Creating Visually Compelling Quotes

Todd Chandler. Todd has a gift: the man finds exceptional words from others and brings them to life with his daily visual quotes blog, Observation Paper. As someone with no design skills whatsoever, I’m consistently in awe of his creativity and willingness to improve at his craft. Here’s a first hand look at how Todd approaches and improves daily at his artful endeavor…Note: While I’m away this week toiling away in the desert (read: I’m working and playing in Las Vegas) I’ve asked a few friends to step in and take over for me. Today’s guest is

My grandfather believed that every day you should be better than the day before. For a while, he wore that philosophy proudly like a new shirt you’re sure people will notice and ask where you got it. When people asked him, “Bill, how you doing?” He would answer, “Better” meaning he was better today than he was yesterday. His trial of sharing this optimistic outlook gradually ended as he grew weary of having to repeatedly explain that he hadn’t been sick or recovering from surgery.

Last fall, Michael Schechter challenged me to become better by creating a Tumblr account to share daily quotes. I’m pretty sure his dare was merely an attempt to get one more follower for his Tumblr blog, Smarter Than I Am, but I was okay with that because I liked what he was doing. It was different. His quote of the day didn’t follow the traditional deep-thoughts-from-famous-dead-people format. They were timely, relevant quotes from stuff he was currently reading.

I’m an information junkie, and the task of finding something worth sharing every day appealed to me. So on Thanksgiving Day, I took the plunge and posted my first quote on Tumblr. I didn’t want to just copy Michael’s format directly, so I looked for a way to make it my own. By day, I create learning materials, and I’m constantly seeking ways to package information in more compelling ways. That interest drove me to play with methods to make my quotes more visually appealing. After posting 185 visual quotes, here are five lessons I’ve learned.


“Garbage in, garbage out” was an early obstacle. I was not absorbing enough high end content to source a steady stream of thought-provoking quotes, so I had to up my daily information consumption in both quality and quantity. Plenty of “Zen gurus” claim we are drowning in information and recommend cutting back on such daily infusions, but I benchmarked against the ultimate old-schooler, Warren Buffett. I figured if he still reads six newspapers a day, surely I can commit to few more blogs and podcasts.

Those two media are my biggest sources for quotes while books, newspapers, magazines, movies, and workshops round out the rest. I capture quotes in Simplenote and nvALT that sync in a master note across my iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Placing new quotes at the top along with the author and a link to the source makes editing easier when I go to create the posts.


I focus my design on two elements: words and images. With typography there are only a few variables (font, size, color, spacing, and layout), but they can be combined into infinite combinations like the menu items at Chipotle. I’ve discovered two rules to live by:

  1. Don’t over do variation. A good guideline is no more than three variations of any factor – no more than three different fonts, no more than three different sizes, no more than three different colors. Use variation to emphasize key words or points; too much variation creates visual clutter and weakens the emphasis.
  2. Find the natural rhythm of the quote. Group words together around complete thoughts and repetitive phrases. This “Unique needs no modifier” quote by George Carlin illustrates strong natural rhythm.

Images include the background, graphics, and pictures. Here are four options that have worked for me:

  1. Find a complimentary photo that can completely fill the screen and place the quote over the top of it. This photo of a pink sky and different plants captured the Dr. Seuss saying perfectly, and these colorful walls provided a dramatic way to highlight Merlin Mann’s comment. I start most image searches using Viewfinder because I like how easy it is to download the photo and to copy the attribution.
  2. Display a shot of the author along with the quote. You can either frame the author as I did with this Stephen Tobolowsky quote or frame the quote itself like this Bill Bryson quote.
  3. Add an illustration or chart to reinforce the quote. On Horace Dediu’s comment, I created a goofy little chart to illustrate his point, and I drew a timeline to reinforce Maya Angelou’s message.
  4. Simply pick the appropriate background if the quote is lengthy or images detract from the words. The notebook background matched with this statement about training and education, while the clean white background reinforced this message about simplicity.


I’m still experimenting, but I’m starting to fall into a groove of three main tools: doodling in Noteshelf (a drawing/notetaking iPad app), playing with typography in Keynote, and adding text to pictures in Pixelmator. Here are three variations of the same quote showing the distinctions.

Editor’s note: You’ll be seeing more of this quote here on the blog soon.


Ira Glass has an encouraging video for beginning storytellers (hat tip to Erin Feldman) where he says at the start of your creative journey, your level of taste is really good, but the quality of your work isn’t. And the solution is “to do a lot of work. Do a hugh volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline, so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story.” That constant practice closes the gap and raises the quality of your work to meet your level of ambition.

In preparing for this post, I went back and reviewed my 6 months of quotes. Ira’s right. The ratio of crap to quality was higher at the beginning, and while I still crank out occasional crap, it’s becoming less frequent. For me, what started out as a curious little whim, has turned into a habit of constant improvement. My grandpa would be proud to see me better today than 185 quotes ago, and this daily production has whet my appetite to continue publishing as practice. The next phase being to layer in bigger creative endeavors.

What constant practices have you found helpful? What have you learned from them? Any new ones you would like to begin?

See all of Todd’s quotes at Observation Paper and be sure to follow him on Twitter.

10 Responses to Creating Visually Compelling Quotes

  1. Eek! I should have visited earlier. I didn’t know I was receiving a hat tip. :) @trchandler:twitter 

    Anyway, I love the way you integrate visuals and words. It must be the artist and the writer in me. Maybe we could talk about it more at some point.

  2. Erin, thanks. I sure have fun playing around with the visuals. I realized I enjoy this habit more if I view it as a series of practices and experiments as opposed to creating content; it takes a lot of the pressure off. I’d love to talk about it anytime you like.

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