The Daily Heller: Typographic Eavesdropping
Mark Addison Smith is an artist, graphic designer and professor at The City College of New York who calls himself a “typographic storyteller” because he is equally passionate about the marriage of typography and language—specifically, hand-rendered typography and spoken language.
In a drawing series called You Look Like The Right Type, Smith has been eavesdropping on strangers (as most New Yorkers do) and drawing their words continuously, every single day, for 11 years. He began sketching strangers’ voices in Chicago in 2008, and today his archive contains over 5,000 overheard drawings.
Given the challenge of social distancing, he is now seeking out strangers through Zoom and turning their quotes into visual narratives of life in isolation. Thus far, he has interviewed a Broadway lead, a nursing home patient in Indiana, a parking attendant in Spain, a doula in Colorado, a Syrian refugee in Sweden, a single parent in Germany, and numerous others. The ironic silver lining: In quarantine, Smith says he has been drawing other people’s words more than ever before.
We recently talked about his love affair with words and how they look.
What is your long-term plan since this has already been long term?
My initial goal was to do this for one year as a post–grad school exercise to keep my lettering skills active. At my one-year anniversary, I mentally extended my contract for another year. I was still fascinated by people’s words, the sneaky satisfaction of spying on people, and my learning curve with semiotics, intonation and lettering. This ongoing fascination drives my You Look Like The Right Type archive.
How did you adapt this when eavesdropping in subways was no longer possible?
In mid-March, as social distancing became more present and isolating-at-home was starting to look like a reality, the opportunities to gather quotes were rapidly diminishing. In desperation, I would quote telemarketers and customer-service reps from phone calls. I’d wait for someone to walk their dog and I would run to the window. I was quoting my husband left and right.
Near the end of March, a stranger commented on one of my Instagram posts that she was worried about how I was getting material during isolation. In a light-bulb moment, I sent her a direct message on Instagram and asked her if she would Zoom chat with me and provide me overheard dialogue for a drawing. She quickly and graciously agreed.
On a Sunday morning we talked, and I spent the day drawing—I didn’t just draw my requisite one drawing for the day, I drew many of her quotes. She provided me an abundance of words in such a dark time. By extending her voice of concern, my newfound stranger from Winnipeg, Canada, took me back to the origins of the project where I relied on serendipitous inspiration and language from strangers—like the Chicago cigarette smoker—to move my drawing impulses in a new direction.
I instantly began reaching out to others—specifically, strangers I admire on social media but never had the nerve to meet in real life. I’ve also been asking participants to set me up on “blind dates” where they might recommend the game to a friend, which has led to more amazing connections.
I’ve been categorizing my You Look Like The Right Type drawings as pre-pandemic and mid-pandemic because, now, our lens has radically shifted and it’s hard to hear any news without applying a global pandemic lens on top of it. The pre-pandemic quotes have an innocence to them; they aren’t grounded in this shared trauma. There is an unprecedented global suffering that is connecting us, and I felt it would have been disrespectful to my project to not capture the voices of strangers during this time.
These are overheard conversations. But in a sense you are drawing portraits of your subjects. Do you feel that you are trespassing on their space?
I don’t feel like I’m trespassing on people’s space in these newer isolation drawings. There’s a mutual consent because, when I invite a stranger to chat with me, I let them know that I’ll be turning their quotes into a set of drawings.
But, before I began virtually calling strangers, pre-pandemic, I would listen in and swipe an out-of-context quote from a conversation in passing. And, sure, sometimes I wrestle with trespassing on the speaker’s private conversation. Granted, I keep the standalone quotes anonymous, unless the speaker grants me permission to use their name. I try not to draw any material that is vexing to the speaker. Yes, the pre-pandemic, disembodied quotes are often plucked from a juicy conversation … but, stripped of their context, the reader isn’t privy to the details. For me, leaning upon the reader to fill in the juicy details—having them provide the moment before and the moment after reading an out-of-context, charged statement—is much more interesting a game than revealing the actual, contextual truth.
For the Zoom calls, I don’t video or audio record, as I want to stay true to the roots of my pre-pandemic drawings where I speedily type the words, verbatim, and use those direct quotes as a launching pad for a drawing. I feel like I’m sharing space with them and helping them tell their story. And, it’s as rich a feeling as I’ve felt. I schedule 20-minute conversations, but most of them have extended longer. I usually end up cutting off the conversation! These days, people are hungry for interaction, including me.
At the end of the day, all words are spoken in public and vanish into thin air. So, I would argue there’s a bit of fair use in grabbing onto them and turning them into a completely different form—a drawing, in my drawing style.
New Yorkers love to draw or document other people in New York. Why do you think this is?
From an archival perspective, there’s just so much happening in New York City that my inner file cabinet wants to document, organize, preserve and re-order all of the bits and pieces from the day and from their lives. So, documenting other people’s dialogue is part of this preservation.
But, You Look Like The Right Type isn’t exclusive to New York City, even though I live there. Sure, New Yorkers are unmistakably fascinating. But, so is the stranger in rural America. The series began in Chicago, and I’ve temporarily relocated here during the pandemic; so, Chicago has provided an origin and recentering for the archive. The virtual calls free me up to travel anywhere from my dining room table. And, I want to collect a diverse, global perspective of voices.
What are you trying to communicate through this work? Does the style of writing mean something to you in terms of the conversations you sketch?
The series is rooted in hand-drawn typography and language; so, for me, You Look Like The Right Type is a marriage between drawing the emotional intent behind the vocal idiosyncrasies and inflections of that which is spoken—specifically, what I overhear. It’s about the tone of the speaker and the messaging behind my hand.
I’m drawn to the emotional baggage that hand-drawn typography contains. If the letters are shaky and wobbly, for example, the words are received with a degree of uncertainty. It becomes an interesting design challenge to visually convey an audible tone of irony, sarcasm, indecision or surprise in opposition to the literal messaging behind the drawn words. My goal and challenge is to visualize the appropriate tone that the speaker intended … or to take just the right amount of artistic license to tweak their intonation in the drawing.
How has Zoom changed or enhanced what you do?
In New York City, I’ve had refreshing and memorable conversations with strangers on the subway … they sit next to you, close, and cut to the chase—and it’s never about the weather, but more pointed: Ahh, I see you have a suitcase, where did you travel? You’re holding a Playbill, what did you think about the acting? You’ve got a newspaper, what is wrong with the government? So, I think of my virtual chats as a set of subway doors opening, and in walks a fabulous stranger who sits next to me, and we chat until they arrive at their stop, and then they step off the subway car and the doors close, and we each quietly return to our day.
The virtual conversations have given me a wealth of material, a sense of structure, and a feeling of connection. They have made me even more present as an artist and a listener. They’re planned, they’re more deliberate. Pre-pandemic, I was on the hunt in the wild for the single, golden quote—a quote that answered three, maybe four, of the who, what, when, where, why, how questions of journalistic investigation. And, once I found my quote, I’d feel “off-duty” for the rest of the day.
Now, I feel like the journalist after a larger story, in which my drawings paint a character arc of life before, during and maybe even after isolation. Once the call starts, I’m hyper-focused on transcribing each and every word that the speaker says. I use the same day to draw the set of quotes that I’ve overheard. So, I’ve been spending the bulk of my days thinking about these strangers—caring for them, worrying about them, hoping that I uphold their trust and do justice to their story, hoping I recreate every word with exactitude. Just the other day, I drew 17 drawings—a record output for one day—from one stranger! The drawings keep me connected to the stranger—they are a permanent record of our connection and the act of drawing, in a sense, continues the conversation even after we hang up.
The Zoom conversations have given me a reason to get up early and on schedule in the morning, a reason to get showered and comb my hair, a reason to pretty up. I don’t wear sweatpants to the conversations; those are not allowed! The night before, I get excited about who I’m going to talk to the next day. On days that I don’t have a call scheduled or a stack of drawings to create, I get rather anxious about the world, this uncertain timeline, our government and our need for a true leader, our need to unify as a country and a planet. These drawings are grounding me.
What is your ultimate intent? I’m most fascinated, personally, that I’ve embarked on a daily practice for over a decade and am now finding a bottomless flow of new considerations and new inspirations which are shifting the parameters of the series. Just when you think you know something, you don’t. For an art practice that’s rooted in iteration and daily routine, that’s been the most surprising takeaway. So, I really just want to keep going.
In graduate school, I was making a ton of artist’s books that reflected my stories of childhood, growing up gay in the South, finding my own voice as an artist and as a human. A trusted graduate advisor posed the question: How will I actively remain engaged with the public so that my work connects to an even broader community? I have thought about this question, now from over a decade ago, frequently during this pandemic. … So, I want to continue connecting. I owe it to my strangers.
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About Steven Heller Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Design / Designer as Entrepreneur program, and writes frequently for EYE and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 190 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal, is in the Art Directors Hall of Fame and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →