Anton Sovetov, a versatile graphic designer with the Office of the Academic Printer whose creative work brought clarity, style and significance to Yale’s public health messaging amid the COVID-19 pandemic, has died. He was 44 years old.
Sovetov had been the subject of a missing person investigation launched by Yale in early February.
Born and raised in Russia, Sovetov ’16 MFA came to New Haven in the fall of 2014 to study at Yale School of Art. Passionate about video games and science fiction, or “gamer”, he produced a graphic design thesis entitled “Game is not over”.
A few months after graduation, he joined the university’s printer’s office as a Rollins Fellow. He distinguished himself for the breadth of his artistic skills – including drawing, calligraphy, typography and type design, and digital illustration – and was hired into regular staff after fellowship.
For more than five years with the office, Sovetov shaped the visual messaging for a wide variety of Yale offices, initiatives, celebrations and programs, including the Fortunoff Archive of Holocaust Testimony, New Residential Colleges , the Yale Planetary Solutions Project, the launch and the university’s response to COVID-19.
His projects included posters, banners, logos, icons, tableware and full visual identities.
Particularly prominent was a series of large-format public health posters for campus bulletin boards, which managed to set a friendly tone by urging people in booming block letters to ‘WEAR A MASK’ and ‘WASH YOUR HANDS’ . He also designed a series of posters on the themes of athletics and the performing arts – “Keep Covid Down / Boola Boola!” and “The show may have stopped, but the mask must go on.”
“Anton was at the heart of a shift in Yale’s graphic identity, moving from one almost solely based on typography and photography to one based more on illustration,” said university printer John Gambell, who hired Sovetov and oversaw him throughout his career at Yale. “He was one of the most talented designers I’ve worked with in my 40-year design career, and an irreplaceable member of the university’s communications team.”
Casey Pickett, director of the Planetary Solutions Project (PSP) and Yale Carbon Charge, worked closely with Sovetov to develop PSP’s visual identity. Pickett called his work “simple, evocative, arresting and effective.”
“He helped me create a presentation that I’ve used over 100 times to present to audiences across Yale, the United States, and around the world,” Pickett said. “After almost every presentation, someone asks me, ‘who is your designer? Can you put me in contact? Anton’s work is unlike anything I’ve seen before.
Sovetov discovered art as a child in St. Petersburg, his hometown. He taught himself drawing and calligraphy and, from an early age, copied illustrations from JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” books for himself and his friends, he told Gambell.
Also a serious flautist from an early age, Sovetov attended a music-oriented elementary school, followed by an English-speaking high school. He briefly studied law but found it did not suit him and dropped out of college. He learned computer illustration and for about a decade worked for a series of commercial printing and graphic design companies. He eventually returned to school, enrolling at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, and briefly worked there before enrolling at Yale.
“My heart breaks for the loss of Anton,” said Yale Vice President for Communications Nate Nickerson, who oversees the Office of Public Affairs and Communications, which includes the Office of the University Printer. “He was a graphic designer with a singular vision: his work for Yale was by turns playful, striking, dark and joyful – he had the rare talent of giving emotional power to almost everything he touched. He was a member loved and sought after from our office and a great credit to the Yale School of Art. I will keep the joy of looking at his face as I will lay out in general terms the information and feeling that I hoped he could convey with a work In such moments, Anton was intensely alive: he had the eyes of an artist and the ear of a professional. Anton was a star, and I will miss him terribly.
A bear of a man, still bearded, Sovetov was meticulously tidy and orderly, and deeply invested in his work, his colleagues said. He neatly lined up the books on his desk, with a designated place for borrowed books.
Very receptive to art direction – “any clever feedback would be taken very seriously”, said Gambell – Sovetov also valued procedural rigor and a commitment to the fundamental design principles that he believed were most likely to lead to effective results.
“He was concerned that we live up to our own ideals,” said Gambell, who has been the university’s printer since 1998 and also teaches typography at the School of Art.
Sovetov relished the intricacies and playfulness of the language, reveling in the existence in English of both “homebody” and “homeboy”, for example. Among his closest colleagues, he blurted out colorful comments, Gambell said, “many of them cannot be quoted.”
Within a serious and intense personality, Sovetov nurtured a sense of humor about himself. At Gambell he once said, “John, I am a misanthrope. (To which Gambell replied, “Well, if that’s the case, you’re the nicest I’ve ever met.”)
As Stephen Naron, director of the Fortunoff Archives, saw, Sovetov was not only a great artistic talent, but also “a decent, warm and upright human being” and “a real asset to Yale”.
Sovetov often spoke of Russia and his mother, who lives in St. Petersburg and survives him.
“It was clear to all of us that he was very close to his mother,” Gambell said.
Yet Sovetov, who lived in New Haven, left no doubt about his wish to stay in the United States and was in the process of applying for a green card.
And he left no doubt about the extent of his appreciation of artistic expression or the multidimensional nature of his own expressive ability: he took great pleasure in American and world folk music – and for a time he practiced Riverdance routines seriously enough to consider joining a dance troupe.
“Anton changed how Yale looked,” Gambell said. “I am grateful to have been his colleague.”
The Office of Public Affairs and Communications and the Yale School of Art are currently working to organize a memorial rally.
Members of the Yale community who feel affected by this tragedy are encouraged to use the resources available to them. For Yale College and graduate students, more information is available at the Mental Health and Counseling at Yale site. Information for Yale University staff and faculty members is available at Yale Health. the Yale Chaplain’s Office is accessible to all members of the community.