Case Study: Self-initiated design project connects readers with Canada's largest public library system

Case Study by Noah Ortmann RGD 


The Toronto Library Passport was an idea that gained traction on social media, and was taken to the next level through public interest. 


Project Background

The concept started after I designed a “Toronto Library Passport” for my girlfriend (an avid reader) as a birthday gift. Seven months later, I tweeted a mockup of the Passport to the Toronto Public Library, thinking they might be interested in seeing my concept. They re-tweeted my mockup to their 40,000 followers and I was quickly receiving positive feedback and questions about how and where to get one. The idea picked up further steam on the Toronto subreddit, and the story was covered by The National Post, BlogTO and the Torontoist.



The Toronto Library Passport was designed to encourage people to be tourists in their own city – to explore and discover a place you might already be familiar with and see it in a new light. It was heartening to see so many people respond to the idea and I was excited to bring the concept to reality, produce the books and make them available to the public.


My target audience was city explorers and bookworms in Toronto – people already acquainted with the library system as well as people looking for an entry point to start exploring. 




In developing the concept, I did extensive visual research with visits to book and stationery stores. I thought about print production, sizing, paper, covers, binding and other elements that could support the design. Initial concepts, ideas and layouts were recorded in a notebook. I worked with a printer to run through possibilities and adjusted the design accordingly.


During the design process for the second, current version, I drew upon my experiences with producing the original and tried to make improvements. For example, the first version of the Passport was the size of a small notebook – it was a larger package to ship and I had concerns it might be bent to fit into smaller mailboxes. I made the latest version pocket-sized – better for carrying and shipping and more appropriate to the format of a passport. I took inspiration from currency and security features in passports and applied patterns and textures to add visual interest and further support the passport concept.


To bring the idea to market, I designed and developed an online store and negotiated with retailers who were interested in carrying the Passport. Packaging, fulfilling orders and shipping logistics presented new challenges. I learned as I went. 


Many of the design decisions for the Passport were determined by functional considerations: How were people going to use it? How would they get it? Some of the questions I had to consider included:

  • How much will the book weigh?
  • How big will it be?
  • What envelopes can I use for shipping?
  • How much will it cost to produce?
  • How much will I sell it for (and what’s fair)?
  • How much will shipping cost?
  • How will I ship large orders?
  • What binding is appropriate?
  • How durable will the book and its cover be?
  • What paper stock is appropriate to write on?


For aspects of the project that weren’t design-related (shipping, fulfillment, pricing, postage, time management, working with suppliers), I approached them in much the same way as starting a design project. I began with research and gathered as much information as possible. I formulated the information to come to an informed decision. I didn’t get everything right the first time, but these were opportunities to learn and make adjustments for the next time.



As the Toronto Public Library was the subject of this project and not the client, I made sure the Passport didn’t contain any copyrighted material from the library – logos, images or content. I wasn’t trying to pass it off as affiliated with the Library or the City of Toronto. For example, I named it the “Toronto Library Passport” as opposed to the “Toronto Public Library Passport.”


With a self-initiated project, there is no set structure to rely on – you have to build it as you go. As designers, restraints are often given to us from a client or a manager. Without those, it can be overwhelming. You're looking at a big shapeless problem and trying to find a starting point. I relied on the design process to get started – I began researching and working the problem out on paper, proceeding with layout design and then everything fell into place around that. 



In creating the Toronto Library Passport, I wanted to do justice to the interest and excitement I initially received about the idea – I had found a group who were passionate about the City of Toronto and its libraries. I had an opportunity to put something engaging out into the real world and help people see the city and its libraries in a new way. 


Around the same time that I made the Passport available to the public, a Toronto artist published a colouring book featuring all the Toronto Library branches. I think the timing worked for everyone's benefit - both projects boosted Toronto's library system.



This project has allowed me to wear many hats. In addition to designing the Passport, I’ve overseen production, developed an online store, spread the word through social media and given television and radio interviews. For many of these roles, I’ve had to step outside of my comfort zone.


Receiving feedback has been one of my favourite aspects of this project. I've received emails, tweets and Instagram posts from people interacting with the Passport. A few people told me about their plans to visit all the branches – the Passport came along just at the right time and either encouraged them to start or restart their journeys. The Passport is often purchased as a gift, which is true to its original spirit.


The first edition had a run of 1,000, which sold out, and I'm currently on another run of 1,000 with the second edition.

The Passport can be purchased at, and is currently being sold by two Toronto retailers:


The Spacing Store
401 Richmond St. W.


Page and Panel: The TCAF Shop
Toronto Reference Library
789 Yonge Street





1. Embrace creative freedom, but be willing to put in the work. 

As designers (especially those starting out), we’re often looking for creative freedom in our work. Starting a self-initiated or side project gives you a chance to use your creativity, learn new skills and create your own opportunities. The biggest challenge is actually putting in the work – evenings, weekends or carving out time during the day. There will be times when you lose motivation and times when you mess up. If you’re passionate about the project, your passion will help drive you forward. 


2. Establish a structure. 

If I were to do it again, I’d try to be more rigid with deadlines and structure. When those are in place, you’re less likely to get stuck in your own head – a self-directed project has no end unless you set one.


3. Don't be afraid to put yourself out there.  

Taking a project from start to finish, seeing it out in the world and receiving positive feedback is incredibly rewarding. Not everyone will appreciate it – all it takes is a few seconds for someone to dismiss your work or make a comment, but the good outweighs the bad. I wasn’t a big social media user before this, but it’s an essential tool to get your work out there and gauge interest. Without my initial tweet to the library, none of this would have happened.