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Typographics Conference Features Alumni

Typographics, a design festival for people who love type, returns to The Cooper Union this month, with workshops and tours June 13-23 and a two-day conference June 17-18. Among the talented speakers at the conference are two Cooper Union alumni, Emily Oberman and Stephen Doyle. We caught up with both graduates from the School of Art to learn more about their time at Cooper and career before they take the stage at The Great Hall.

Oberman graduated from The Cooper Union in 1986 and has spent her career designing for the entertainment industry. In 1993, she co-founded the design studio, Number Seventeen, where she designed brand identities for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Saturday Night Live.” She is currently a partner at Pentagram and recently designed the branding and opening sequence for Tina Fey’s Netflix show “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and the branding, packaging and website for “Leafs by Snoop,” the line of marijuana products from Snoop Dogg. Oberman will deliver her talk, “Entertaining Typography,” on Friday, June 17 at 4 p.m.

Tell us your Cooper story – why you decided to apply, attend, and any fond memories from your Cooper Union experience.

Both of my parents, Marvin Oberman (A’49) and Arline Simon Oberman (A’48) went to Cooper. All their friends went to Cooper and many of their friends’ kids, with whom I had grown up, went to Cooper before me. I spent holidays with Cooper people and always loved being with these smart, interesting, talented people who were always quick witted, politically active and engaged and of course did beautiful work that they were passionate about. I toyed with making other career choices, but in the end I knew I wanted to be a graphic designer and what better place to learn how to do it than the school that had taught all my heroes, from my parents, to Seymour Chwast, to all their friends?

You co-founded and ran your own company for 17 years before joining Pentagram. How has your education influenced your career path?

In similar ways to the above question. Cooper was always a welcoming, creative space where good work and good ideas were the driving force behind the teachings of any discipline. Hard work and full participation were a given, so we had time to focus in class crits on the ideas. We did the same thing at No.17 and I continue to work by that standard at Pentagram today.

You have said that even great clients do not always choose the best option. What lessons have you learned from this?

Never show a client something you don’t want them to choose. Because they WILL choose the exact one you don’t want them to.

What elements are important for keeping your work clever and entertaining?

A general sense of optimism and joy, I guess. I still love being delighted and a good idea can do just that. And I like nothing better than laughing really hard.

As you return to Cooper, do you have any advice for current students or recent graduates starting on a similar career path?

Pay attention. Work hard. Expect everything, but don’t take anything for granted. And help make Cooper free again.

Mr. Doyle’s talk, “Off the Page and into the World,” is on Saturday, June 18 at 11:30 a.m. Doyle graduated from The Cooper Union in 1978 and is now the Creative Director at Doyle Partners, a studio with expertise in graphic design, communication, advertising and marketing. A selection of the studio’s projects include branding for "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," packaging and graphics for Martha Stewart, architectural signage for Jane's Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park and editorial illustrations for The New Yorker.

Tell us your Cooper story - why you decided to apply, attend, and any fond memories from your Cooper experience. Rumor is it involved a mysterious phone call?

"Hello, This is Stephen Doyle."
"Hello. I saw your work. I'm calling to tell you that you should apply to the Cooper Union."
"What's that?"
"Why, it's the best art school in the country!"
"Where is it?"
"It's in New York."
"I'm not sure I want to go to New York."
"Yes, but that's where it is, and that's where you're going to go."
"Who is this?"
"That's all you need to know." click.

So, mysteriously, at 17, I began my long relationship with The Cooper Union. The home test, the thick envelope in the Spring of 1974, the ticket out of Lutherville, Maryland, the ridiculously high rent share of $100 dollars a month on Fifth Street, near Third Avenue. The wonderful indoctrination of experimenting with all media and forms of making art, design and photography. Turning one's hands into one's resources and sharpening one's focus to the demands of art, to communication, to drama and delight. Ultimately, my best class was an editorial design class with Milton Glaser and Henry Wolf. The best part was how they would disagree and argue about what was the right way to design. It was so wonderfully subjective that I knew right away that this was the field for me. Even the experts couldn't decide what was right or wrong. But what was captivating was the dialogue. At break time, the whole class would line up at the water fountain and take a Tylenol. It was marvelously intense!

You worked for Esquire, Rolling Stone and M&Co before co-founding your studio. How did your education influence your career path?

At Cooper, I learned to be unafraid of media, and respectful of ideas. We learned what our hands were capable of—and how to intellectually stretch to make our hands a valuable asset to ourselves, the community and the world. At a lecture, Joseph Beuys asked, “How could you get anyone's attention if your art had no theater, no drama?” Milton Glaser mused about how, if we had the gift of persuasion—the responsibility of such a gift, and the seriousness of our decisions about how to use it as a responsible citizen. Herb Lubalin showed us how to use the craft of typography to increase the power of language (with more grunts and nods than language itself, but somehow the message got through). Cumulatively, these ideas set me on the path to becoming a graphic designer. Enchanted by the power of communication, I was so lucky to work at Esquire magazine, initially under Milton himself, and later, others, and then to graduate on to Rolling Stone magazine, learning the craft of collaboration, practicing design on a monthly or bi-monthly cycle (great practice, by-the-way) until using design to enhance story-telling was my core magic power, which has led, so many years later, to my ability to tell stories in so many different contexts as we do in our studio today, from branding stories, where we instill values into a word or emblem, to environmental graphics, where we get the cityscape or landscape to engage you with a story, or a video that uses levitation or magic to enchant an idea, or even an illustration that brings an editorial story to life. Cooper taught me to be a storyteller, an enchanter. Design is simply the means.

You designed the current Cooper Union logo in 2009. Has the logo changed meaning since then?

I was so proud to design the Cooper Union logo in 2009, challenged by Milton himself to create something "provocative." The three planes of color represent each school, but together, the colors all represent each school; they are symbiotic. Those three primary colors are the artist’s basic tools, for the architectural school, they represent the three dimensions, and engineering is all about convergence of different forces. Seven years later, does it still represent the school? Maybe more so than ever, since the design is conceived as a dynamic and in-motion scheme, where the planes converge and disperse. They are positive and negative magnets that dance and explode. Maybe the logo was actually prescient to the dynamic that makes Cooper both explosive and conciliatory. A logo is meant to be the vessel that carries the values of an institution. We tried to create a logo that defies gravity yet conforms to form and structure. What do you think?

Your talk will explore the idea that “words are people too.” How can words become trustworthy and memorable?

Words are the characteristic that distinguishes humans from other life forms. Certainly we are not the only creatures that communicate, even plants have the talent to communicate in some form. But the nuance of language—and languages—has intrigued me as a designer. Our ability to amplify volume, without using any sound at all, is my catnip. Words carved into stone, in ancient Rome, still hold power and mystery that escapes an email or a text. Why? I think because they have entered our world of light and shadow, and they became as alive as the landscape, come alive with a sunrise, and diminish at dusk. These words have staying power—even when we don't know what they mean. Embodiment confers validation and importance. My mission is to endow words with an appropriate body. It's thrillingly Frankenstein-sian.

As you return to Cooper, do you have any advice for current students or recent graduates starting on a similar career path?

The way that I distinguished myself as a designer was to be awfully true to my own inclinations, and through that have found my own voice. My advice to students now would be to be restfully distrustful of voices of authority, or taste or trend, and to look ever inward to find a compass of passion, commitment and taste. One can only succeed at one thing, ultimately (and this doesn't mean media or career path) but it is about enabling ones instincts and passions to undergo the rigor of being shaped by thought and craft to blossom into what we fortunate call ... a life.