Getting to Know You: Wayfinding pioneer Jane Davis Doggett ’56 MFA

Jane Davis Doggett ’56 MFA
Jane Davis Doggett ’56 MFA

Jane Davis Doggett ’56 MFA is an innovator in her field, a renowned graphic artist credited with pioneering the wayfinding and graphics systems for airports – more than 40 in all, including Tampa International, Baltimore-Washington International, George Bush International in Houston, Miami International, and Newark International. Moreover, she has completed graphics and design projects for the Whitney Museum of American Art and Madison Square Garden, among many others, and her art work has also been exhibited across the country, including at  the Yale University Art Gallery. She also wrote a book, “Talking Graphics,” is currently working on her memoir, and recently was the featured subject in a documentary aired on PBS, “Jane Davis Doggett: Wayfinder in the Jet Age.”

Doggett, 91, recently sat down with us to talk about the remarkable people she met and studied with at Yale, her admiration for George H.W. Bush, what courses she would take again, and what, in her view, Yale is all about.

What is the most enduring memory of your time at Yale?

My most recent moment at Yale was the acquisition of my sculpture, The 23rd Psalm, by Yale for its permanent art collection, which was installed in the St. Thomas More Center in 2012. [Beyond that] I have quite a few Yale moments that stand out – two moments in particular, especially one at the beginning of the graduate term in 1954 and the other at the end of the graduate term in 1956. I have them engraved in my memory.

The earliest moment was my initial interview with Alvin Eisenman, chairman of graphics in September 1954, upon entering his Graphics Design MFA program. I had been accepted by formal letter several weeks prior. This was sort of a “welcoming” one-on-one by Eisenman, in which I detected a slightly cool undertone. His message to me verged on being admonishing and went something like this: “Well, Miss Doggett, you have high qualifications. We’ve let you in, but there are swinging doors! They swing both ways.” I sensed that underneath was the factor that if I had applied for Graphics Design at Yale Graduate School of Art and Architecture with any aspect of Yale other than that in mind, I should reconsider entering! He made reference to Yale’s support of women graduate students and encouraging talented, qualifying women to apply. But – the inevitable “but” – there was a suggestion of women coming to a “male school” for interests other than academic. (Play it Again, Sam!). His message left a vivid impression that is with me to this day. And it still fires me up, as it did some 65 years ago. From that starting gate, I never got off the track.

The other lasting memory was of the final review of my work just before graduation in 1956 by my instructors: Alvin Eisenman (chair), Herbert Matter (photography), Norman Ives (typography), Gabor Peterdi (printmaking), and Paul Rand (corporate identity design). The gist of the review as summarized by Eisenman was that I had scored the highest in the class in four categories factored as a whole: conceptual graphics design and layout, typography, print-making, and photography.

The 23rd Psalm
The 23rd Psalm key

What was your most memorable experience or interaction?

With the execution of the Arts at Yale International Traveling Exhibition, of which I had a leadership role, came a memorable experience: frequent exchanges with Louis Kahn, dean of architecture, who was the lead critic of the exhibition design. Kahn was intensely interested in every aspect of the exhibition, starting with the way that Yale’s creativity schools – art, architecture, drama – were being conveyed to the world, particularly to potential graduate school attendees from foreign countries. He was intrigued with the free-standing, stainless-steel, tubular suspension system of support of exhibition panels. I had made the suggestion that it be structured in a “Y” plan, which allowed for three bays of display of the three Yale creativity schools. It could be set up and then taken down and returned to its packing case, to be shipped on to the next exhibition. The system, which Kahn seemed to have greatly admired, was pure sculpture – elegant high tech. It was the design of Bob Engman, Yale 1955, sculptor and sculpture instructor on the Yale staff.

Kahn studied the exhibition contents closely, commenting if he thought a document was not “explained” coherently. He read each line of text which had been edited by Norman Ives, who guided us in the typography design for the exhibition. Kahn, in his characteristic, whimsically curious twinkle in the eye, seemed to be “discovering” the Yale Drama School for the first time. He was struck by the technical systems that were offered such as theatre lighting synthesizing by remote electronic console control with which the Yale Drama School was experimenting at the time through the genius of inventor/instructor George Izenour.

Heralded as “the father of modern theatre consulting and design,” Izenour was credited with design consulting for more than 100 theatres across the country. George Izenour was known for his invention of the multi-use theatre; “technology was used to vary acoustics, move architecture, changing the physicality of the space itself” [from Yale School of Drama Alumni Magazine, 2010-11].

This is what Yale is all about: connections. Linking Yale people from diverse fields on Yale common ground. I was struck with this thought many times at Yale, and it continues with me as an alumna to this day.

If you could relive your time at Yale, what would you do differently?

If I could relive my time at Yale, I would remain there for a longer time to avail myself of courses that I would take – mostly more courses in art and architectural history through many periods, and repeating Vincent Scully’s lectures.

I wish I could bring back the times with Herbert Matter. Yale Photography was especially inspiring for me under the sensitive critiques of the noted fashion and advertising photographer. He certainly brought his gifted camera eye to the students’ photo images. If he liked a photograph, he would typically say in a soft, low, accented voice – slightly gravelly – “That’s nice.” Sometimes he would ask a question of the student about what the student saw in his picture. I wasn’t into fashion or advertising photography. I was steeped in capturing “the precise moment” in photo – shooting real-life environments, the Cartier Bresson approach on the back streets of Paris. We moved like hungry hunters through the streets of New Haven with our 35 mm Leica’s, seeing “St. Germain real life scenes” around every corner.

I would also like to bring back the courses in the Interaction of Color by Josef Albers, the brilliant artist and color theorist from the Bauhaus, who was tapped by Dean Sawyer in 1950 to lead Yale Art and Architecture into Modernism. Albers literally taught us how to see – a vision that has stayed with me. I feel that I am still taking the Albers’ Color Course to this day, when I explore color interactions, aware that a color definition depends on the color or colors next to it. Also, Albers’ design studies with geometric shapes and symbols left strong influence.

Wayfinding: Tampa International Airport, George Bush Intercontinental-Houston Airport, BWI, and the Philadelphia Mass Transit System

Here I must make a salient point: Looking back, I have realized that not one course, studio or academic, in the Yale Art and Architecture school, and not even one design problem assignment had any direct connection with the concept of “Wayfinding” design of which I was to become a leading forerunner and inventor. There were no project assignments relating to communication of information and direction by signage or graphics in architectural or environmental space. It was as if, off the printed page, it didn’t exist. In point of fact, Wayfinding had not been identified at that time, and Architectural Graphics was but a floating idea in search of a landing when I entered Yale.

But in my Yale studio courses and assigned projects, there were certainly lines of influence and there were rumblings in Yale Architecture of the need, conceptually, for Wayfinding Design as a means of communication, in the evolving modern world of increasing mass public movement in voluminous spaces. I was thinking of the millions of individual destination-seekers moving through global architectural space! They each had a destination, but no clear routing or direction of how to get there – wanderers in concrete mazes on asphalt planes.

I would like to see at Yale a graduate degree program designated “Environmental Wayfinding Design.” The future is looking for it.

Now, if you could relive your time at Yale, what would you do exactly the same?

To me, the course I took at Yale that had the most profound influence was Christopher Tunnard’s course in city planning. It was enough just to see his copious, incomparable collection of slides of the great urban centers of the world from antiquity to modern times. Equally incomparable was Tunnard’s insightful commentary as the carousel clicked out his slides. I learned a lot about cities from this man’s amazing vision – why cities’ sites were selected and their orientation that gave them vantage points of safety and security and often favored points for attacking their enemy on land or water. Tunnard’s course could have extended for several years and it would have been fine with me. And I am sure that he would have had enough slides to fill vast spans of lecture time!

I graduated from Yale Art and Architecture in 1956, armed with a good basic knowledge of typography and fonts, particularly formations that governed their suitability to a wide range of uses, and an awareness of how alphabet legibility may be affected by design. I had proven my mettle in “logo branding” by effectively promoting a product in graphics media in the assignments by Paul Rand and other noted visiting instructors. I carried with me Albers’ vision in an ongoing way of using color and geometric form in my designs. Also, Yale had greatly spiked my aptitude for photographing subjects, from impoverished street scenes to the grand buildings of world-famous architectural titans.

But the best Yale graduation gift of all was the inspiring urge to go forward as a designer and be a part of creating the new environment. Yale had given me a compelling idea: the power of visual concepts to effect the persuasive movement of people through the new environment, which would be at a quickened pace through more complicated space. I recognized a challenge in offering people individual choices in their passageways and destinations. I didn’t envision my role as herding people; rather, I saw it as communicating to people the choices offered for their individual selections with clearly defined routings of how to get there. This concept is well defined as Wayfinding Design. It incorporates communication by design, working with a full range of parts – identifying and delineating engineered roadways and other vehicular and pedestrian environmental passageways, architectural spaces, and utilizing communication media and means. This includes physical signage, electronic systems, and computer programs such as area mapping, GPS, and other computer directional systems that are under study at this time.

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Author: Shirley