In our 16th Overtime episode, Dan chats with Danielle Evans—a visual artist, letterer, and designer from Columbus, Ohio. Back in 2013, she combined lettering, photography, and dad jokes to start food typography. Since then she’s been doing amazing stuff with food and real life objects to create lettering masterpieces. She’s worked with incredible companies like Target, Disney, American Greetings, Parade, Conde Nast, and more.
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In this episode, Danielle recounts starting a design career during the recession and how she got the idea for food typography. Danielle also shares details on how she prepares for her food lettering pieces, the value of community, the temporary nature of her work, learning other skills like photography to document her work, and more.
Links Mentioned in Overtime:
- Danielle Evans on Dribbble
- Food Typography
- [Danielle’s website](https://marmaladebleue.com/
- Danielle on Twitter
- Danielle’s latest project KANYEGG
Dan: Hello, everyone. Welcome to Overtime. This is Dribbble’s official podcast. I’m Dan Cederholm your host, and this is Episode 16 with Danielle Evans. And Danielle Evans is a visual artist, letterer, designer from Columbus, Ohio.
Back in 2013, she combined lettering, photography, and dad jokes to start food typography. So she’s doing some amazing stuff with food and real-life objects to create lettering masterpieces. She’s garnered a lot of attention on Dribbble and elsewhere, and worked with people like Target, Disney, American Greetings, Parade, Conde Nast. The list goes on. Her work’s really taken off, and she was kind enough to give us some time today to talk about how that all came to be, and her process, and all that stuff. It was a really cool talk with someone that’s doing some real original, innovative work.
If you enjoy the show, and we certainly hope you do, please rate and/or review us over on iTunes. We’d appreciate that. If you have any feedback for us, we’d love to hear from you. Go to Dribbble.com/contact. Send us a note. Thanks to all who have listened to this show so far. I just feel lucky to be able to do it and talk to all these super talented designers.
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Welcome to Overtime, Danielle Evans.
Danielle: Thank you for having me. Hello.
Dan: Hello. It’s really great to have you on. You’re calling in from?
Danielle: Columbus, Ohio.
Dan: Columbus, Ohio I knew it was Ohio. Well, I thought it was Ohio and I was right, which is great. I don’t think we’ve talked to someone from Ohio yet.
Danielle: I’m so surprised by that because there are so many amazing people from here and doing things.
Dan: There is. Yourself included. I’ve been a big fan. You have a really interesting story and the stuff you’re doing is really fascinating. I just want to jump right into it because we have a lot to cover.
Dan: One of the things in digging back into your work, I came across this video of your “Humble [Pie] Beginnings” I think it was called. And it’s super great. It’s a short video about kind of how you got to where you are maybe now, in terms of creatively, and what you’re doing. I love the way it starts. You just kind of jump right into it, like I’m covered with oatmeal and I don’t know what I’m going to do.
Danielle: Client didn’t pay me.
Dan: That’s right. I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do. I want you to take it away, but it’s an interesting story.
Danielle: Something I like to talk about all the time because no one wants to talk about it is how unglamorous my beginnings were. I feel like everybody else gets into some sort of fancy job out of their fancy design school, and it just works out for them in a really fantastic way. I would never wish anything otherwise for any of these people. But that was not my story at all. My story was very broken, and working at the mall, and lots of crying montages running through the rain wondering if I would ever be more.
Dan: I can relate to all of this except for the mall part. Was it like Chick-fil-A at the mall?
Danielle: No. I had good and bad mall experiences. I’m learning there is a gamut of mall experiences.
Dan: There is. I love the mall.
Danielle: I worked at a Cosi which is now gloriously bankrupt and defunct, and I’m so thankful.
Dan: They’re at the airports.
Danielle: They’re only at airports anymore because the company had some financial issues. But it was a really bad situation working there. I worked there with my roommate. She’s still a very good friend of mine. She played into my origin story as well. She and I were working this terrible job. We were managers so she’d come on in the morning and then I’d meet and do afternoon closes. We would be like a general manager ran off with money out of the register, so-and-so won’t stop touching the other person but we can’t file about it because we need someone to replace them on the line. Stupid awful shit.
Dan: When you say bad, you really mean bad. That’s the next-level stuff, not just the job was bad.
Danielle: The job was bad, but I called the cops a bit. It’s in a very respectable part of town, so you get all these respectable business people. They’d be like “You should go to college.” I’m like “I did for a long time.”
Dan: I’m paying for it now.
Danielle: That’s why I’m working here. It was this weird disparity between who I wanted to be and what I was, which was baby manager.
Dan: I’m never going to Cosi again.
Dan: Wait. I will because everyone has to go. The only way to go to Cosi is because you have to go to Cosi. It’s the only thing at the forgotten wing of the airport. You can’t go anywhere else.
Danielle: Those airports for people who fly United, and it’s like always the United awkward terminal where everything looks like it has terminal cancer. All the stores are dying, the signs are falling apart, and you’re sad.
Dan: That is absolutely true. I can verify that for Logan Airport in Boston. That’s exactly it. The only Cosi there I think is in this really sad commuter wing that is worse than a bus station. You’re paying 500 dollars for a ticket. You expect a bit of comfort. We could go on and on about this.
Danielle: I worked at Cosi and I worked at DSW, which was not a great experience. I worked at one of their flagship stores.
Dan: Designer Shoe Warehouse.
Danielle: Yeah, the toenails just flock to me. It’s really weird. I was always that person that when I cleaned up and walked around places toenails were getting stuck in the vacuum cleaner, and I was always the one who would find them. So ever since then I feel like these things migrate to me. It’s weird.
Dan: Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here. Possible toenail lettering project?
Danielle: No. Never. I probably could with all these things I find all the time, but absolutely not.
Dan: There go the listeners. I’m sorry. That was my fault. That’s tough. You persevered and moved on. What happened next? I want to get the details because in the video you say you were covered in oatmeal.
Danielle: I’m covered in oatmeal because I’m sad. I was covered in oatmeal because I’d been working at the Container Store. I was learning how to sell, so therefore, I was applying all these newfound skills at telling people I am a design person. I am an illustrator. And depending on whoever would listen, like I was handing out my cards, and finally somebody from my old Cosi days her mom had started a business doing vinyl decals. I went “I will work for you if you’ll have me,” so they had me. I thought that’s weird. They didn’t look at my portfolio necessarily when I came in. They just thought I was pretty cool.
Maybe they’re just new at this. I don’t know. Started realizing that was not a great job either. I was getting frustrated with myself because I was crying, because it was Saturday, because that meant it was almost Sunday, because I almost had to go back to work. I kept finding myself in these weird movie montages and I realized I was doing this to myself.
For a long time, I think I was starting to give into the fact that oh, this is my lot in life, to work these menial jobs, to hate what I do, to have bad jobs that are finally in my field but the people don’t respect me or really care about my contribution. They don’t want my ideas.
It was when I realized I kept putting myself in these positions, I kept putting myself into job scenarios where it didn’t require a lot of effort or a lot of skin on my part to get the work. I’d had bad interviews and shameful interviews in the past in the design field. I think that had kind of crushed me a bit on top of not being able to find work was a crisis.
I was this ball of emotion and sadness. So I’m sitting in the tub covered in oatmeal because I’ve got a rash, because I’m not sleeping, because I’m not getting enough work, and because I can’t interview for things because I can’t intelligently speak if I’ve not slept. It was this very weird cycle. I think everybody finds themselves in a space like this.
Dan: Absolutely. I’m glad to know about the reason for the oatmeal now. That’s not all I took from that.
Danielle: Of course.
Dan: Now I know it’s good for rashes, which is good.
Dan: I wasn’t sure if oatmeal was your first food typography project perhaps. Or maybe to avoid it at all cost now because you don’t want to go back to there.
Danielle: It is weird. There has been a discussion of an oatmeal project in my future, and there is some sort of coming home reality to that.
Dan: Full circle. I love it.
Danielle: It’s funny because my first project was actually a coffee. So this roommate of mine is sitting down, and I’m smacking my head on the desk trying to talk to her about what I need for my work to be excellent, to be noteworthy. I had entered an FPO (ph.) competition, and of course it was stuff I’d posted on Dribbble and I was so proud of. It did okay. I’m like oh, this is great for me.
I sent it in the competition and it doesn’t place at all, naturally. And so instead of turning inward to this dark hole, I realized what did the winners do. What did they bring to the table that was so impressive? I realized they invoked different senses.
Up until this point, I’d been seeing illustration as flat, as completely visual. I feel like that’s such a terrible way to look at design because it’s all theory at that point. When you start putting it in the context of an environment where people have to stand next to it, and touch it, and smell it, and engage, or throw it away, that’s when it becomes real. That’s when It has a point, and a purpose, and a connection.
When I recognized this, I went well, I need this in my work. My roommate is like “I don’t understand. I’m a teacher.” I’m trying to explain to her. I end up having to talk about design as a cup of coffee. I keep telling people, “You don’t drink coffee to survive. You don’t drink it because you’re thirsty. You drink coffee because you want the experience of the coffee. You want to savor that moment. So you have heat from the cup, the aroma in your nose. There are all of these different components going into this beautiful experience. And that’s what I want for my life.”
She, being very literal, thought about it and goes, “That sounds cool, though why don’t you make something out of coffee? Is that a thing you could do?” And I rolled my eyes at her, but I went but that is a thing I could do. It’s a not terrible idea.
Dan: Wow. This is awesome. Design is a sensory experience. Great stuff. So your roommate kind of planted the seed there.
Danielle: Yes, she did.
Dan: That was terrible. So coffee was the first project you did?
Danielle: It was. And I had gone to school for illustration, so I learned how to tell stories. I had discovered design late enough in school that I couldn’t double major in it. I was close. I just never learned web. That was kind of the thing; I was hard and fast “I’m not using this.” Oops.
But it was cool because I had been experimenting with different objects and cut paper and all this stuff. When she mentioned food, I was like well, this does take the best of me. I love to cook and bake. I love to sculpt. I love to paint. I love the idea of the perfect strawberry. When I was a kid, I have this very vivid memory of holding the perfect strawberry, and being like I found it, out of a picture book. What do I do with it? There’s nothing you can do with it.
Dan: I feel like strawberries were better when we were kids. Not to go off on a tangent here.
Danielle: Possibly. I lived in a place where I hadn’t had a good one.
Dan: Then you finally get a good one.
Danielle: I had a good-looking one.
Dan: That’s important too.
Danielle: Maybe you lived in a better spot for that, where they’re growing more freely, and you can pick them.
Dan: Yeah, like Vermont. There’s good produce up there in the summertime. We’re off track here.
Danielle: It’s all right.
Dan: Using food in the ways you started using them, that was really new and fresh. No one else is doing that.
Danielle: No. It was interesting. I had looked over the internet. I’m like this has to exist somewhere. It didn’t exist the way I wanted it to at all. It all looked very childish or I don’t want to say primitive, but kind of, where things were incidental. I only found a handful, like two or three images.
I went I get what’s happening here, but why has no one applied a typographer’s touch to this. Why hasn’t anyone put thought and attention and skill behind this idea? Surely someone has done it and I just hadn’t seen it. I thought is this something I could be doing. Is this something that maybe I have a gift for? This is weird.
It’s funny when you start looking through my Dribbble page you see where I was trying to do web work or print work or all these really childlike-looking things. The work is awful. If you get back far enough it’s super bad. It’s because I was trying to fit into pixel perfection or kind of what I thought I needed to do to rise to the top in terms of my voice. I realized that was not where my voice was. My voice was in raw materials. I learned now I’m a sculptor. Who would have said looking at my work it’s all shape based rather than line based.
Dan: That’s an interesting way to categorize it; you’re a sculptor. I think that makes more sense than I am a letterer that uses other things. That’s cool.
Danielle: It’s strange. Or I realized I’m actually not a terrible painter because everything I do requires hard and soft edges. It requires attention to light and consistency. Retouching, which I do a lot of the photo and retouching. That is all painting, really. It’s just digital. It’s very weird observing all these practices I had and these things I was attracted to but just didn’t know how to filter them or to present them in some sort of end product bubbled into this thing.
It’s funny when I look at my business name my name is super common. Danielle Evans, if you search it you can’t actually find me, despite my SEO being like—super good. I had to come up with a moniker. I just picked this really bizarre like “marmalade bleue,” which just sounded nice to say, but I also wanted to attract a francophile audience so I could do more international work.
That is exactly what happened, just crazy. I didn’t realize if I had been listening to myself years ago when I picked this name, which was in 2008, I don’t know. Maybe I would have found this path faster. I don’t know. It’s super weird.
Dan: The name is important. This is the lesson to be learned. I was going to ask you about the origin marmalade bleue, and it’s b-l-e-u-e.
Dan: Which is like the—
Danielle: French feminine.
Dan: It was randomly chosen, those two words?
Danielle: Marmalade, I just liked the way it sounded.
Dan: It’s a great word.
Danielle: I wanted something lyrical. I always hated the idea of people saying a name and guttural stopping in different spots. Linguistics are also an interest of mine, obviously. In thinking about this, I thought it should be something people enjoy saying. It should be something that feels somewhat exotic, and strangely, nothing about my name is spelled correctly in any language. No one knows where I’m from, so it’s been this very mysterious oh, is she Canadian? Is she from France? Is she from Pennsylvania? I’m like well, no, not quite any of those things.
Danielle: Yeah. I’ve had people assume that, which is odd.
Dan: Because of the French part?
Danielle: I have no idea.
Dan: Marmalade, it’s marmalade country, really.
Danielle: Maybe. I guess that’s true with all the Amish.
Dan: Maybe marmalade’s an Amish thing. We’re going to find out after this.
Danielle: Amish blue.
Danielle: How weird.
Dan: I love marmalade and Winnie the Pooh loved marmalade.
Danielle: Which is a good reason more than anything.
Dan: That’s another association with that word. That’s really interesting that the name alone was helpful for you in gaining clients even.
Danielle: Yeah. It’s funny because everything about it should be incorrect. Everyone was like “Are you sure you want something that long? Are you sure you want something that no one can spell?” I’m like yeah. Strangely, yes.
The weird thing about it is when I look at some of the people I collaborate with, like there’s a husband-and-wife studio here called “The Wonder Jam”. Okay. Isn’t that odd?
Dan: It is odd, but it fits with you. You guys should collaborate.
Danielle: We do. It’s great. They’re great. I have an intern this month, and I hired her without knowing that her avatar or handle for things is “Ham Slice”. This is perfect. Her name is Hannah so she goes by Ham Slice, which I think is amazing. Now all of my friends are like “How is Ham Slice doing today? What’s she up to? What do you have her doing?” It’s perfect. At one point, I had her cutting up ham for a project, and I went “Have you offended your highest form?”
Dan: That’s cosmic. That’s meant to be. Everything is meant to be right there.
Dan: A ham project this is the thing. I have so many questions. I like food. I like to cook, but I don’t do it enough. You mentioned you like to cook. Does that play into things at all? Do you think that was important in terms of playing with food in a different way?
Danielle: Actually, a lot, yeah. A couple of things are what made that important. First of all, I almost started a blog right before all of this called “Food Wheel”. The idea was I’d take an artist’s color wheel and then assign certain kinds of taste experiences to it. Then based on those taste experiences, publish recipes in a split harmony or an analogous color set.
Danielle: It was crazy.
Dan: It’s like science.
Danielle: Yeah. I did all this work on it. I came up with everything. I made it all sound. I still have all these sketches, and up until recently, I had a bunch of the domains for it. Then I went wait a second; I hate blogging. I didn’t know the other vehicles for it, so I let it die. I was sad about it, but it was kind of I realized a lot of the because at the time I was really poor and struggling. I was baking our bread. I was making all the meals. Anything I could figure out a way to save a couple bucks on I was learning how to do it myself.
I think through that process I learned if you add a bit more flour here it’ll make this cake a little more dense. If you throw in something else like baking soda, it’ll sponge it up a bit, it’ll puff. It was weird. I was practicing with different flours and so I started getting this loose kind of organic understanding of how science works in the baking and cooking process.
That fed into clearly if I’m going to start playing around where I’m making stuff out of things, I will care about whether or not the spice is going to ruin the wood surface I have, because I have three pieces of furniture in my house and this has to last. I start realizing oh, certain things have oils in them. They’ll ruin different surfaces. Or this has a melt time of five minutes. I can’t touch this more than whatever. That’s kind of where all of it started, was realizing there are different breaking points, melting points, and bending points to everything we encounter.
Learning to respect them, rather than forcing them to do things that are unnatural, that kind of is where that journey took me. Learning we affect our world, but we shouldn’t be trying to control it. We should be using the environment around us to our advantage. It sounds like really Zen and crazy, but—
Dan: I love it. When you’re doing your projects - and maybe more early on because now you’re working with all these giant companies and doing amazing stuff with them. But in the beginning, was it like oh, I’m making some cookies, and there’s some flour on the table, and I’m going to write something with it? Was it that casual in the beginning or is it planned out? I’m wondering about the process. Do you sketch the lettering first and then go into the food, or is right into the food?
Danielle: That’s a good question. My very first piece was no sketching. It says “French” out of coffee. There was on sketch. It was just I’m going to throw this down. I’m going to play with it with my hands, no guides, no stencils, nothing. I went oh, I finished something. I think the difference in projects up to this point and then that pivotal moment was I learned when something is finished. I think that’s extremely hard for illustrators, designers, and creative people to know, because you aren’t taught this in school. You don’t know personally when you’ve finished something.
I think there’s this elegant place between minimalism and ornamentation. If you can kind of catch the knife’s edge where it’s just enough, it’s just enough, then you’re done. For me, that’s where I like to live with my work. Once I did that, I kind of felt this furnace bubbling over of excitement and enthusiasm. At that point, I’m publishing this piece. It makes it into the front page of Dribbble. I’m like oh, my God, this is crazy. And people start giving me suggestions for other stuff. At that point, it was like almost community based, where people were giving me items to try, and I’m trying them. And they’re like “That’s great! Use this.” So at the beginning, it was mostly freehanding everything.
There were a couple of times where I did make some sketches because I was playing around with stuff with Arabic influence, so I wanted all the proportions to feel correct, so I did some research.
Since I have client work and client work dictates that I explain my process to everybody, I have to make more tightly controlled sketches. In some ways, that’s pushing me because the ideas are getting out, and with some prior knowledge of how this stuff will behave, it’s pushing my execution that much further.
It’s something where I think most people would be irritated because they’re like I shouldn’t have to tell anyone what I’m doing. I’m in charge, I’m the artist. But I recognize and appreciate how others are contributing to what I’m doing, so I’m all about that life.
Dan: There’s so many gems of knowledge coming out of this. It’s wonderful. I chose a couple shots to talk about, to talk about some different stuff. Honestly, the work goes up, it’s amazing and people like it, but hearing more about it is always fun. I think I’ll start with this one called “Spread the Love,” which was a community Valentine’s project you mentioned.
If this lettering was just drawn on paper it still would be wonderful. The fact that it’s peanut butter on a table, I’m just like how the hell did she do this without making a complete mess. Anytime I make breakfast for the kids in the morning, and they want peanut butter toast, it’s just so messy. It gets everywhere. There’s no way to do it without getting it all over the place.
Dan: I’m like how did she do this, where it looks perfectly like someone took a knife, and in one swoop just drew that.
Danielle: Oh, good! That’s exactly how I wanted it to look.
Dan: I’m sure you did.
Danielle: It’s actually not that way, but I love that that’s how it looks.
Dan: I figured that. What’s the secret there? Maybe you’ll say it took two months, but if you don’t want to share secrets, that’s fine too.
Danielle: I’m good, particularly once I publish something like that. I feel like I’m not washing my hands of it necessarily, but I feel like I’ve learned. The process has been when people say I love the process, I’m like what the fuck does that mean. But really it means learn something from whatever you’re doing in that moment, and then take that knowledge into something new. All of the knowledge we have is applicable to everything else exponentially. So that whole thing.
With the peanut butter project, though I knew I wanted to do something that felt like that, where almost a knife went down and just swooshed on top of the surface and this peanut butter laid out, but I needed to figure out how peanut butter worked. I tried a handful of different peanut butters, and it turns out the cheap-ass grocery store dollar peanut butter that has all the sugar and garbage in it is perfect. I went for really natural stuff, but it was super runny.
Dan: Too much oil in it.
Danielle: Yeah. There wasn’t any heft to it at all. If I’m thinking peanut butter, I’m thinking like Jif and even Jif was not quite right. I needed something that was going to hold up against my touch because human touch affects everything. It’s a matter of adversely or successfully.
Dan: Even the heat from your hands or just messing around with it is going to affect the texture.
Danielle: Yeah. And that’s something I have to think about all the time. There are certain items where if you touch them too long they’re played out and done. In this case it was like how do I do this. I took a principle of painting: fat over lean. This idea of starting very thin and I would figure out the shapes with my fingers. Again, I’m not using stencils or guides or anything, no monitors.
Dan: It’s literally like a blank table?
Danielle: Yeah, it’s literally blank. Every single time. It’s very unusual that I would use any sort of stencil, grid, or anything. It’s fun though because it teaches me how to have a correct eye. It’s constantly informing how my eye is seeing things. I’m getting better at optical adjustments. Grids are fine, but I can’t play to grids. It’s like playing to the rules and I’ve never been good at following the rules all the way, not like that. That’s fine.
I started playing with my fingers, and then I would go in and reduct. My process is strange because it is this weird play of adductive and reductive application. I’ll go in with bigger shapes and refine down. I’m trying to use my fingers as much as possible. I’m finding if I use my hands not only do I have great control, more so than I would with a brush or extension of my brush, but I can keep everything to a human scale.
I played around. I had two versions of this I had done in the course of a few hours. I was not happy. The energy was not there. And that’s something else. I feel like when you start considering lettering as someone who has studied, energy is really important. Making things feel like there’s movement and motion without feeling so labored.
In order to do that, I think the best way to achieve motion was to go for these contrasting, almost like a retro treatment. And then really playing into the fact that peanut butter gets those amazingly thick swashes. I did three different passes over the top of the peanut butter once all the lettering was kind of set. I had to be comfortable with the fact that if I took some and put too much on the edge of the D it was going to rupture some of the line work I’d done. And I just had to be okay with it.
I think in some cases, the buildup was so much nicer, so much better, that I’m thankful I took those risks. I feel like these risks become almost like a chess game. You have to think further ahead about what you’re willing to sacrifice or risk, but winning the game is that much more satisfying because the risks are greater.
Dan: As you’re talking, it’s reminding me that this is temporary.
Dan: Is that okay with you?
Danielle: It has to be. My very first project was done on top of a trash can. My studio for the first year of my job was on top of a trash can. It was kind of settled that this was going to be the nature of things. I couldn’t keep projects around forever because they got eaten by bugs or they smelled bad or whatever. Learning to celebrate them in the moment while they’re being built and making things for the benefit of things who are watching or who are present is great.
Dan: That’s a metaphor for life in general.
Danielle: Yeah, exactly.
Dan: Because it’s temporary but you put an incredible amount of work and talent into it, the photography becomes really important, right? Capturing it.
Dan: So in a way it’s temporary but it does live on because you can photograph it. Did you have a learning curve for the photography too?
Danielle: I was interested in photography in college and had considered trying to get into it as a major but I was too poor and couldn’t afford all the equipment. My family was not wealthy at all. That was a nonstarter. But what I did learn I really enjoyed.
I had this professor that used to crop all our shit into squares and be like “Oh, this is a much better composition.” And now Instagram is a thing so he premeditated Instagram which is weird.
Dan: He knew.
Danielle: He did know, that old coot. He also used to make like time machine levers (ph.), so I used to joke that he did travel ahead in time and was trying to bring back the future. He was a weird guy.
Dan: Great professor.
Danielle: The learning curve was difficult because I feel like photo is skewed already towards being more of a technical practice, because everybody basically has the same equipment. You basically have the same lighting and it’s up to you to make it distinctive and interesting with good concepts.
Whereas, you’re looking at illustrators and designers, you are driven by your ideas. You’re supposed to be driven by the concept, and then everything else falls into place after that, and if you can’t paint, you’re like well, but this was a fun idea.
Dan: So true. That’s a really interesting perspective on it.
Dan: We all have cameras and it’s like putting yourself in front of something interesting is one way to stand out, I suppose.
Danielle: That’s not to say I know amazing photographers who are highly conceptual but they’re also distinctive amongst their peers. For me, that was something where I was constantly trying to learn. I had a crappy camera from college that was no as many megapixels as my phone. And so when I started realizing that was a thing, I had to go through upgrades.
The “Spread the Love” piece is interesting because it’s the first time after I had spent the money to get a nicer camera body with a really nice lens. It was clean and focused and everything felt smooth. I chose the wood texture on the background because it reminded me of chocolate. So it was like this chocolate peanut butter vibe. It felt like all of that was reading so well. That was a good project for me. I walked away from it like wiping tears out of my eye, and being like oh, this is so beautiful. I’m so proud of this.
Dan: That’s awesome. It’s cool that we’re talking about that one then. It was the first one with a higher-end camera.
Danielle: Yeah. And also lighting. I didn’t have lighting at that time either, but I had figured it out finally. I was playing catch-up constantly.
Dan: You think that’s been an ongoing thing? As you’re doing more of these projects, your photography is also getting better each time?
Danielle: It is. It’s definitely like the struggling point. It’s funny. I compare it to the ACT, testing for high school kids. I did really well in my writing and my reading, and I would have been super fly to go off to really intensively crazy colleges if my math weren’t like hot garbage. I was so bad, and there was always that one thing dragging my scores down. I was like “Fuck!”
I feel like photography is that thing for me. It’s funny, I was telling a friend about how I almost failed my senior thesis because I had to make a kid’s book for my illustration course. I decided to sculpt characters which was super ambitious, and I wanted to photograph them, and I wanted to have them retouched and colored. The photographer that offered to do this for me flaked out on me until the very last day before it was due. I had to get these photos. And so I’m telling the story and I go “Photo has always been a problem, hasn’t it? Photo has always been a problem, hasn’t it?” I felt like I learned something about myself in telling that story yesterday.
Dan: I can tell you that your photo is on point now.
Danielle: Thank you.
Dan: It is a big part of it. Photographing food in particular is not as simple as putting your iPhone over it and snapping it.
Danielle: It’s not.
Dan: As another project to talk about I have to talk about this one. This is actually your latest shot on Dribbble. It’s called “Ice Queen”. I’m looking at it thinking that’s interesting. You sort of dive into the rest of the details on your site, and you’re like oh my God. She grew rocks for this. I would love to hear the story about this one. It’s like taking what you’re doing to a whole other level.
Danielle: Thank you.
Dan: We have to hear the story behind this one.
Danielle: Sure. Back in November, I think I was in a candy store. I might have been walking around somewhere else, but there was some question to me of oh, rock candy; you can grow this stuff. I wonder if you could grow lettering out of it? What would it do? It would be a necklace.
I think in part because of growing rock candy as a child, seeing it sitting in the jar, and it’s always suspended. I’ve been attracted to suspension projects all the way through school. I used to make my own Christmas tree, where it was like suspended snowflakes in the shape of a tree. I did that every year for like four years.
I have this interest and fascination with how gravity acts on the world around us, but haven’t figured out how to work it into top-down table shots. But enter this project. I was like oh, I could make a necklace. I’m not a jeweler. I’m not a scientist. Should I even consider rock candy in general, or should I look at rock salt?
I got a bunch of different feedback and looked through online trying to figure out what to do and went well, I’m just going to have to test this. What you don’t see on my site is I had six different samples, two different versions of the lettering. It was conducted in several different ways.
There was the bare wire which I heard wouldn’t hold hardly anything. The candy just slides right off because it needs a natural surface on which to adhere. I made it again and wrapped the wire in some sort of string and hot-glued it as I went. That ended up being the final. There were pipe cleaners, like industrial pipe cleaners that had a metal wire built-in, but were soft and fuzzy. Those went okay, but I didn’t love the growth crystals on that set. I ended up boiling around 22 cups of sugar, which is by the way as much sugar as the average American eats a year. I was vomiting almost looking at these quantities.
Dan: Yeah, that’s eye-opening.
Danielle: It’s a lot.
Dan: 22 cups.
Danielle: 22 cups.
Dan: That’s like a barrel of sugar.
Danielle: And the first time I did this, I got 10 or 15 and went this should be enough. I poured into the I also had to buy a fish tank so I was sourcing fish tanks on line, like how deep does this need to be.
Dan: To grow it to the right size, of course.
Danielle: Yeah. Naturally. It’s so funny talking about this stuff.
Dan: Of course, because you were making a rock candy necklace that had to grow.
Danielle: As one does, right?
Dan: Yeah. So I remember making rock candy when I was a kid at one point. String is a good one. You’re saying you were wrapping the wire with string, was like the final one that worked.
Danielle: Yeah, that one was the closest one because it held the shape closest, and it was the easiest to dictate. While this thing is growing, which I had to go to the store twice because I didn’t have enough sugar there first time. I dumped it in the solution and it just barely missed the top. I went “Fuck!” There’s no way to fix that.
I had to do it again. It was awful. It was crazy because I realized I can pull this stuff out first, I had the presence of mind to take a time-lapse video. I think I had one online somewhere on Vimeo or on my Instagram. It grew for four hours, four-and-a-half hours, but it condensed into a 12-second video. You’re watching the crystals change. As I’m checking them, I’ll pull it out and see that it’s started to adhere.
I would go through and adjust and poke. I didn’t want to completely ruin it or completely ruin the natural process, which is why some of it is still uneven. I wanted it to be legible. I’m finding as I’m doing these more experimental things this idea of legibility is fuzzy. A lot of my early work was oh, this is very clearly read. It’s obvious what it says. But I think the most interesting lettering, if I’m going to put more of my lettering background, then I have to be open to more experimental ways of looking at letter form.
Dan: I love that. That goes into another one recently of yours, which is the “420 Broccoli”. As you said that it reminded me oh, it’s not quite abstract because I can see the 2 and the zero, but the shapes of it are really organic. Yet, it’s still numbers. That’s very cool.
The sugar is growing. How long did it take it to grow the final one that thick?
Danielle: I used a hyper saturated solution. These things go for several weeks usually, but I found one that would grow in several hours provided I did intense amounts of sugar. The prep work for it was a month. That was intense.
I’m finding a correlation between planning and producing. My production times are still really quick, all things considered. But my plan times have increased exponentially to accommodate for how crazy these ideas are. Naturally, with a project like my “Ice Queen” one, I also at the same time was stringing a candy necklace, like 40 candy necklaces to make a giant dollar sign.
Dan: I was just looking at that, amazing.
Danielle: It’s really fun. I was partnering with a photographer because I’m like “I really want this done correctly. I want a good model. Are you the person who could help me with this?” My friend Nick, who is a fantastic fashion photographer- he’s also very scrappy in the way he shoots like he’ll shoot through foam core and old blinds. His work is fantastic.
He’s like “Hell yeah, I want to do this. In fact, I might have an entire team of people who want to just do this for fun.” I’m like “Are you sure? To reiterate, I don’t have a client. This is just something dumb I’m doing for myself.” And he’s like “Oh, yeah. We want to join you.” I’m like “Oh my God!”
Dan: That’s super cool.
Danielle: It really was. It was extremely humbling the idea that somebodies would spend their time, an evening just doing something for the hell of it, and bringing their A game. That’s really hard to find. They did a beautiful job.
I keep trying to pass this work around, but I think the idea of food as fashion is warming up but not quite there yet.
Dan: The whole campaign I’ll call it a campaign even though it’s something you put together, but it does look completely legit, like it should be real. You should be able to go buy these things in New York City and pay thousands of dollars for them.
Danielle: Oh, good. That’s exactly the plan.
Dan: That was the plan all along, I’m sure. That’s amazing. Do you eat the stuff?
Danielle: I did taste it. I put in some lemon just in case.
Dan: So it’s lemon sugar.
Dan: Just in case the model felt brave enough to bite it. She bit one of them but not some of the others, so she was like “Oh, this is huh, okay.” The funny thing is this is the project I assumed would be overtaken by the ants. It has endured, and I have worn that queen necklace before, and it’s fabulous.
Dan: Does it still exist?
Danielle: It does still exist, yes.
Dan: Sugar doesn’t go bad.
Danielle: No. I think too the humidity is an issue. If you keep it out of the rain it’s fine.
Dan: The rain would wash it away probably. Do you have any favorite materials to work with? Not only just food, right. You do stuff with other materials, but is there one that actually what’s your favorite and your least favorite?
Danielle: That’s so hard to say.
Dan: It is a hard question.
Danielle: I think it depends on what makes it enjoyable for me is whether I really cracked it. If I’ve solved the mystery. It’s all kind of like a Scooby Doo mystery. You’re running around with your presumptions of how something should work. Then there’s several obvious ways in which you can make something fantastic. And a lot of times it takes kind of dicking around with the unobvious shortcut-seeming ways to get to the really good stuff.
For example, I had a shoot this past week with a bunch of hair products. I figured out a way to make a symbiotogram, which is like am ambigram but when you flip it upside down it reads as two different words.
Dan: Symbiotogram is two different words rather than the same word.
Danielle: Yes. Thank you Mark Caneso for that five-dollar word. He’s great. I asked him to check this out for me because that’s more so his specialty. Basically it was a hair cream, conditioner almost in consistency. It wasn’t anything amazing but it was more so what the material was made to do that made it feel amazing.
When it comes to proficiency, I tend to like ribbon-based things, or shoelaces. I like stuff you work with every day and feel like it should have a certain look. Like it should be flat, it should be boxy, but really, they’re meant to be vibrant, embracing their loops and curls. You just go for it. you lean into that. I really appreciate and love that sort of thing.
With food, I made a gingerbread A, like a drop-cap A. I was just so proud of myself that I figured out a way to make a domed roof, a curled roof on this gingerbread. I think just pushing the boundaries of what I think is possible and what I want to believe is possible is where all that excitement lies.
Sometimes the obvious terrible things to be working with are the ones with bad smells. There’s a lot of meat in my life and all of it is rotting. It’s so gross.
Dan: Like the brand do you have one where you’re branding a piece of steak.
Dan: Which looks delicious to me, but it probably too several takes to get that right.
Danielle: That was actually here in my studio. My studio is what would be a dining room situation for most people, but it’s nimble, quick, and all my photo equipment is collapsible. It’s a good situation. I had to bring my grill up here and throw this steak on it, open all the windows, disconnect the fire alarm and all this crazy stuff. You see me sitting on the floor torching this thing with a blow torch. I’m like “Do you think it’s even enough, red enough? I hope so.” All of a sudden, I plunge it onto the meat and it just goes and there’s smoke everywhere. I kept saying to myself “Yee-haw! Goddamn, yee-haw!” I’m here by myself, so it’s fine to say that.
Dan: You need to do behind the scenes documentaries for these things. That would be fantastic to see what goes into these things.
Danielle: That would be fun.
Dan: I think you’d need someone else to worry about that so you could concentrate on the actual project.
Danielle: Yes, absolutely. That’s part of the fun. I guess sometimes I’m sitting in here and I feel like a child. A child would be doing something stupid like grilling in their house so they could catch it on video. Or realizing you put the brand down, and you didn’t push it right on the right edge, so you try to correct it. You fuck it up, and so you need to flip your steak over. And you’re like but that was the good side.
Dan: And then you’re like I’ve got to go out and get some more steaks.
Danielle: Yeah, that’s a real thing where it’s like I’m sorry. I’m back at the grocery store again with you guys.
Dan: The butcher is like wow, you like steak.
Danielle: Yeah, or having a pizza guy deliver a giant stack of pizzas to my house. And he’s like “Is this all for you?” I’m like “Yeah, it is. And I hope you didn’t cut them like I asked,” as I’m shutting the door on them.
Dan: You had to cut them for the project.
Dan: That’s hilarious - are you having a party tonight or something?
Danielle: Right? No, party of one.
Dan: Me and ten pizzas.
Danielle: These are all the friends I need.
Dan: It’s going to be a long night. That’s amazing. Danielle, this has been amazing talking to you about all this because it touches on so many things, how to be creative, eating not just that.
Danielle: The natural world.
Dan: The natural world. No, I think there was a lot of really good advice in there too. People are going to dig. Thanks for taking the time with us.
Danielle: Of course.
Dan: What’s next for you? Is there anything exciting coming up that you’re working on that you can tell us about? Unless some of it is secret.
Danielle: Some of it is secret. Secret projects.
Danielle: I have a few of those, some really great client work in some cases, which will be the most visible client work I’ve ever had.
Dan: That’s exciting.
Danielle: It’s so exciting. It was kind of a milestone I set for myself a couple of years ago where I went if I ever hear from this person about doing work for them, that means I have to start shifting into something new because this is about to go mainstream and it will be played out after that. I need to press.
The cool thing is I’m early. I’ve already started moving, which is awesome. So something that I have had a very profound experience with, on my birthday this year a friend brought down a VR headset let me try it. He’s like my adopted brothers, so he had shown me building-facing and programmer-facing materials. You sit in this chair. You hook it up to your computer, and then you look around. You’re like wow, I’m at the beach but I can’t go anywhere.
Now seeing client-side or consumer-facing VR where you can move through the area, and you can walk, and there’s more going on, it’s more immersive. I realized that having a disembodied situation where you look down and can’t see your arms and legs work could get closer to you. It gets so much closer to you than you necessarily feel comfortable with. It’s penetrative and invasive.
I think there is maybe the technology is too sophisticated and too far out for designers, but it made me really think about how do we make these experiences that we have in real life that much more immersive, that much more compelling for people who step out of their home, go to a concert, go to an exhibit, or just walk through their neighborhood? How do we make this stuff more interesting?
I guess coupled with a few experiences where I’d put up some lettering at a concert and watched a bunch of drunk people try to pull it off the wall, my first thought was “Get the fuck away from my stuff!” But the better thought I had shortly after was “How do I lean into the fact that people want to touch this?” There is a way to utilize people touching and exploring this way. How do I make that possible? A lot of this again, I’m seeing this cyclical pattern almost, where I’m asking these same questions I asked at the beginning of my career, but with more knowledge and more resources to build them out further. Does that make sense?
Dan: It does make sense.
Danielle: I’m learning that all of this is like a cycle, all of it, and you come back to the same problems and the same questions. But the idea is you’ve leveled up with some knowledge and some trial and error where you can make better risks, better choices.
Dan: Amen. That’s perfect point to stop at. Yeah. I’ve learned a lot on this talk. This is great. Thanks again for joining us, Danielle. We’ll keep watching because it’s so damn interesting.
Danielle: Thank you.