Mike Joyce: Anything but conventional

Mike Joyce has built a stellar reputation designing for the music industry. The CD might be on the way out, but his company, Stereotype Design, continues to make some amazing music packaging

“I grew up a huge fan of Iggy Pop, so it was a blast to go meet him. He called me ‘Stereo-opticon’ and I still don’t really know what that means. But I’m really happy with the work I did for him – it came out great.”

Mike Joyce

After working for several creative companies in New York and a stint at MTV, Mike Joyce decided to take the leap and set up on his own as Stereotype Design. In the early years he created album covers and posters for indie bands that he was friends with, which eventually led to work with developing labels and, later down the line, big record companies like Sony, Capitol, Columbia and others. Stereotype has also licensed designs to 2K By Gingham for a T-shirt range. Joyce has been an ADC Young Gun, and has judged for Art Directors Club and Type Directors Club events. He teaches typography at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Mike Joyce is the founder of one-man New York studio Stereotype Design, and he’s thinking back to the 2003 album cover he designed for the iconic American singer. It’s a project he says his 15-year-old self would be proud to have worked on, and in just a few minutes he’s also mentioned Aretha Franklin, Katy Perry, The Lemonheads and even the bizarre new supergroup New Kids on the Backstreet Boys. They’re just a small selection of the artists that Joyce has worked with since launching the studio back in 1995.

Creating packaging, branding and posters for the music industry is Stereotype’s speciality. Despite the massive shift towards download seen in the last five years, the packaging side of things is still keeping Joyce busy. “Every year I feel like, ‘Well, I’ll probably do less CDs and less vinyl this year.’ Who knows? It’s a strange thing but I still end up doing five packages a month.”

Music packaging is often seen as a dying sector, but opportunities continue to open up for Joyce. Sony Music Entertainment’s catalogue division, Legacy Recordings, is one new client. Legacy repackages and re-issues music, often with deluxe extras thrown in for fans who still go to the trouble of purchasing CDs or vinyl. According to Joyce, this makes for dream projects. Pete Yorn’s hit debut album Musicforthemorningafter is an excellent example. The re-packaged product included designs for a vinyl LP cover, a double-disc CD/DVD case, poster interior and a 24-page book containing expanded liner notes. When working on retro projects like this, Joyce is sometimes able to go into the design archives of major record companies to fish around for inspiration. Indulging his curiosity, he can sift through unused material, which he might combine with fresh ideas for the project.

Joyce works on plenty of new releases as well, where all sorts of factors become part of his creative process. He’ll listen to the album and do a bit of research about the band and their past activities, and look at their website. He might receive a brief from the label, or the band’s agent, but sometimes he’ll work directly with the artist. Occasionally, they’ll even come down to his studio to collaborate. Six months ago he worked on the packaging for This is War by 30 Seconds to Mars, a band fronted by American actor Jared Leto. All their previous material had a strong red and black theme, sat alongside detailed photography.

Iggy Pop

One of Joyce’s favourite jobs was creating the cover for Iggy Pop’s 2003 Skull Ring album. He even named his pet rabbit after the rock icon

“I totally went into that designing all these red, black and white things for him, and Jared called me up and said, ‘No, no, no, no. I totally want to get away from that. I’m so tired of people thinking of us as red, black, white and silver.’ He came over here and we shot a few ideas around, and we ended up doing something bold and typographic, with just bright, fluorescent colours and stuff, so it was really different for them,” explains Joyce.

The bold type and vivid colours used for This is War fit right into Joyce’s approach to design, which derives from two very different influences. Firstly, there’s the punk rock aesthetic, dating back to his youth: “I just loved album packaging,” he says, “and I always remember the first time I got a Sex Pistols record. I was like, ‘This really jumps out!’ I didn’t even know what graphic design was but I decided that was what I wanted to do.”

Later, when he came under the tuition of Swiss designer Fred Troller at Alfred University’s School of Art and Design in New York State, a new interest in typography bloomed. “I really started to fall in love with that Swiss modernist style of Armin Hoffman and Josef Muller Brockmann,” he continues. “What I really took from it was how expressive it was. I know that the foundation is grid-like and really very structured, but I’m looking at an Armin Hoffman poster here in my studio right now and to me it’s such expressive typography.”

Aretha Franklin

Working for Rhino Records, Joyce has done two album covers for Aretha Franklin, including this collection of rare and unreleased recordings

The rough and rebellious DIY style of the punk period and the ordered approach of the modernists create a tension in Joyce’s work that fuels his inspiration. Often the end result is a synthesis that achieves both clarity and excitement. “Sometimes my stuff’s rock ‘n’ roll; sometimes it’s really bold, minimal and Swiss; and I think sometimes it’s both. It’s kind of fun to bring that. Let’s say I’m designing a punk record but I’m also inspired by Emil Ruder – I think there’s something kind of interesting about that,” he adds.

While music packaging is what Stereotype is best known for, plenty more work is done at the studio that goes under the radar. As a result, Joyce isn’t as worried as you might expect about what download is doing to CD sales. After all, he’s done plenty of non-music-related branding and corporate work. He recently created a book for the artist Kevin O’Callaghan, and produced the titles and credits for a documentary about iconic professional snowboarder and skateboarder Shaun White. On top of that, he’s also been doing projects such as the screen typography for shows like Teen Wolf on MTV, a company that Joyce worked for before setting up Stereotype full time.

Whether or not CD packaging is on the out, it’s still the music work that makes it into Stereotype’s portfolio. The main reason is that it opens up so many other doors creatively. “If I’m going to do a corporate brochure for a company, they still want to talk about the Aretha Franklin record. They would still go back and look at the Fall Out Boy album and talk about how they love that band or something,” says Joyce. “ I don’t want to say that it’s a marketing tool, but I put the things that I’m most proud of on the site.”