Artist Danielle Evans on food typography, harsh feedback, and Kanyeggs
Every item has a bending and breaking point. As a hand-lettering artist who primarily works with food, Danielle Evans’s job is to find that spot and transform it into something artful.
Danielle’s work is a delicious combination of sculpture, typography, photography, design, and food—with no shortage of puns, dad jokes, and Mean Girls quotes. It also reminds us that we should play more.
Read on to hear what Danielle had to say about creative inspiration, finding your style, and the bizarre synchronicity between Kanye lyrics and eggs.
How’d you get started as an artist? Do you have formal training?
Since I was very young, I’ve been drawn to the arts and identified myself as an artist. I went to a tiny, private liberal arts school that had a fantastic illustration department; I learned how to tell stories and evoke emotion, and I learned skills like sculpting painting and drawing. But nobody taught me how to do my current job.
My first typography class late in my junior year resonated with me, as I loved the structure of design and the subtlety of typographic choices. The right typeface can tell a story beyond the literal words. Opt to draw words instead, and you have the discipline of lettering.
I started combining food and lettering in 2013, which came out of resourcefulness (I could literally eat my words after playing with my food) and a desire to combine a multi-sensory experience with a typographer’s touch. There was no precedent, so every experiment was built out of my interests.
What’s your process, from initial idea to finished piece?
Every item has a bending and breaking point. My job is to find that spot and transform it into something artful.Sometimes the item will inspire the copy; other times I’ll have a lyric or a phrase that moves me, and I’ll try to marry objects to that idea. The conceptual stage is about popping those pieces into place and helping them align for a viewer. The ideas that become images or videos are completely aligned in material, concept, and lettering style.
Sometimes I’ll do a test with unfamiliar objects to ensure the type style I’d like to use is congruent with how the materials work. When I’ve worked through the kinks, I can better educate my clients about what to expect and what I can give them. Teaching is part of the creative process—especially mine where the materials and workflow shift with each project. Half of the exploration process is learning so I can educate myself and my team, making them experts so they can in turn teach the client.
I’ve learned the best ideas can be squashed if your client-side contact isn’t educated in what to expect from you. They need to feel confident as your advocate and believe in your expertise.
I can expend three times the energy for planning rather than production, which works best in a photo shoot scenario. On these days I show up early, consult with any photographers/videographers on lighting, equipment, technique, and coordinate a shoot schedule with the production team before my client arrives.
Once everything is approved, I’m building out the lettering while literally on my hands and knees. The fastest build I’ve ever had was 15 minutes, and the longest was nine hours.
I’ve learned the mood on set is reflective of how stressed/excited I am, so I stay centered by playing fun music, taking stretch/dance breaks, and goofing around while holding to schedule.
If tension elevates for any reason or I need to focus, my team sends client away from set to regroup and focus. Ultimately I’m fortunate because I get to see the immediate payoff of my labors as well as the client’s excitement in real time.
What are your favorite foods to work with?
Each material presents a unique challenge. Sometimes this is a short lifespan, a funky smell, rigidity that contrasts the ideal lettering style I wanted. I’m problem solving and switching mediums each project, and the path to that solution ultimately means each project is favorable in its own way.
I find the world around us, especially food, is drenched in meaning because eating is a shared experience. Memories, politics, and various movements are wrapped up in everything we imbibe and use. When these materials are wielded into something artistic, the work absorbs those messages as well.
When the pencil first hit the scene, it was a stark contrast to the elegance of a fountain pen. The working class used it to take quick notes that didn’t fade like chalk when brushed away, so conventional use gave it a fast, scrappy context. Now that the pencil is ubiquitous, its voice has diminished.
Since using objects is fairly new, their meanings are obvious and can play to or against the overall artistic concept.
Visual puns! Favorite you’ve ever done?
My longest running series, Kanyegg, is probably my collective favorite, as I’ve found a bizarre synchronicity between Kanye lyrics and eggs. Omelettes do let you finish—we might be over Yeezy, but the gamut of self-loathing and self-confidence runs deep with this rap mogul. There’s still plenty of yolks left.
How do you handle harsh feedback?
I don’t like to avoid or ignore harsh feedback; despite the untactful nature of some disagreement, there’s often a seed of truth in contrary opinion. My gut response is to take offense, to shut down.
But I’ve trained myself to first look at the intentions of the other party: Do they feel they need to exert an opinion to seem valuable, are they seeking control, do they want the best for the project and simply lack tactful delivery?
When I can pinpoint the root of the criticism, I can speak to the problem in a detached, clear-headed manner. I let them know I see their side and choose affirmative, inclusive language like, “We all want this project to be successful. Let’s discuss why we’re needing to reconsider these decisions. What can I do to ensure we’re all proud of these decisions?”
Circumstances dependent, I may choose to address the poor delivery in the moment after I’ve spoken to their concerns. Often I’ll let the offense drop, as embarrassing someone who is already ruffled will compound the dissent.
What do you do when you aren’t feeling creative?
I get away from my work. I’ve learned anything you love can suck you into a flow state where you lose track of time, accomplish great things. But there’s an adverse effect of lingering too long in an unproductive space. Rather than spiraling into self-loathing, I’ve learned to step out into nature, spend time with my friends and family, permitting myself to recharge.
I often meditate on this feeling, wondering why I feel inactive or unmotivated. These feelings are contrary to my nature, and with reflection they tend to expose something else that’s holding me back. Sometimes I’ll channel creative energy into an adjacent discipline, like writing, so I can still feel productive while I heal. Most recently, I was asked to create vector illustration and lettering for a promo poster and centered the concept around my dimensional type work. This project felt related while still giving me space to breathe.
What makes a hand-lettered design really great? Is there something that’s often overlooked? Anything that designers could add to make their pieces better?
Exceptional hand lettering strikes a balance between energetic and measured, impressionistic and historical. Our modern lettering resurgence is a direct response to pixel perfection and the austere futurism of the early 2000s.
The best examples still have a touch of humanism, a thumbprint of the person who flicked their pen or, in my case, formed strokes with their hands. Optical measuring is the only rule; lettering by newbies has a tense, measured countenance, a common mistake because the artist is still married to grids and literal measurement. Observing lettering is a lesson in psychology because you can feel the anxiety or elation of the maker.
“Exceptional hand lettering strikes a balance between energetic and measured, impressionistic and historical.”
I’ve only recently learned this particular lesson, I’m embarrassed to admit: If I choose my text, I can choose the layout. Sometimes I’ve been lazy with assembling my compositions and caught myself wishing certain words weren’t so long or so tight.
If I’m creating this piece, I can make the image feel as harmonious as I’d like while in the sketch phase. Duh!
How did you find your style?
Style is a byproduct of observing the rules and willfully choosing to break a handful—a documentation of “why” something is. My style was born out of my interests in cooking, lettering, sculpting, photography, even my active lifestyle. I knew long ago that pixel perfection didn’t apply to me (note that web design is one of the few disciplines I’ve not listed). Since food typography had no precedent, I felt I could play without fearing a standard or adhering to pre-established rules.
Originally my lettering style came out of the desire to prove my work was in fact real; I’d take side shots to show this wasn’t a camera trick, videos of me building so people could watch my thought process unfold at my fingertips. I’d do wipes of the work or allow it to degenerate on camera because the dying process was a fascinating byproduct of temporary projects. Eventually this led to stop-motion experiments regarding time and its role in these projects.
My style will evolve naturally as I continue to ask bigger, broader questions.