The tale of a sign in Paris, inspiration is everywhere

This year my wife and I were fortunate enough to have travelled across Europe for 4 weeks, on a business and holiday trip. We were in Paris for roughly 7 days and it was my first time visiting. And I have to say it was definitely as beautiful as they say it is. The signage and architecture throughout the streets is breathtaking. If you live in Paris lucky you and don’t take your beautiful city for granted. If you haven’t been I’d definitely recommend it – the food, culture and people are wonderful.

However this is a story of neither of those things but about one particular sign that I couldn’t resist taking a photo of. I saw it from across the road when we were at the entrance of the Musée d'Orsay. When I saw it out of the corner of my eye I ran across the street like a fat kid in a candy store! I said to my wife “Holy shit this is fucking amazing!! Like look at it!”. We’ve been together for 10 years so she’s not really surprised by my batshit crazy design nerdiness anymore. I proceeded to snap a photo of it and moved on with my day. But I knew at the time that with the right project this would come in handy in one day. Inspiration is amongst us everyday the key is not to miss it. Gotham was based on the Port Authority Bus Terminal signage on New York’s Eight Avenue for example.

Needless to say about 5 months later that right project did come along. I had a new branding and site design project that fit this aesthetic perfectly. So it was time to access that little reference of mine, my visual library.  I managed to hunt down this photo from my phone.  

Here I will show you how I used this reference piece to springboard a visual direction for my project. My hope is that you’ll be able to use the ideas presented here for your own projects. First we need to identify the components of what makes a piece truly great. For me this signage works because of the following points.

  • The typeface used. The curved legs on the ‘R’ and the letters evoke a sense of class and character. 
  • The tracking on the letters.
  • The hierarchy and sizing of type on each line being alternated.
  • The line height and vertical rhythm. 

So once we break it all down you’ll see that it’s all fairly simple ideas working together in harmony. You can essentially breakdown any piece like this. And most of the time the core ideas are all usually very simple. 


1. Identifying the typeface

So the first step was identifying the typeface, or a typeface that evoked the same feeling. I just thought about it off the top of my head and immediately thought of Trajan Pro. It is not the exact typeface used ie. the ‘E’ is clearly different but it has all the characteristics of what I like about the signage. In other instances when I can’t identify the type myself I’ll use what the font, if that fails I’ll ask my design buddies, if that fails again I’ll go to twitter.


2. Adjusting the tracking

Next is to adjust the tracking or letter-spacing on the letters to match our signage. The sweet spot I found was 280px. I’ve used Trajan Pro in the past before but have never played with the tracking and what a difference it makes. 


3. Hierarchy and sizing of type

Unfortunately Trajan Pro doesn’t have lower case letters, not to my knowledge at least. So I searched google to find the best matching lower case letters to Trajan Pro and found Goudy. Which fit really nicely and arguably could’ve been interchanged with Trajan Pro completely. However at this stage I didn’t want to commit the client on purchasing the type yet, as we were still in concept phase. So I settled on using Baskerville for the lower case letters. 


4. Line height and vertical rhythm

Next was to adjust the line height and make it inline with the signage.  Keeping it true to that tall vertical rhythm. So once we have the parts down, first is to replicate the reference. As they say on cooking shows – here’s one I prepared earlier. 


From here I’ve managed to replicate the ideas of the signage. Next is how can we capture the essence of this, and incorporate it into our own work. How can it help us achieve the goals presented in our own project brief. After playing around with colours, forms and ideas. I came up with this comp for the initial branding and art direction. Notice I kept a sense of height and vertical rhythm and used all the attributes that made the signage great but in a different direction.

From here I extended the visual language further and created colour palettes and motifs. 

So there you go, this was all derived from a little sign in Paris. So go out and find your inspiration. Images are copyright of the talented Paul Scala and Justin Smith. 

I am also launching a masterclass where I step you through processes such as this in more detail. The paid course will include videos, articles and resources for you to use. If you are interested you can register interest here Process Masterclass