CIW Q&A: You Are Beautiful’s Matthew Hoffman

Simple, sleek and silver—that’s the formula behind the You Are Beautiful stickers that, since 2002, Chicagoans have spied everywhere from the CTA seat in front of them to a college students’ book bags to the 11-by-15 foot wooden “sticker” off the Oakwood exit ramp at Lake Shore Drive.  With the 2-millionth sticker hot off the presses, creator Matthew Hoffman has no plans to slow down.  He’s introducing a line of stickers translated into 81 languages, is working with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to bring You Are Beautiful to 44 billboards in Buffalo, New York, and recently held a CIW Lab.

The You Are Beautiful installation at Oakwood greets Lake Shore
Drive’s daily commuters and has contributed to a sense of “community,”
according to Hoffman.
Your recent CIW Lab started at the Lake Shore Drive installation and took people around the city’s South Side.  What was the idea behind the scavenger hunt–inspired Lab?
The idea was to feel what it’s like to do your own project, so there were different ways to interact with the project and interact with the environment.
It was a reverse scavenger hunt: You were given stickers and magnets and assignments.  So, one of those was to draw “You Are Beautiful” big in the sand, and everyone worked together to make a huge piece in the sand.  [Participants also] thought through different ways to hand out a sticker.  The idea was to put one in a very, very public place where everyone might see it, and put one in a very, very hidden spot where almost no one would see it, [except] for when it would be really unexpected for the person to find it.
What did people get out of this “reverse scavenger hunt”?
I think they looked at their environment differently.  Any time you’re able to stop and walk around the city, you get to re-explore it.  Even if it’s the same block you’ve lived on for years, you’re always going to find new things.  When you interact with it, you are inadvertently creating a community.
And what was your experience re-exploring the city?
It actually—it didn’t feel like work or a Lab or anything.  It felt just like an incredible Sunday morning hanging out with people.
You’ll be debuting stickers translated into 81 languages within the next few weeks.  What was the inspiration for the project?
[The idea is that] no matter how you say it, you are beautiful.  It will be interesting to see the reaction because…even though we worked really hard to get the best translation, there are always disagreements with dialect and also with the meaning of beauty.
What was that translation process like?
We started with the original translations we did in 2006 [for a smaller pack] that were all through individual people.  We also pulled things we couldn’t find readily available using Google translate.  Then, we created a survey where you could vote on best translation and offer others.
As many people as we could find who spoke the native language—for instance, the Irish and the Dutch translations, we talked to two people overseas and they both corrected what they were given. As many were fact checked as possible.  Since we’re always printing lots of stickers, if one is off, we can easily change that for the next reprint.
Reflecting on the past 12 years, what do you view as the reason for You Are Beautiful’s almost viral success?
It’s really about the community and the openness of the message and the approach of it.  It’s meant to be something very simple, delivered in a very clean way, so that you can take it any way you want.  That’s been the success of the message, [the reason for] its growth.
CIW Q&As are edited for clarity and length. 

Erin Robertson is managing editor at Chicago Ideas.

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