a good fit for the messaging of the posters? What texts were used?
The transformation of familiar objects into unfamiliar ones always holds special intrigue for me. Studying at SVA seems to me about studying a craft and mastering a new and personal language [and] an artist developing her own voice. These hypertexts are a language that I created and am continuing. Unexpected and perhaps even perplexing, I think that with the sculptural forms—whether realistic (like The Endurance [the clipper ship]) or abstract (like The Door [the exploding rectangles])—the intrigue begins with the forms, and then draws one in to explore the language. Ultimately, the sculptures are stories made up of other stories, or forms built out of language, out of ideas. I love that double entendre that is implicit in these hypertexts.
The Endurance was constructed from a biography entitled Shackleton, The Door was created from a translation of The Door by Magda Szabo, and The Moths were created from texts in many languages, because moths being drawn toward the light is a phenomenon that crosses all borders and languages. Because I thought that the texts themselves should also defy gravity, I worked with Cinquante Sfumatture di Grigio (Fifty Shades of Gray, in Italian), Amor by Isabel Allende, and, to cover those rascal Swiss, Grösse, Glück und Unglück in der Weltgechichte by Jacob Burckhardt (Size, Fortune and Misfortune in World History).
What makes a successful poster in a context like the New York City subway? I love the thought of attracting someone from across the tracks, on the other platform, as you describe in your video interview—that vantage point is so familiar and specific.
Any poster anywhere has to have magnetism and memorability built into it. I hope that these have both intimate appeal, for, say, the uptown commuter, as well as distant appeal, for those waiting on the downtown platform.
Can you speak a little to what it means to you to be asked to contribute to the series?
As a designer, it's an incredible honor to be asked to be part of the SVA subway series; it has become a New York institution of thought and art leadership that is unique to SVA. It's amazing to be part of this tradition, initiated by the masters of the design universe. The archive is a daunting who's who of design and a treasure trove of inspiration.
What makes the subway posters such an important tradition for the College?
This poster series is important because it is a way for SVA to infiltrate the fabric—and the minds—of the city. It is a way for the ideas to seep out of the institution and trickle down the stairs into the tunnels, where these small sparks might start a healthy conflagration of the imagination.
To see more of Doyle's work, click here.