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What’s in Your Toolbox: Cynthia Warren

by Ginny

Huge heart palpitations here at What’s in Your Toolbox! I am such a fan of Cynthia Warren that I am having a total geek-out moment! Composure regained, now I will happily introduce you to this lovely lady. I first stumbled upon her work when Design*Sponge featured her here back in 2010. Cynthia has such a wonderfully diverse portfolio, and she is equally brilliant at hand-lettering, calligraphy and illustration while also incredible at brand identity and package design. I can’t decide which I love more: her menu designs for Chez Panisse or her charming wedding invitations. Both reflect her appreciation for old-timey type and botanical-influenced illustrations. All photos are taken by the talented Tracy Lenihan! — Ginny

1. Design*Sponge: What is in your toolbox?

Cynthia Warren: I wear many different hats here in my studio, which makes my toolbox rather large . . . it even includes a 100-plus-year-old printing press! I feel so fortunate to be a graphic designer who is able to see my projects through, hands-on, from initial concept to finished printed piece.

I love experimenting with all kinds of tools, new mediums and materials, but my most basic toolbox always has Sakura Micron pens (the 005 nib is unbelievable), a mechanical pencil (I love my Koh-i-noor Rapidomatic), metal rulers, a heavy rolling parallel ruler, a surgical scalpel with #11 blades (I discovered these in art college; they are scary sharp, and once you’ve used one, you will never use an X-Acto knife again!) and many pads of bleed-proof marker paper (Bienfang), tracing paper and a lightbox.

If I’m working on an illustration or hand-lettering project, I like to use brush pens (Tombo), Hunt mapping and artist calligraphy nibs, Sumi ink, watercolors and gouache.

I spend a lot of time at my drafting table creating all of my designs by hand. Once I have something I’m happy with, I’ll scan it and then refine and finalize it on my computer. My boyfriend just bought me a Wacom tablet, which completely goes against my stubborn Luddite ways, and now I can’t imagine working without it!

2. Design*Sponge: Fill in the blank, “When I am in my studio, I feel _____________.”

3. Design*Sponge: What are on the top shelves of your inspiration library right now?

Cynthia Warren: My ever-growing collection of art, typography and design books always holds inspiration for me. No matter how many times I look through them, I always find something new and interesting. A few of my favorites are 130 Alphabets & Other Signs edited by Rothenstein/Gooding, John Gerard’s General History of Plants (a botanical bible!) and so many books from Dover Publishing. I’m obsessed with their collections of old decorative title pages!

My current sources of inspiration are also highly influenced by whatever I’m working on at the time. I love steeping myself in my projects, surrounding myself with relevant books from the library, artwork, inspirational objects, music and sometimes even the food that I eat!

I recently completed a wonderful wedding project that was inspired by old botanicals and early American folk art. While researching this project, I fell in love with Nature’s Beloved Son by Gisel/Joseph, and several library books on Early Pennsylvania Dutch arts & crafts. While working, I listened to Deep Night by Gaucho, a gypsy-jazz sextet, and old-time string music by The Roadoilers . . . two bands that were going to play live at the wedding. I really enjoy feeling transported to another world while working on my projects, and music seems to add another layer to the whole adventure.

4. Design*Sponge: How do you keep yourself organized?

Cynthia Warren: I have never been much of a list maker, and I haven’t kept a daily calendar since art college. Operating, for the most part, as a One-Woman-Studio, I can only take on a very small number of projects at one time, so I tend to keep everything organized in my head. I’m also so involved with each of my projects, at each stage of the process, that I always feel connected.

On the other hand, time management has always been challenging for me. With my studio at home, I have a hard time ever really “clocking out.” Funny enough, my boyfriend surprised me with an old factory time clock and a box of unused timecards when I was starting my business. I’ve enjoyed keeping track of my hours this way, even putting a few “wish clients” on cards in my card rack, with hopes to someday work with them. Over the years, it’s been very educational to look back and realize how long things take to create!

5. Design*Sponge: If you could have one superhero (or magical) power, what would it be and why?

Cynthia Warren: I would love to slow down time . . . or create more of it! Each year seems to fly by at a faster and faster rate. There are so many things I want to do and create, but I also struggle with finding time to just enjoy life.

6. Design*Sponge: What is the best advice you have ever received, and what is the one piece of advice you would offer to a young artist/designer?

Cynthia Warren: I have received so many pearls of wisdom, from friends and mentors, through the years: Do what you love, love what you do. Listen to your gut. Stay true to yourself. Short Assignments, Shitty First Drafts. DONE is beautiful. Begin anywhere. Just start. Work hard — most art is made from 10% inspiration / 90% perspiration. Artwork is more likely to happen if you are IN the studio. And, if you always do your best, you can wait the results in peace.

My advice for a young artist/designer is to be eager, hardworking and OPEN (minded) . . . opportunity can come from the most unexpected places/situations.

I have been self-employed for almost 20 years, and there have been many bumps in the road and surprises along the way. I have, at times, had to work a few part-time day jobs (busing tables, office work, retail for a local clothing designer), and surprisingly, some of my closest mentors and best work opportunities have come through working those jobs . . . you just never know. If you really want something, anything is possible.

7. Design*Sponge: How do you combat creative blocks?

Cynthia Warren: Being a commercial artist/graphic designer, I find I struggle with creative blocks all the time! The process of developing a design specific to a client’s needs can be complex. Each new project presents new challenges and relative parameters and requires new ways of thinking. I’ve developed several ways to get unstuck.

1) It usually involves walking. Just getting away from my drafting table and breathing some fresh air is so helpful. Living in the Bay Area, there are so many hiking trails available within 15 minutes from my home/studio. No matter the weather, it is always breathtakingly beautiful. Being in nature opens my mind, changes my perspective, energizes me. Some of my best design ideas have come to me while I’m out on the trail.

2) Go on an inspiration “WalkAbout” (another method that involves walking!). I go to the main Berkeley Public Library and visit my favorite local used bookstores, mainly Moe’s, Shakespeare & Co. and Pegasus. Just sitting on the floor looking through books always get my juices flowing.

3) Believe it or not, cleaning! Sometimes it is refreshing to “clear the slate”. . . just the process of clearing off my drafting table and filing things while listening to good music seems to create more open space around me, space for new ideas to appear.

4) Just recently, I’ve started to make time for creating my own personal artwork. Sometimes when I’m stuck on a project, it’s helpful to take a break and give myself permission to work on something that’s just for me . . . a little motivational treat. Currently, I’m addicted to working with encaustic medium. There’s nothing quite like the joy that comes from working with beeswax and a blowtorch. Magic.

8. Design*Sponge: Where do you like to shop for inspiration?

Cynthia Warren: Certainly the library and bookstores I mentioned before. I love exploring San Francisco’s China Town — their paper stores and hardware shops are amazing. For visual inspiration, I like to visit small boutiques like Tail of the Yak and Bell’occhio. It is always so inspiring to look at everything, study all the exquisite detail. I also really enjoy the process of searching for hidden treasures. I love combing through flea markets (Alameda), salvage places (Urban Ore, Omega, Berkeley Outlet, The Depot for Creative Reuse), estate sales and thrift/antique stores (there are so many in the East Bay) . . . one of my absolute favorites is Mixed Pickles Antiques. I live within walking distance, which is wonderful, but also a little dangerous : )

9. Design*Sponge: If you could peek inside the studio/toolbox of any designer/artist/craftsperson, whose would it be and why?

Cynthia Warren: Wow, it’s hard to pick just one. Two of my graphic design heroes are Paul Rand and Michael Schwab. They are my definition of true graphic artists, both with an impressive range of traditional skills and work that continues to stand the test of time. I would love to look through their sketchbooks and see their process.

On a more personal note, I’ve always wanted to see the home and studio of Frida Kahlo. I have been absolutely fascinated by her for years. More than her paintings, I find it is Frida, herself, who captivates me. I have a small dining nook in my home that we call the Frida Room, and it has become a shrine room and my favorite place in the house. I will definitely make a pilgrimage to Mexico City at some point.

10. Design*Sponge: If you could make a master mix-tape of music that is inspiring you at the moment, what would it include?

Cynthia Warren: I love music, ALL kinds, and pretty much have it playing all the time in my studio. My choices of the moment are very influenced by what I’m working on at the time. I tend to naturally create a soundtrack for each project, selecting music that creates a particular mood, atmosphere and energy. I love listening to it over and over again as I work, until the project is finished. It allows me to disappear into a project and creates a sense of timelessness.

Currently I’m listening to:

Volver — Estrella Morente

Cucurrucucu Paloma — Caetano Veloso

Heces — Susana Baca

J****a Pero Contenta — Buika

Eu sei que vou te amar — Bebo & Cigala

La Traiettorie Delle Mongolfiere — Gianmaria Testa

Siempre Me Quedará — Bebe

Call Waiting — Zap Mama

Suggested For You


  • Wow…I’m a writer and I’ve always had a secret love for graphic design…but this is beyond wonderful career, more working with the hands than the computer. And I like the idea about networking through the side jobs taken to make ends meet, something I need to think about. Maybe I need to work in a yarn shop or fabric shop, no?

  • she’s in my old ‘hood! love her work, and am totally inspired by the same berkeley spots she mentioned. especially moe’s bookstore. and her studio? swoon. thanks for featuring her!

  • This was a fantastic post. Cynthia Warren’s designs are so great, and it’s inspiring to note that she’s been self-employed for 20years. Thank you

  • Fantastic post Ginny! I love the images of Cynthia’s studio (oh, that printing press!) and enjoyed reading her tips for combating creative blocks.

  • great interview, she is really inspiring. books are my first stop for inspiration, awesome to see other artists/designers find print important too.

  • WHAT a great interview. I really appreciate the emphasis on hard work, the fact that helpful mentors can come from the least expected places (retail job) and that inspiration can come from cleaning. How refreshing and inspiring!

  • Another excellent interview. I like so much those articles ! It’s interesting to see how they work, where, what decoration they need to feel inspired, what object they like…

    But Dear Design*Sponge, I HATE the adds that appear in my rss reader when openning your articles. At the beginning it wasn’t the case.

  • Like the others who have posted here, I loved this interview with Cynthia. I was fascinated with everything she said, especially what inspires her and helps get her through creative block.

    One question for Cynthia: I am a woodworker and was fascinated with the old tools hanging on the pegboard. Can you share their story?

  • Great intereview. Funnily enough, I also get over creative block with cleaning but didn’t make the connection until Cynthia mentioned it. I love getting a sneak peak in the designer’s workshop. It would interesting to ask them to describe their typicaly day as well in these types of intereviews as I am curious how they spend their time between work, life, etc.

  • Cynthia is one of my absolute favorite artists/designers. I’ve adored her work since before I knew it was hers, and loved your post about her in 2010! Thanks for the update.

    ALSO: where can I get one of those Stop! Think! … posters??? Oh man, I want that.

  • Great interview. Funnily enough, I also get over creative block with cleaning but didn’t make the connection until Cynthia mentioned it. I love getting a sneak peak in the designer’s workshop. It would interesting to ask them to describe their typicaly day as well in these types of intereviews as I am curious how they spend their time between work, life, etc.

  • I love this studio tour, it inspires me to get back into multiple art forms. Where can I get the stop! think! poster? I need it…

  • Very Interesting interview. This is a woman I would love to have coffee with. Introverts who spend hours of time in their studios have so much to say—hours of time deep in contemplation will bring some great insight. I, too, will clean to open up a creative block. So much I could relate to here.

  • Great interview! I am totally inspired by Cynthia’s work & studio. Wonderful advice too!

  • Thank you all for your amazing and encouraging comments!!!!
    It means the world to me!
    I’m also completely inspired to open an Etsy shop and start selling “Stop! Think!” posters : )
    Please stay tuned…

  • I second everything in the other comments. I am so inspired. Cynthia has many ideas that will energize my own personal work. Love her color palate, too.

  • What a wonderful and authentic interview. I also love the “stop, think” poster and all the wisdom that Cynthia doles out. And – on the Frida note – whenever you make it to Mexico City Cynthia check out the Dolores Olmeda museum (this may not be the correct spelling). Dolores was an ex-lover of Diego’s. Her “museum” (basically her estate) houses 12 original Frida paintings! Or it did when I went. Kind of the bitter irony, that one of Diego’s lovers would have so much of her work

  • This was a wonderful and well crafted interview. I am thrilled to see Cynthia’s work getting the coverage it deserves. She is indeed a very special talent and it never ceases to amaze me how she pulls all of those ideas together from so many different sources? Thanks again for a wonderful interview with this very special artist.

  • Cynthia, thank you for all the lovely, imaginative and fun designs. Catching a glimpse of your toolbox brings me such pleasure and inspiration.

  • Excellent interview Cynthia; the tool-box really comes home. The creativity you have started at an amazingly young age- that is clear in my memory. Your world travel experience and independence, in my opinion, largely strengthened your drive and view of art, and for that matter, life. Well done.

  • Wow, Cynthia, I’m so glad I checked D*S today, running late so I almost missed it. Great article! I love this and love that I can get in touch with you. Want to see your encaustic projects, been trying (and failing) at it. Can you email me and maybe we can set up a visit? jessica@brushstrokestudio.com

  • Great to see that you are still as talented and dedicated as you were when you first started out and now successful too. Beautiful work that I much admire. Discovered a little hand made box, hand typographed you must have made for me 25 years ago the other day – still lovely.