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Unexpected Design Inspiration in Everyday San Francisco

By Christine Herrin

As a designer living in San Francisco, I’m never short on creative inspiration. This city is ideal for walking and wandering—it’s always full of new things to do, see, and try.

Traditional travel guides point you to a lot of activities the city’s known for: lounging in Dolores Park in the Mission District, walking along Crissy Field for an inspiring view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and catching a ride up Nob Hill on one of SF’s famous cable cars.

Those go-tos are great for newbies, but I’ve stumbled on my best sources of inspiration while wandering aimlessly. It’s in the delightful details of everyday San Francisco that I’ve discovered the most.

Every time I have a new project that needs thinking through, I just start walking and the city surprises me with often-overlooked design details and inspiring new destinations to add to my growing list of favorite places.

Here, I share a couple of my latest San Francisco discoveries that have inspired my hand lettering and graphic design work.

LOOK DOWN—INSPIRATION MAY BE RIGHT UNDER YOUR FEET

The Instagram account and hashtag #IHaveThisThingWithFloors highlights what you think it does—floors decked out with intricate tile patterns, unexpected street art, and crazy colors mixed in harmony. San Francisco is a playground for such discoveries. Many coffee shops and restaurants get creative with their tiling; Sightglass Coffee in the Mission and Liholiho Yacht Club in Lower Pacific Heights are two of my favorites. 

Older buildings are home to the best subway tiles in the city, but a lot of newer shops and restaurants exhibit this throwback look, too. Check out the eye-catching floors at the Boudin inside Macy’s in Union Square and Popsons along Market Street (and make sure to eat a burger while there)! 

LOOK UP—THE MOST INTERESTING STORIES LIE WITHIN THE OVERLOOKED LAYERS OF THE CITY

I was walking home through the Tenderloin one day near Taylor and Turk Street and was surprised to see, for the first time, billboards dressed in vintage advertisements, as if they were plucked straight from a different time period.

I later found out the signs are part of a restoration project initiated by Precita Eyes—the group responsible for many of the amazing murals in the Mission. On this trek, I also noticed a few mesmerizing ghost signs, which I now notice more and more thanks to my fellow Creative Resident Craig Winslow’s ghost sign light capsule project. There’s a great one on Turk Street between Jones and Taylor Street, with a vintage 7UP ad just next to it to boot!

The time-bleached walls of the Tenderloin aren’t just home to great type. Walk down Leavenworth from Market Street and you’ll be greeted by a burst of color a whole block long. The large mural The Gifts You Take Are Equal To The Gifts You Make was painted in 2009 by artists Catalina Gonzalez and Marta Ayala. 

Further down Leavenworth Street, the murals change from colorful community scenes to deep-sea creatures, including a giant, grinning kraken just near 826 Tenderloin. That’s the second tutoring center run by the folks behind 826 Valencia, an after-school tutoring center and writing workshop for kids founded by Dave Eggers.

To enter 826 Tenderloin’s tutoring center, students must pass through a zany, fully functional storefront called King Carl’s Emporium, a great design destination in and of itself. There, you’ll find illustrated books created by the tutoring center’s students, themed trinkets, and a curious collection of odd office supplies—giant squid-ink pens, anyone?

Much of the product branding was designed by the amazing team at Office, a Bay Area design studio. Local master sign painter Damon Styer and his fellow artists at New Bohemia Signs are responsible for the gold type on the windows, a process I’ve enjoyed following via Styer’s Instagram

LOOK INSIDE—INSPIRATION LIES WHERE YOU LEAST EXPECT IT 

I recently discovered Cookin’, a vintage cookware store that sells far more than just retro cookware. The moment you walk in, you’re greeted by stacks of vintage tin signage, old-school cigar boxes, and 1950s ads for canned goods. My inner type nerd was giddy browsing through the wonderful mix of old street signs, menu boards, and restaurant signage. While there, the storekeeper mentioned the owner regularly sources new pieces from Paris. 

LOOK AROUND—EVEN THE MUNDANE IS FULL OF INTERESTING DETAILS

One of my ultimate favorite things about San Francisco is the architecture—the lovely rows of Victorian houses in extra-creative color combinations are always such a delight, as are the Spanish-style homes. I find myself constantly pulled in by intricate tile patterns on exterior walls, loud color combinations, even patterned wire on garden gates.

It’s almost as if each house has a personality—some are decorated with crazy ornamentation that gives them extra flair while others have minimalist lines paired with boxy, manicured hedges. Fresh color inspiration can be found pretty much everywhere, but a few of my favorites are along Haight Street and Polk Street.

I stumbled upon The Grand Newsstand while rushing to an event by Pier 3 one day. While doing my best to cut through the usual groups of tourists, a small, red coin machine, seemingly out of nowhere, caught my attention. It had taped-up coin slots and a big sign on its front that read “ZINE MACHINE!!!” Just next to it was a stand selling zines of all sizes, themes, and flavors, created by local Bay Area artists. 

My favorite one was a doodled San Francisco Walking Map because travel and exploration are a huge part of who I am and what I do. And aside from zines, the newsstand, which sits near Steuart and Market Street, also carries a selection of cards, wallets, and patches. It’s such a breath of fresh air amid the many vendor booths of the tourist-filled Ferry Building.

I’m sure this list of favorite places will continue to grow as I meander through San Francisco, drawing inspiration from my environment and incorporating it into my designs. If you haven’t looked up from your computer lately, remember that your city is likely full of design inspiration—and in the places you least expect. 

Christine is one of Adobe’s 2016-2017 Creative Residents. Learn more about her and the Creative Residency