“Maybe designing it helped clarify what it should be.”

O+A Graphic Designer Paulina McFarland is explaining how coming up with options for a book cover helped define what the book—and the project the book was about—would become. The book, Food for Thought Truck, will be published late next year and the project, also Food for Thought Truck, is currently underway at O+A’s San Francisco office, but exactly what this project was to be, what its spirit was, didn’t come into focus until Paulina started designing a preliminary book cover.

Food for Thought Truck is a mobile design studio that will go on the road this Fall to partner with communities around California on local, small-scale design projects. It’s every designer’s dream road trip, and for the book, Paulina initially envisioned a mechanic’s manual:

“We always have the emotion, we always have the beautiful design,” she says, “but we wanted to show what the designers do in order to get there. We wanted to show the architecture, we wanted to show the guts and the drawings. So that was our entry point—make it very minimalist and sparse. Like a technical book, but interspersed with these natural and organic sketches.”

Okay, that’s what she initially envisioned, but at O+A design is always a moving target, and Paulina knows to have alternatives in reserve. “Every blog on how to be a successful designer says, ‘Show the client 3 options. Don’t show them 5. Don’t show them 10.’ But I’ve been at it for so many years I guess it’s just going to be like that. There’s this book, The Scar by China Mieville, and it’s a voyage across this ocean. People are trying to get to a place where they will multiply and their selves will lead multiple lives and all the possibilities will play themselves out.”

Every design by Paulina leads multiple lives. Since she joined O+A in 2016 she has been an inexhaustible source of visual invention. Christmas cards, client presentations, wall graphics, magazine illustrations, book design—all of it presented as a multi-course meal, a buffet of delicious options from which project managers and editors must choose.

For Food for Thought Truck Paulina went so far as to design an alphabet. “I was looking for inspiration, and I found this alphabet on line and started using it. But then I felt really cheap using it. I usually feel really dirty using other people’s design.  I want it to be ours!” Taking the inspiration as a jumping off point, Paulina gave each letter a uniquely O+A spin on architectural playfulness and aesthetic provocation.

Combined with a series of original icons and road-inspired abstractions, she arrived at a “vocabulary” that will carry the truck through every adventure. “We’re going to create these shapes out of magnet—I’m not really sure what the material is, but it’s like a car magnet . We’re going to cut these shapes out and create collages. So different places we go will have different graphics. It’s called a dynamic logo. It’s a really dynamic identity. The look will be consistent, but the actual hieroglyphs will be different.”

Is Paulina happy with Food for Thought Truck’s dynamic identity? Her answer starts modestly: “I think where it stands now… I think we’re really…” And then as if realizing she has just spent a week devising hieroglyphs, she laughs.  “It’s AWESOME!” she cries.