Visual References


Personally, I like to arm myself with as much information as possible when starting a project.

Granted, you absolutely could do a lettering piece without using references. However, we don’t live in a bubble. It’s healthy to see what else is going on in the world.

In the days before the Interweb, we had “swipe files”—basically filing cabinets with images we had ripped out of magazines (much to my mom’s frustration). Nowadays, Google makes it super easy to find visual references. Plus, we have apps that can catalogue it all so it’s easy to find.

I group references into two categories: Inspiration and accuracy.


1. Inspiration

There’s nothing like looking at the amazing work others have done to get you into the right frame of mind. However, you need to be mindful when you’re looking at references for inspiration. There’s a risk that it may influence your style a little too much. Copying is a natural part of the process when we’re attempting something new, but we don’t want to get derivative.

The second is that it may actually discourage you. Wait a minute. Didn’t I just say that it’s used for inspiration? That’s true, but it can also be intimidating to look at others work. I’ll have more thoughts on this in an upcoming post.


2. Accuracy

  • What did Ray and Irwin’s tow truck look like in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World?
  • What colours are in the Brazilian flag?
  • What does a Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit look like?

There are times when I can’t make stuff up, and that’s when I do my research.

I’m picky about details. A lot of this comes from my days as a Graphic Designer. I had to do the proper research to produce the best possible product. While I like adding a certain level of detail into my pieces, I’m not striving for 100% accuracy. Lettering is not meant to be perfect.


Collecting stuff

When I start a new project, I create a folder on my computer where I collect all my references, and split into sub-folders where necessary.

For more general inspiration, I use a Mac app called Pixave. Here, I collect things like textures, colours, and patterns. I also have folders for objects like maps, signs and space travel. It’s cloud-based, so this way I’m not tied to my computer when I’m working on my projects. Apps like Apple Notes, Pinterest, Evernote or Google Keep are good options, too.

Don’t just grab stuff from the internet, either. Use your phone—or camera—and capture stuff that looks interesting to you.

Of course, you can go old-school and do the swipe-file method. Just don’t wreck your mom’s magazines.