How do you draw inspiration from the past without slavishly mimicking it? We put the question to Shawn Hazen of Hazen Creative, who seems to have struck the perfect balance.

Hazen is behind the truly inspirational online archives Book Worship, a collection of graphically interesting, mid-century paperback book covers, and Typophonic, typographically driven album art from decades past. His own work shows a tremendous sensitivity to both graphic and typographic ideas from the past, but is decidedly au courant—you’ll find no retro-kitsch here.

For example, his branding and identity design work for SPUR, an urbanist organization in San Francisco, draws from the International Style. “My client there is someone I worked with at Dwell and both brands have a similar modernist sensibility. Since SPUR needs to communicate often complex ideas—and get people interested in them—we need a very clear but bold look.”

A similar typographic strategy is found in his book design for The Japanese House Reinvented. “My approach to books, especially architecture books, owes a huge debt to those who’ve come before me.

If you want a crash course in designing with a grid, just grab two or three architecture books from the ’60s or ’70s. It’s so inspiring—the rigidity of the grid unleashes such creative uses of space. I love it.

I also love employing rules and minimal elements to help structure the information and create a system that actually frees you up to vary things elsewhere. ”

But do vintage designs directly influence the process? “Usually, I look at an old piece of design and try to figure out what drove the solution and how they went about getting there. That M.O. in itself becomes an influence. Maybe their idea of a strict grid with just one thing knocked off it to cause tension is an idea I could apply. Or a production technique like overprinting that they embraced because it was one of the only ‘tricks’ that print limitations would allow. Every time I see a rakishly tilted bit of mid-century type I think, ‘I gotta do some angled type next chance I get!’ So there’s sort of a body of past approaches and solutions that can come in handy when tackling new problems.”

Logotypes are another area where Hazen’s abundance analysis of history is in play. For TON (The Other Ninety-Five, a soon-to-be-unveiled innovative architecture/design consultancy), the clients wanted “a touch of ‘capital M’ Modern—a nod to classic Modern masters like George Nelson and the Eames.”

His clever nest of C’s for photographer Candice C. Cusic feels quite Paul Rand-esque. “The influence of the classic designers are evident here—the logo with a clever twist is something that the old schoolers dreamt up, and of course it’s still important today. But I try to keep things pure, like this one: just clean forms without embellishment. I also have a personal rule (or goal?) when using type in a logo: no matter how abstract the letter gets, it still has to make a good letter. It can’t be so subtle or twisted that if extracted, it wouldn’t be typographically sound.”