Encounters and connections are a fascinating art. I still find it hard to believe that Tyler Johnson and Flávia Sanches met in line while at the DMV, during a point in their lives when neither spoke the same language, yet now are married and run one of my favorite design studios, Nomad Ink. Based in Brazil, their style is all their own with a handmade touch, and I’m most drawn to their nomadic tendencies that take them around the world researching, recording and teaching design in a cross-cultural context. Somehow, by a chance encounter and connection on the internet (after posting a Boarding Pass with mutual friend/contact, Eliza Jane Curtis) I was lucky enough to be connected with Tyler and Flàvia about a year and a half ago, and we’ve been having inspiring conversations ever since. Since that first encounter I’ve been dying to see what they would do with their Boarding Pass responses, and I’m wowed beyond belief with the thought, inspiration and heart behind the work in today’s post. Mille mercis, Tyler and Flàvia!

{Tyler and Flàvia loosely inspired by Man Ray}

{left: gift from Turkish calligrapher; right: Nomad Ink logo}

home town:

TJ (Tyler Johnson): Washington, D.C., USA (we left [for] San Francisco when I was 2, I did not have much say in that decision).

{non-verbal communication postcard}

FS (Flávia Sanches): I was born (by “accident” [while] my parents were traveling), in a town named Arapongas (it is a bird’s name in Brazil and also means “the investigator” – I relate myself with an investigator). In fact I used to live in a tiny town, Ivatuba (in Tupi Guarani, the language of the BR native Indians, it means “the big river”). This city was formed mainly by people with Italian decent, including myself (on my mother’s side). Then when I was 12, I moved to a bigger city called Maringa, in the state of Paraná.

{and the rest is about $}

where you live now:
TJ: Curitiba, Brazil and the information super highway (love this silly/dated phrase).
{GOT MERZ design event in Curitiba, Brazil. GOT refers to “Glorification of Tendencies,” or trends, and MERZ is a tribute to the Dada artist, Kurt Schwitters.}

FS: Currently I live in Curitiba, southern Brazil. To tell you the truth, I always felt like a nomad, I never felt that I “belonged” somewhere. This used to be kind of weird, but now I think that “your city is where you live.” I carry with me a little bit of everywhere I lived in: from Ivatuba, the love for fresh food, animals and trees and that I don’t like tiny towns. From Maringa, my passion for the sun and also that family can teach you more than you imagine. From Curitiba, being alone is totally OK. I also lived in Washington DC and in Italy, and from these places, respectively, I learned that being punctual is important, and from Italy, well, life can (more or less) function in a big crazy beautiful mess!

{art inspired by Chile}

last trip taken:
TJ: Maringá Brazil, visiting family for Carnival. How about 2010? Chile, Maringá, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Xanxerê, USA, Argentina.
FS: 2010 / Fev. Chile and in August we went to US on a 5 week road trip from Atlanta to San Francisco, visiting all the states in between.

{imagery made from Asian inspiration}

next trip on deck:
TJ: TBD…. perhaps Europe again…

{Duncan Avery at the Type Museum in London}

FS: Not sure yet, but I would say Portugal and Spain.

one place you would go back to again and again:
TJ: just one? Atlanta and Maringá for Family, I miss DC, NYC, would like to get to know San Francisco better, I have an aunt there. Flávia and I enjoyed Perugia, Italy. But I am in the head space of knowing new places.

{wood woman}

FS: Istanbul (Bosphorus is the most intriguing river from all the famous “river cities” I have visited – I like rivers a lot, they are melancholic), Greece (off season please), Italy (Umbria and Tuscany), Chile (wonderful, volcanoes, lakes and the driest desert on earth, the Atacama. Chile, the most beautiful blue I ever saw, there is nothing like that sky), Venice for non tourists (we lived there for 3 months so we have a different relationship with the city: Venice, beyond San Marco Square), and Hong Kong (the wild urban Island).

{locals in Venice}

{Condo parking Venice parking lot}

place you’d most likely recommend a friend go visit:
TJ: Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Angkor temples in Cambodia. Jatujak market in Bangkok. Essaouira Morocco. Anywhere in Brazil.

{the perfect dessert, Thailand}

FS: All that above and here in Brazil I would suggest, Olinda, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo (for more urban people), Paraty, João Pessoa, Ouro Preto, Tiradentes, Florianopolis, Amazon, if you have a chance (for wildlife lovers), Bonito and Pantanal, getting to know the Atlantic Rainforest (there is nothing like it). Brazil is a country with different music, food and its people, from North to South, we just have the language and the love for life in common.

{Brazilian bird plates by Cerâmica Cotidiano}

{Sanches Family remix}

preferred method of transportation:
TJ: Tuk Tuk in Thailand, Cross country road trip in USA, Water Taxi in Venice. Train in Europe. Metro. Feet don’t fail me now!

{ASIA 2008 Design Tour Video by Nomad Ink}

FS: Metro and trains, I like the most.

{birds of terror}

place you’ve never been but dying to go:
TJ: Russia. Japan. Easter Island. Egypt. Cuba. Portland, World Heritage Sites, Australia. More of Africa (been to Morocco 2 times) is that too many?

{voice of the people workshop}

FS: Japan, Portugal, somewhere in Africa.

{Ronald McDonald, Thailand}

place you’d never go back:
TJ: Tuba City, New Mexico (really depressing, sorry Tuba City). Hoover Dam (47.5 C, 117.5 F, what!!!). If I were ever to return to Las Vegas it would be with my uncle George.

FS: I would not say that I would never go back to Belgium or Switzerland, but I was bored there. I like diversity in color, skin complexity, smells… It seems to me that in Switzerland and in Belgium everybody was just the same, all blond, tall and beautiful and everything is just perfect. I am sure that if I had a local friend with us, the trip could have been much more interesting. So, that is why I said I would never say “I will never go back”. I just loved all my travels.

{Asia sketches}

most memorable trip in 2 sentences or less:
TJ: Five months in Europe (with Turkey) researching design, 2 months in Asia researching design, 10 days in Chile drinking wine (and climbing a volcano!), 5 weeks on the road in the USA. Each of those trips were very special for me.

{Forbidden City}

FS: On our way back from our trip to China, we planned to stay in Italy for 10 days before heading back to Brazil. For the very first time, everything was so familiar to me in Italy after China… aaaah the cultural shock, love it, we look everything into a different perspective! Thanks, China.

{Asian inspired clouds}

how do you prepare for a trip?
TJ: The passport in good order is a good place to start. Then I select a sketchbook and a book to fit the scale/duration/emotion of the journey. I try to start and finish one on each trip. Many of our travels have involved visual arts/graphic design research projects. So we usually talk to schools or design events, and line up a speech for when we get back.

{assorted cross-cultural design workshops}

FS: I pack light and get the camera ready, I also make sure to bring some medicine, I have headaches sometimes from lack of sleep. I also like to read books about the places where I am going to, not only “travel books.” Last trip to Chile I read Neruda’s Memoir and when I was there I visited his house in Valparaiso, it was magical. Finished the book on the foot of the Vila Rica’s volcano. Reading a book about the place by a native writer, always makes me feel even more connected with the place.

{Type books used for podcast intro}

TJ: Keying off what Flávia said, in 1999, when my train rolled into Barcelona, I was just finishing with George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, it really sheds a new light on your perspective of the place.

{Europe museum stubs}

{Pinos fruitstand in Venice}

how do you record your travels when you’re traveling?
TJ: I live by the pen, Flávia by the lens. So we have both sides covered. We wander in new places, amazing artists and designers, just magically appear from the woodwork. Once our heads are full, we sit and draw at unknown cafes, order drinks we have never heard of, and get restaurant recommendations from silver haired gentleman (they know the best places).

{Roadmap 2020 sketches}

{just squares}

FS: Photography.

{security in Greece}

what is your favorite thing to photograph in a new place?
TJ: My photos are not technically astounding; more of a capture the thing that interested me. People, architecture, food. I love to draw, what I see and hear, kind of like an investigative journalism with a pen, where the content is already there, its just a matter of overhearing a bit here, or catching a fleeting moment there. It was a great insight for me, learning about Paul Davis’s work (EYE magazine 55 vol.14 Spring 2005) who has built a career on this kind of work. Beautiful illustration does not mean much to me, if it is not saying anything. I am forever interested in content, context as well as form. But if you take those other 2 away, form, just falls flat on its face. While at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, I overheard a 6 year old say, “this is better than PlayStation.” His older brother said, “I can’t believe you just said that.” I am creative, but that’s just genius. The content is out there, you just have to train your mind to catch those moments.

{WTF in Venice}

FS: Architecture, people, art, food, cultural insights, cultural shocks, WTF pictures, “things we don’t do back home,” or “they do it differently, hmmm how interesting,” street signage, design.

{streetfilms signs}

on an average, how many pictures to you take on a trip?
TJ: Thousands. with the digital cameras nowadays, we just fire away. In 2008, we took a 2 month trip to Asia. 1 month in China with the AIGA XCD (cross cultural design), and a month solo in Thailand and Cambodia. Between the two of us, we took 10,000 photos. That’s 166 per day. I was downloading photos constantly! That trip was so intense, that my sketchbook was relatively unloved. Quick drawings, quick drawings. As our tour guide, Hong Kong Sam said “no time for pee, hurry, lets go, lets go!” We got to put him on the cover of our friend Ericson’s Magazine ABCDesign. The journey(s) feed our work.

{AIGA XCD China poster and t-shirt}

{Hong Kong Sam and the magazine cover he inspired}

FS: 1000 / my record on film, and 5000 / digital.

{tree in southern China}

what’s in your “designer travel kit” ?
TJ: 100% of the time, I am armed with assorted pens, pencils, calligraphic instruments, and a sketchbook. My largest is 3 feet by 1.5 foot, the smallest, dozens of moleskines. I love my sketchbooks, and have many talented friends (and Flávia) who sometimes make them for me. Each one is different. They are a part of who I am.

{Tyler drawing in Venice}

FS: My Nikon D90 / I used to shoot film but more recently I got a digital one.

{Europa ’05 Project – ruins in Rome + other people’s bags}

what do you do after a trip? how long after a trip does this happen?
TJ: It really varies on the project. For Europa ‘05, we built an online project, to show what we learned. That material was presented at NDesign Brasilia, to 1,400 Brazilian design students. We really did not understand the format at that moment, or how these trips would affect our professional lives. I would say the project was launched about month after getting back to the studio. The Europe project was like a test pilot. In 2008, things were more serious. We went into battle mode, presenting our Asian design research to 5,000 designers in Argentina at TMDG. That was intense.

{Asian design tour presentation at TMDG Argentina}

FS: We always prepare a site, mainly about design and cultural insights. It usually happens 2 to 3 weeks after the trip.

{assorted lettering}

favorite souvenir/thing to bring back?
TJ: Anything that strikes our fancy, something native, something cultural. Like in Bangkok, some designers gave us a pack of chewing gum. They warned us, “don’t eat it OK! It tastes terrible, but just to look at.” We buy local art equipment, stamps, books, printed ephemera, t-shirts, anything that we identify with. In Hong Kong I bought a backpack that looks like a shark. People come up to you on the street when you wear that thing… it’s not everyday that you want all that attention. I have a mask that I bought in Thailand, made in Indonesia, to look African… WTF? I have a 14 sided necklace from Morocco, that was the first thing Flávia noticed about me. We met at a driving school on a Saturday morning in DC. She took one look at the necklace, and said, this guy looks open minded. We did not speak the same language at the time, but we worked things out. She borrowed a pen from me, and the rest is history. (It was a crappy little Bic pen, and I asked for it back! Oh the shame! But I did get her number ;) ).

{14 sided necklace}

FS: My favorite souvenir was a bracelet from a trip to Buenos Aires (but it is actually from Peru, bought from the artist, from the street fair). Usually I like buying local, or native, souvenirs, bought from the artists, when it is possible. Last time we were in the USA during our road trip, and it was very difficult to find something that was made by the locals (even in Colorado); everything was made in China, it was upsetting. After have bought Andy Warhol finger puppets “made in China” (Warhol would have loved to know about his Chinese puppets being sold in US) at the Museum of Modern Art in Atlanta. We managed to buy 2 finger puppets in Colorado from, again, Peru (at least it is still inside the Americas), but we had a very interesting conversation with the store owner about this topic “supporting the local artists.” Hmmm, I have to go to Peru.

{with a Venetian mask maker}

I also have to say here that in New Mexico they do have beautiful art and also in New Orleans we found a sign painting shop called Mystic Blue Signs, which was DELICIOUS, we spent maybe 2 hours trading information about lettering and we totally forgot to buy something from there – we can not forgive ourselves for that… The work there was great. Also need to say, we bought a gorgeous cut leather piece, a traditional Chinese shadow puppet, in Beijing, from a local dealer. I also got an incredible Thai puppet at the local market, I would say, I like puppets. In Thailand we went to a traditional puppet theater, which I recommend.

{bird on my porch}

what it is about travel that helps you to define your vision of the world?
TJ: I grew up in a house, that was full of things from all over the world. A Nigerian thumb piano, a 2 meter tall Indonesian god of transportation, scrolls with hieroglyphs from Egypt, just tons of crazy stuff. It obviously affected how I see the world. My parents sold their house in 2005 or so, and they have been living all over the world since then. Right now they are in Berlin, and my Brother lives in Vietnam. Needless to say, we don’t have Sunday supper together too frequently, unless it’s via Skype.

I think that by traveling, we get to see how the other lives, and by understanding the other, we are getting closer to understanding ourselves. I have been teaching online for 3 years in San Francisco, and my students come from all over the world. The way someone from say, USA/Europe/Asia/Middle East, sees design (as well as life), are fundamentally different. It’s these differences that make life rich. Cultural Diversity. I feel blessed to have been able to spend these last 8 years in Brazil, and learn to see the world in a different manner. Not just design, but how we live, eat, work, interact. How we relate to our fellow human beings. The world is a big place. Flávia is crazy about a quote by Alexander Girard: “the whole world is your backyard.” It was a privilege to visit the Girard Wing at the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sharing that experience with Flávia and my dad. That was special.

{Typographic installation at Wonka Bar}

FS: I think traveling has helped me to understand myself, has disarmed preconceived notions and concepts. I have learned that there are things not meant to be understood, it is just like when I was in anthropology classes and my teacher, Mr. Ari, used to say “the anthropologist has to learn not to judge.” I understand that by traveling. Also, the most important for me, it has helped me to understand my own culture and my own people, it “removed the curtain” on my country. For all that, I am forever thankful to every single place I have been so far.


Countries Visited: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Czech Republic, England, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Macau, Morocco, Norway, Paraguay, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, Uruguay, USA, 30 and counting…

Boarding Pass
is a weekly column exploring the creative ways people travel.


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