category: inspiration

inspiration: old maps

It is no small feat to collapse the physical world onto a sheet of paper. Cartography is an art that has been practiced for thousands of years as part of our need as humans to quantify our world. As a designer, I believe the best maps are a perfect balance of function and beauty. I’ve collected some great examples here:

1. This map of the Paris Exposition in 1900 has beautiful period typography, a balance of open areas and dense detail, and a springy Parisian color palette. This is only one section of the map.

Map of the Paris Exposition, author unknown, 1900. Via Flickr Commons, Brooklyn Museum.

2. The geometry in this 14th century nautical chart of the Mediterranean Sea is stunning. To my untrained eye it’s a beautiful mess of lines and place names. I’m sure it made perfect sense to the 14th century navigator. In the Portolan style, the lines represent the 32 directions of the mariner’s compass.

Mediterranean nautical chart, author unknown, circa 14th century.

3. This map, known as the Waldseemüller Map, Universalis Cosmographica, is famous for being the first recorded usage of the word “America”. It’s a beautiful wall map depicting what was known of the world’s geography as of 1507. It symbolizes a time of epic voyaging and discovery.

Universalis Cosmographia "Waldseemüller Map". Martin Waldseemüller, 1507

4. Subway maps are fascinating, as the crossing subway lines are inherently complicated. Almost everyone is familiar with the popular London “Tube Map”, its bright colored “schematic” lines and stark white background are instantly recognizable. I thought I’d share the first complete London Underground map, published in 1908.

London Tube Map, author unknown, 1908.

5. The cartographer behind this map, Johannes Hevelius, is known as the “Founder of Lunar Topography”. This map of the moon combines accuracy and ornament, and shows its maker’s love for astronomy.

Map of the Moon by Johannes Hevelius, 1645

Todd’s shop: Unionmade

I recently visited my friend Todd’s new menswear shop, Unionmade (493 Sanchez, between Ford & 18th). The shop is lovingly decorated with Todd’s impeccable style using found antiques, family heirlooms and custom hand made fixtures. In my opinion Todd was born to do this, and it’s truly inspiring to see it all come together. Kim took these beautiful pictures while we were there, showing, among other things, how short I am!

inspiration: film titles

I’ve been watching more than my fair share of movies lately, and no typography fan could ignore a film’s title sequence. Creative film title designers set the tone of the movie before it even starts – a great designer might even get you to read all those names. Here are some films whose titles just about steal the show:

1. Ocean’s Eleven (1960) – designed by Saul Bass

I’d be remiss to talk about film titles without mentioning Saul Bass. Designers often imitate the graphic style of this work, but it was his ability to identify and execute strong concepts that made these pieces immortal. His most famous titles are probably The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and North By Nortwest (1959) but I thought I’d pick one you may not have seen. Watch the titles here.

2. Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (1966) – designed by Iginio Lardani

I’ve seen this film many times, but I’m always caught off guard by this title sequence. Lardani expertly combines the wild west with 60′s pop art, scored by Ennio Morricone’s epic music. The colors, the typography, the sound, every piece is an integral part of the whole. Screenshots don’t do it justice. Watch this title sequence here.

3. Napoleon Dynamite (2004) – designed by Pablo Ferro

Sometimes it’s not about fancy technical tricks and floating 3-D typography. This entire film is a study in “do more with less”. Watch the titles here. Pablo Ferro is responsible for so many great film title sequences, also check out his titles for Dr. Strangelove, a beautiful use of hand done typography there. I’ve read that Stanley Kubrick called Ferro a genius, and I definitely agree.

inspiration: birds

Recently, I took a day trip to Pinnacles, a nearby national park. It is one of only three major release areas for the reintroduction of California Condors to the wild. We got to see first hand how amazingly beautiful these birds are in-flight – they spiral around in the air catching lift from natural rising air currents, gliding as if by magic. The experience sparked my interest in birds and I’ve gathered a few interesting specimens here.

1. The Hummingbird

color plate illustration from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (1899)

My grandmother used to keep hummingbird feeders in her backyard, and we would often see them hovering out there, sipping sugar water from the feeders or nectar from the flowers. Hummingbirds defy the laws of flight by flapping their wings up to 90 times per second, and are the only birds able to fly backwards.

2. Falcons

The American Kestrel or "Sparrow Hawk"- Finley, William Lovell (1876-1953); Bohlman, Herman T. Image from OSU Archives, via The Commons on Flickr

Falcons are renowned for their precise and dynamic mid-air maneuvers. They are the “fighter jets” of the bird world, their thin tapered wings give them intense speed and agility, making them extremely effective hunters. They have exceptional visual acuity and are known to display notable intelligence. I love that they are so perfectly designed for their function.

3. The Bower Bird

Photograph from the Tyrrell Photographic Collection, Powerhouse Museum via The Commons on Flickr.

To paraphrase Sir David Attenborough, Bower Birds are the only species other than humans who use material possessions to attract mates. Male bower birds are designers – collecting, editing and composing large amounts of inanimate objects into a landscaped bower that will hopefully attract a female. I am amazed and inspired by the scale of structure one tiny bower bird can create – see a bit of Attenborough on the subject here.

4. The California Condor

The California Condor. Image via The Commons on Wikipedia.

The California Condor was described to me by a Pinnacles park ranger as a “controversial species”. It is the only surviving member of the genus Gymnogyps. The rest of the genus has gone extinct in the wild due to poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction (our fault). In 1987 the number of wild condors had dwindled to a staggering 22 – at that point (here is the controversial part) they were all captured and brought into captivity for breeding. Thanks to conservation efforts their population has climbed to 351, with 180 of them living in the wild (as of 2009). The California Condor is a reminder that we have great power over the natural world, and we must take care to only do good with it.

(all facts researched @