We love spotlighting our designers and collaborators on Shrill Society, whose work brings themes from our now sold-out Nasty Woman planner into your home. Plus, they’re such an awesome group of women! In July, our focus is on celebrating LGBTQ narratives and histories. We’re excited to sit down with Los Angeles-based designer Nicole Russell of Word for Word Factory, maker of our super cute Gay Agenda and Feminist with a To-Do List notepads and much more. Shrill Society co-founder, Cameron, talks with Nicole about making small things, trademarking a phrase she made famous, and her secret button club.
Cameron Shaw: How did you get started with Word for Word Factory?
Nicole Russell: Well, I’ve always made things. I've got an MFA and BFA. When I was in grad school, which was a while ago, I got really into color and language. I became a bit obsessed with hardware-store paint-chip names, and how they played into these cultural and personal narratives. Like there are hardly any negative paint-chip names, only a few slightly ominous, dark blue, seafaring ones. Most all of them are very utopic―a fresh coat of paint equals a new start. I saw them as these genericized versions of personal desires. I also did a lot of tracking of patterns in daily life―the color of stoplights I hit while driving, photographing dirty dishes in my sink each day, audio recordings of my cat meowing. I think that all those quotidian fascinations carried me into making language-based objects for everyday use.
More concretely, a friend brought her button maker over one night for a little get-together. This was in 2011, so everybody made some buttons and had some drinks. I couldn't stop making buttons, like I got really, really into it, cutting things out of magazines and stuff. My partner at the time bought me a button maker for my birthday that year, and it’s still the same button maker I use today.
At that time, I worked an office job because this was before the Affordable Care Act. I have chronic migraines as a pre-existing condition, so I couldn't get coverage without being part of a large group plan. And because I get so many, I’d have to go to work sometimes and just feel awful. I didn't have enough sick days. So as soon as I got the button maker, I thought, “The button that I really want to make is a button that says ‘Migraine Day,’” so that I could wear it to work when I had a migraine and it could communicate for me. So that was the first Social Alert Button, which I made for myself. Then I started thinking about what other things needed to be communicated in a social context, and that’s how the line grew. That was the real beginning of Word for Word. Now I have over 150 designs. Some of them are serious; some of them are kind of ridiculous; and some of them are very useful.
Then in 2015, that was when the whole pin-game craze popped up and everyone started to make enamel pins. I thought, “Well, I make buttons. I might as well make an enamel pin.” So I made one that said “Feminist with a To-Do List,” which is my original phrase that a few years later I actually trademarked. When that pin got popular, my audience expanded and then things grew from there.
What was so appealing to you about working on that small scale, especially having trained as an artist and having made big installations? What about the buttons really got you going that night?
I mean, there’s the instant gratification. You can make a button pretty fast. You cut something out or you design something on the computer, print it, then you punch it, press it, and you’ve suddenly got an object! That immediacy was pretty addicting. I was used to doing stuff where I painted entire walls of galleries with footers of vinyl text, like a poem you could walk into. That involved a lot of planning and access to space. Then once the show was over, I painted everything over white, and it was like it never existed. So having a little button was kind of great. Also, I think it combined all these obsessions and interests I had with color, language, emotion, and the mundanity of the everyday. I was commenting on that with my larger-scale work, but making buttons, I was actually engaging with it. Also, I come from a working-class background in the Midwest, so I was always conscious of the class crossing of going to art school and going to grad school. I always wanted to make work that if somebody went into that space, if they had no art education, they could still get something out of it. That has always appealed to me about making buttons, notepads, or other little things. They were accessible to people and affordable. I’ve always liked little things. I collected stickers as a kid.
I have a sticker collection to this day!
Yeah! I like that idea of somebody having a bowl of all their favorite accessories and making those choices every day about what they want to use or wear.
I’m so interested in that because I have collected pins and I still collect stickers. I didn’t know you were into both of those things personally. What do you think it is about certain people who are into that stuff?
I collected stickers as a kid and I still have some of that sticker collection. I can’t get rid of them. Even if now I don’t want to use a metallic unicorn, I still really appreciate having it. I think it starts with accessibility. As a kid, you can save your money and buy a pack of stickers for two dollars. It’s one of the first things you can afford when you’re younger. You can buy a pin or a sticker. It’s low cost, yet it has this vibrant color and words or images that you gravitate towards. You get to develop your personal taste. I mean, I’ve also loved cats since I was a child, so I have a huge cat sticker collection.
I’ve been collecting stickers since I was a kid too. I recently committed to living with my collections more, so I’ve started using the stickers when I write letters to people, or make a birthday card, or something. It feels like I’m sharing a small part of myself because there’s such an intense joy that I get in the sticker store, that I get from selecting the stickers, that I get from matching the stickers up with the card and envelope. Then this little piece of me gets dropped in the mail.
Yes! I did that recently. A friend of mine brought me this fresh, gluten-free sourdough loaf. (I can’t eat gluten.) I thought, “I have to send her a thank you card!” So I used one of my old, weird cat stickers on the envelope. It does become more fun and more personal.
And, honestly, I think we have less and less opportunities for that. Or maybe they’ve just dramatically changed. I do also love GIFs and Emojis and include them in all my text messages. Maybe that’s the same impulse as putting a sticker on all my envelopes.
It’s the power of personalization.
Learning the first Word for Word button was the migraine button makes your tagline―“Start a conversation, or casually avoid one”―make so much sense. You also self-describe Word for Word as a “queer feminist-run print and accessories brand.” How do you hope the products reflect you or your vision of the world?
That’s a good question. It’s also complex. My other tagline is “A little levity to get you through the drudgery,” which is to say I think everyday life can have wonderful, peculiar little details to it, but it’s also tiring and repetitive in other ways. That is the nature of the everyday. I want to make products that are clever, make people laugh a little bit, and sometimes have an earnest side to them too. I think overall I want people to feel seen or to relate in a really specific way that feels like a relief―that they aren’t alone. I think being queer, being chronically ill (I have a few autoimmune diseases too), and even being a “smart stoner” is this intersection of identities that can be isolating at times. Like ten years ago women weren’t included accurately as part of cannabis culture; there wasn’t that much cultural conversation around chronic illness or disability, and even queer visibility in culture has changed drastically in recent years. So I hope people feel seen, and that my products help them communicate with the world in some small way.
How and where do you find inspiration for the words, phrases, or images that make it into your pins, notepads, and other products?
Again, I go back to the everyday. I can be watching a movie or reading a book, and a phrase pings something in my brain. I have a running list in my phone where I type ideas. Some of them are terrible, but then some of them I end up coming back to. Just this past year, I was having dinner with a few friends and I don’t even remember the conversation, but my friend said, “Men are ridiculous.” I asked, “Do I have permission to use that? I’m putting it in the button idea log.” I’m not sure I can ever sell it without getting harassed online severely, but I’ve made a few and given them to friends. So it’s usually something I’m watching, or reading, or some conversation I’ve had or maybe I’ve overheard somebody else have. The other thing that I do is I have this idiom dictionary that I like to read. I don’t know when I got it, and it’s pretty old, but I love it. If I’m feeling stuck or I know I need to work on something, I’ll just flip through it until something jumps out at me.
That’s a really fun source of inspiration. I also love that there’s a secret button club wearing this Men Are Ridiculous button that you may never sell.
I got a three-inch button maker last year. I haven’t quite figured out what to do with it, but the Men Are Ridiculous button is a three-inch button. It makes it even better, I think. Like the giant soccer-mom-sized button with the photo of your kid. Maybe I should make the secret button club official…
Can you talk a little bit about the process of getting the trademark for “Feminist with a To-Do List”?
There’s a database where you can look up what is trademarked. I thought at first I needed to copyright it, but I learned that’s for images and a phrase has to be trademarked. It also has to be a phrase that is synonymous with your business, so usually it’s a tagline, but I felt it could apply. So I searched the database to make sure nobody else had applied for it and nobody had. The weird thing about trademarks is you have to apply to categories. You can’t just trademark a phrase. You have to trademark it according to certain items or services, and each category costs more money.
Why was it important for you to seek the trademark? I feel like many people don’t know why that’s a valuable tool.
I came up with the phrase in 2012. At the time I was making buttons, but nobody was really doing anything like that. As soon as pins started popping up as a trend in 2015, then people stealing one another’s ideas also started to pop up.
That’s something we hear again and again as we talk to various designers.
Yeah, and being an artist, I got nervous. I knew I needed to learn how to protect my intellectual property, legally. I need to get a lawyer now, so I can follow up. I have had trademark infringement, but it’s from a giant corporation that doesn’t respond to cease and desist letters, and I really have to go after them in a bigger way. It was wild that I came up with this phrase that became very popular. It turned into a hashtag and all this stuff. I felt weird claiming it as mine, but I also felt like I had to. I was running a business. I went through the process and it took a year and a half. You’re approved, then it goes public for a certain amount of time, then it becomes official. I have an official certificate from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office somewhere that I should probably frame.
I love the idea of framing it. Continuing on the business side of things, you make as many products as possible in California. Why is it important for you to work locally?
I think it’s similar to why people say you should shop locally, or shop queer, or shop feminist. It’s to keep money circulating in the community. That said, it is difficult to find local manufacturing that is both excellent and affordable. I have a great place that screen prints my tote bags, and I do a lot of production myself, in-house, so I get a lot of supplies from places in California―studio supplies and packing supplies. I get my blank pencils from a place in California. It’s basically impossible to get enamel pins manufactured in the USA, but I try to get everything else manufactured here.
We talked a bit about your secret button club. I’m curious if there is a person past or present who you’d really love to see using one of your products and what product. Do you have a little fantasy?
I will say last year Janelle Monáe wore my Intersectional pin, along with some other great feminist pins in a Today Show performance. I remember somebody sent me an Instagram photo and I was like, “Oh my god!” So that was awfully exciting. That was a dream come true. Last night, I was watching Megan Rapinoe on Rachel Maddow and she was talking about her activism [on behalf of women’s soccer and equal pay initiatives]. I would have loved to see a Feminist with a To-Do List pin on her lapel. That would be kind of awesome.
How strong is your pin game? Get the Feminist with a To-Do List pin for yourself or one of Nicole’s other great designs. Plus, read our previous interviews with Kelly Abeln, Jen Zeano, Make A Woman Cum For Once designer Natalie Gaimari, and Daisy Natives' Sarah Eckett.