May 25, 2018

It was my Grade 5 report card that hinted my path as an inquisitive designer. I was described by my favourite elementary school teacher as being a good, hardworking conscientious student. Great. Love hearing that and no doubt my parents would too.

Then came the sentence that brought forth a feeling of shock and horror in the same way a spider walking across the floor does for me. “Nancy gets bored easy.” Um, WHAT?!? I saw it as insult until I was informed that was NOT the case. I need to be keep my mind stimulated and fill it with things of interest and enlightenment. Sure, then that IS me to a tee.

Flash forward and that remains true in any design project I work on regardless of scope, whether it be a massive rebranding assignment lasting several months, to a corporate brand involving multiple sub-brands, or a one-colour logo for a startup business. I’ve been a lifelong learner and continue to enjoy learning/teaching new things with every client, project and design challenge. This year has been good so far from a creative fulfillment standpoint (bit of a slowdown as Spring arrived) but the change truly began as far back as Fall 2016 over dinner with a designer-friend.

We challenged each other to do more self-directed projects alongside our daily work routines. Ambitious, but hopeful, I thought about some ideas and jotted them down. Then real life happened and it was put aside. Halloween (a year later!) soon rolled around and I was giving a design presentation at my alma mater. It came up again when a design student innocently asked me if I’d ever considered doing personal projects. I smiled knowingly and said, “You know what? I haven’t for a long time, but I really should.” As soon as I said the word “should", plans were put in motion and I said YES more often.

Since then, a “what if” conversation sharing my enthusiasm of ideas with a local printer became a reality, leading into an ambitious yet beautiful typographic design piece for Mitchell Press. It involved 14 different paper stocks, 66 fonts (some readily available, many lesser known or very limited release) and 66 digital colour print combinations. Also in the wings is a short-run photography book, a brand identity for a creative speakers group and an already sought-after handlettering letterpress card design for a paper company.

Like the first “what if” scenario, this project began over a conversation about the kind of things I value as the target audience (putting myself in the tough client/consumer role). It soon evolved into a series of excited emails, me sketching out ideas, taking a picture with my iPhone and sharing my thinking on a call to my paper rep as she sat in her car after a meeting. It was approved and hundreds of handlettered words were soon produced.

I also took to social media sharing the whole process in real time as teasers to build interest, as well as a way for me to be accountable to ensure real design success every step of the way. The experiences I had throughout (creative, production, supplier and friend relationships altogether) could not have gone better, and the results of keeping myself 100% invested in every part, big or small truly paid off. Also deeply rewarding is my personal distribution of these passion pieces rather than the easy route of bulk mailing. As much as possible, I delivered them in person to key people that I wanted to thank to their faces and let them know how much their support, encouragement, friendship, inspiration and kindness meant to me. Their responses of anticipation, surprise, and delight coupled with hugs, a few kisses and warm impromptu conversations over coffee or a meal, made for some of the most heartwarming and gratifying times in my life. At one point I wished that I documented the visits with selfies or videos as one does these days...and yet the beauty of experiencing these personal connections is far greater than having to record everything as some kind of proof that it happened. One recipient said to me, "You know, this will pay you in dividends."

In the end that’s what I always hope for. That this investment of self-directed projects never becomes boring or taken for granted. That I am able to show other skills and interests that could lead to similar kinds of work or just remind clients that I'm still here. That great collaborative relationships with other creative people, producers and industries keep happening. That everything I do is worth it to me and to someone seeing or receiving it for the first time. That it inspires others and keeps me inspired to keep on designing projects for likeminded creatives and perhaps make a business out if it. Who knows? One thing I do know though, is this truth...

Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

Oct 10, 2017

NEVER USE FUTURA by Douglas Thomas

Who doesn't love the typeface Futura? Certainly not Nazi Germany, U.S. Election campaigns, NASA, mid-century design, American malls, Nike, Wes Anderson, Barbara Kruger, Volkswagen, CSA Archive or Aaron Draplin. The previous list is long, but for good reason. This classic geometric san serif has the ability to create rather broad visual languages in a chameleon-like manner, perhaps moreso than any other typographic family in existence. Industrial products, modern fashion, elementary schoolbooks, sports messaging and pretty much everything in between is well-served with the ever-changing character of the world’s most hardworking typeface, Futura.

Their recognizable letterforms have been embraced everywhere and continues to this day (Bon Appetit Magazine, Vanity Fair fashion ads and the influence of geometric sans in current rebrands, just to name a few). As we celebrate this typeface's 90th anniversary, a set of impressive typographic books are being released this Fall. First out of the gate comes “Never Use Futura” from graphic designer, writer, historian and educator Douglas Thomas. I first saw him talk about his love and appreciation for Futura at Typecon Seattle in 2016. His talk was at times humorous, revealing and most enjoyable, very much like this well-researched book. It reads as an expansive essay covering the history of the typeface's creation, its wide usage over the years and where it stands today within the crowded world of digital fonts.

I quite enjoyed nerding out on the many historical details about competitive versions of Futura from different international foundries, as well as the abrasive responses directed towards print publications using “the eccentric, malformed, ugly, and illegible type reflecting cubist art.“ Blasphemy! (Surely, I jest.)

“Never Use Futura” is a satisfying and delicious introduction to all things Futura. In some ways, finishing this book was like that feeling after seeing the film “Memento” when one starts looking at everyday life with different eyes….noticing the finer details that seemed inconsequential. And yet that typeface was hidden in plain sight more than first realized. Whether a lifelong devoted fan or you just like it for its agile robustness, this book will make you always want to use Futura.

Oct 10, 2017

by Carolina de Bartolo

There are so many introductory books on typography and type design, and particular titles are often recommended to students. It’s not to say that the usual classics aren’t worthwhile (they are), but this is a good one that deserves notice.

In 2011, university typography instructor Carolina de Bartolo released the remarkably useful and beautiful, “Explorations in Typography.” Aimed for those arranging type for print, it was a smart and intelligent method to visually demonstrate different ways of setting text with attention to typographic styles, arrangements, spacing, and size. Generously sized for real-world page design scenarios with delicate design features throughout (including yellow gilded edges), an equally useful iPad app version was also released. 6 years on people still read, and reading off screens (both desktop and handheld) are just as vital if not more so than print. Along with the welcome design advancements of typography on websites, tablets, touchscreens and apps, the finer details are just as important as the ability to “learn by looking.”

This completely redesigned and expanded edition diligently explores and enhances the what, how and why of effective typesetting through numerous examples and tips. Suitably supported with an essay from Erik Spiekermann (as in the original edition) and the always-typographically knowledgable, Stephen Coles (responsible for compiling typeface descriptions and an index of alternate fonts either low-cost or free for educational use) you couldn’t ask for a better set of teachers who know what they’re talking about.

With a new robust design (hardcover binding + exquisite finishing), thinner paper stock, increased font styles and sizes, this edition is an essential guide and type specimen for those who want to seriously up their game when handling basic to complex layouts & grid design. While geared for educators and students alike, it is also beneficial for publication or web designers working with large amounts of text that require clarity or typographic hierarchy while maintaining appropriate visual interest.

Continuing with the qualities of being both a resourceful and beautifully produced book, a solid online version provides live testing (with slider bars & clickable tabs for a selection of core fonts), a type combination guide and a PDF of downloadable teaching materials in conjunction with the book’s content. Replacing the iPad app for the first edition, this website itself demonstrates the precepts shown within the 24 chapters covered. In the end, the best design books are ones that have lasting power as a teaching opportunity, a trustworthy guide and as a permanent part of one’s learning & inspirational library. The second edition of “Explorations of Typography” belongs in that category.

Jun 21, 2017

Busy times balance out with more relaxed times. It's been a fruitful year and I couldn't be more grateful to work on personally fulfilling projects with treasured creative partnerships, as shared on Instagram. It's also a time of great reading, learning, inspiration and creative explorations: online classes with Skillshare, web presentations from TypeEd, Typographics NYC & Type @ Cooper, DesignThinkers came to Vancouver, TypeBrigade meetups continue to raise the bar, and more outstanding design titles enter my Goodreads queue. Impressive updated editions from Paul Rand & A Smile in the Mind, fantastic monographs on Paula Scher (very highly recommended!), SPIN & Lance Wyman from Unit Editions, and lots of typography offerings. A new magazine from Fontsmith called TypeNotes, Typo365 volume 2 from the folks at Etapes and Ivan Castro's The ABC of Custom Lettering...the hits just keep coming! However, today's review is about a highly anticipated book from the wonderfully amazing Martina Flor. Enjoy!



A new round of quality designer monographs and retrospectives are making waves again, with superb collections from Paula Scher, Chip Kidd, Aaron Draplin & House Industries. Perhaps through the influential popularity of online video conference talks and courses like CreativeLive, Skillshare or Masterclass, the desire to keep learning on ones own schedule has led to some outstanding "how-to" books from super skilled rockstar lettering artists like Jessica Hische, Ivan Castro and the latest from talented & prolific hand-letterer, Martina Flor.

Rather than a best of portfolio or case study book (while that IS a key part, it’s not what leverages the content), “Golden Secrets of Lettering” is an inclusive, educational primer unlike the many technical Speedball-like/how-to Calligraphy books that are primarily filled with step-by-step photos or use repetition as way to learn. This book focuses on the thinking and craft of lettering (the “golden secrets”) from a modern day master using well-written and visually crafted explanations at an introductory-intermediate skill level. There’s a fair amount of her handwriting and sketches throughout that not only give you a personal tour of her process, it makes you feel like you've got exclusive access to her learning/teaching notes in a truly experiential way.

The fundamental difference is the emphasis on learning and understanding first before developing execution or honing technique. It stresses the what and why before the how, with many “aha” moments brought to light as one reads through this easily digestible and enjoyable book. Numerous tips and thoughtful, detailed explanations in everyday language make this book a keeper and a valuable resource at any learning or experience level. It also inspires and urges one to practice practice practice, and to find his or her own unique lettering voice rather than copy a particular or singular direction of how to create lettering. Case in point is her encouragement to start sketching without the use of rulers or grid sheets, or sketchbooks. It’s all about working loose, relaxed and without any pressure towards permanence or rigid perfection. That all comes with experience, as spoken by someone well-versed in this craft.

Flor also discusses the DNA of letterforms, relationship structures, and learning how to trust optics vs. mathematical measurement in common-sense language. Her succinct yet aspirational writing style makes understanding clear and lettering goals achievable for all. She also walks through the process of creating the cover lettering as well as the professional side of doing this for a living, making one aware of real-world challenges along the way. First released as a German edition, then quickly followed by English-language, there is an upcoming version for the Spanish market, ensuring that an introduction to Martina Flor’s secrets are heard in any language. Take note this book may not be for ALL lettering enthusiasts, particularly those who are at, or seek more technical, higher level details in lettering customization. I would turn to Tommy Thompson, Ivan Castro or Helm Wotzkow’s classic, “The Art of Hand Lettering” as well as curated Instagram or Pinterest boards as a resource for advanced lettering work. If this is the first book you ever read on lettering, it will definitely get you off to a good start.

Jan 6, 2017

I’m often asked by clients, students or creative friends…where do I go for inspiration, resources, best practices or the latest whatever? Or is it a bad thing, leading to copycat ideas or a rehash of the latest “everyone’s doing it so it must be good” look?


DESIGNER CAVEAT: It never hurts to be aware of current visual trends or see what designers are sharing, but don’t overdo it. Many great concepts have been marred by typographic overuse of the Bernhard Moderns of the ’80s, Copperplate Gothic of the ’90s, Helvetica Neue in 2000, or those pesky quadrant hipster logos (yup, it's okay to nod knowingly). There’s an inner danger of looking too long or too often at designer greatest hits or Pinterest-style visual blogs without initiating your own creative morals or standards.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire beautiful, smart design and love the motivation it gives to kickstart strong work of my own. However, anyone who “borrows” too much of the same thing perpetuates those same visual parallels for the next. Certain visuals could get embedded into the recesses of the mind, plausibly brought forth without realizing the origin. Then there are those who say that truly new ideas are impossible with social media or that tribute or reinvention of any degree are equally fine and well. Thus, it would be a shame to work up a design idea only to discover that it’s already been done or worse yet, much better. Backpedalling is never a positive outcome, and neither is falling into a formula or having your work mistaken for someone elses. Perhaps it would be different if it happened by sheer coincidence, but even then, watch out especially if it’s a paying job. Bottom line for me? Design books work as a catalyst for inspiration to adopt methodology, problem solve by example and healthy competition via self-regulation. Using it as a source for covert plagiarism however, isn't.


So what to do? Wordplay. Mind maps. Too boring? Go elsewhere. Try a new start. Don’t think like a designer; think like the end user. BE the end user. Good ideas are everywhere, sometimes where you least expect it. Whether observing nature, going out for a run, taking a nap or looking at something totally outside of design execution. Think different(ly). Take a break. Take time. Fear, jealousy, and frustration are surprisingly great creative motivators. The desire to be influenced by nothing or no one. Start with the genesis of a design idea. Or even a germ of an idea and build upon it. One leap forward, 2 steps back, repeat. Look at things abstractly via structures, science, basic shapes, or even pictograms where communication is forced down to it’s most basic, essential elements. Like the beauty of a single Twitter message, force yourself to make points more succinct and stronger with less.

When I want to ideate (that is, briskly deliver a continuous string of design iterations), I may flip through quality design sources to get myself into a certain high level frame of mind, focussing on a design piece to trigger another thought. That's a creative approach I like, to force different ways of looking at things as a competitive challenge. For example, I may explore experimental typography to crack a logo problem that requires a change in visual perspective, international poster designs for bold color palettes, or publication design for illustrative approaches to typography. Other times, even the act of PLAY can make a difference. We used to do it as kids to understand relationships and make new discoveries or connections. Play as an adult might look different with a more refined set of tools, but the freedom and non-judgmental environment can lead us down that same path of reward.

On the other hand, there are those tangibles that encourage original thinking and learning from some of the best and the brightest. What are my top fave design books? It’s less about actual titles as it is the KIND of books I like to turn to time and again. (Almost all of these—except those sold online by independent publishers—are readily available from public libraries.)

HOW TO THINK BOOKS. “Smile in the Mind” (revised edition) by Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart. Debbie Millman’s “How to Think Like a Graphic Designer”. “79 short essays on Design” by Michael Beirut. “Designing Design” by Kenya Hara. Reading any or all of these is like giving your brain a little hug.

MENTOR IN A BOOK. Eric Karjaluoto’s “The Design Method” is a winner. Same for “Design is a Job” by Mike Monteiro. “How to be a Designer Without Losing your Soul” by Adrian Shaughnessy. Very affirming and meditative after experiencing unethical design behaviours with past collaborators. Those instances were disappointing, frustrating and alarming, which is why I insist that sketching is far more valuable than just a digital file one can edit and rename to change the course of history. Sharing or giving credit where due is always okay and right. Slander or lying can blow up in faces and damage reputations in the long run.

MASTER COLLECTIONS TO ASPIRE & INSPIRE ON YOUR OWN JOURNEY. Whether it’s a massive collection of everything that is 1000% awesome in a single coffee table book like “Logo Modernism” by Jens Müller or following along ones life’s work in “Logo Book” by Stefan Kanchev or “Lance Wyman: The Monograph” by Unit Editions, these kind of books are life-changing and utterly encouraging for me. It’s a reminder that there are always more than one way to do something, and that the only limitations hindering our progress are the ones we put in the way. Even those still pushing boundaries in their current work, are worthwhile in selections like “Make it Bigger” by Paula Scher, “Made you Look” by Stefan Sagmeister, “Typorama” by Philippe Apeloig, “Pretty Pictures” by Marian Bantjes and “Pretty Much Everything” by Aaron Draplin. These design powerhouses all share common threads. Their work may vary stylistically over the years, but there’s a consistency worth celebrating. Plus, they always manage to put a bit of themselves into everything they do (intimate self-portraits notwithstanding).

PROCESS BOOKS. “How to” by Michael Beirut isn’t a literal step-by-step guide the way Jessica Hische’s “In Progress” is at times, but both are highly valuable references for all levels along the path towards successful, confident design outcomes.

TIMELESS CLASSICS or OLDIE BUT GOODY BOOKS. That saying of “while they zig, you zag” is why I often revisit the craft of early Charles Spencer Anderson/CSA Design/French Paper collections (from 1985-2005 most are out of print). I’m enamored by the idea of past history teaching us basic fundamentals for the future, so I’ve been digging into really old logo collections from the 60s & 70s. Rare classics like “Trademarks & Symbols” by Yasaburo Kuwayama or older Scandinavian and German logo collections like “Signs & Signets” by Stiebner & Urban make one marvel at the exquisite graphic forms and pre-computer era (hand drawn!) designs. Aaron Draplin encourages a sentiment I share of looking at design from all kinds of sources, particularly very old print pieces where they got really graphic and really simple with lowest quality printing or design resources (e.g. drawing and typesetting by hand). I even found one on my desk in the form of a self-inking rubber stamp! The act of looking, never ceases to be an underrated but vital skill for anyone.

I can’t emphasize enough; DO NOT ripoff or directly copy others. YOU are you, and you can make your living by what YOU can offer to your utmost abilities. The past model of how we used to be taught was by duplicating masterworks or doing a riff of their past successes. But the reality is that we can NEVER match them, nor should we. And did these masters truly learn by copying? Perhaps a little when they were young getting their feet wet, but more often than not, NO. They got frustrated with what was the norm or status quo and already formed a vision in their mind of what they wanted to discover and release from within. But as experienced artists or photographers I’ve had conversations with all strongly encourage….Do not copy. Find your own voice by learning HOW to think and HOW to understand structure so you can DO YOUR OWN work. Likewise for design, I shared my own referrals of what works for me. Maybe it’s a start for you but I encourage you to find your bliss and follow the beat of your own drum. That is my best recommendation.