Matthew Hoffman is a Chicago-based artist and designer whose public works have been exhibited internationally. He’s created large-scale installations for Facebook, Zappos, Groupon and Cards Against Humanity, as well as the City of Chicago. In fact, over 30 of his outdoor installations can be seen currently in the Chicagoland area. To top it off, his work has been published in books by Gestalten, Droog, and Taschen, and he’s even been featured on the Oprah network — yes, the Oprah.
But it all started with a passion project — or, better yet, 100 poorly printed stickers.
Since their first print run in 2002, Matthew’s You Are Beautiful stickers have been shared over 4 million times and have impacted every continent (including Antarctica).
We caught up with Matthew to talk about the global sticker movement and to learn more about how small projects can create positive change within communities.
So, stickers? Talk me through your idea process. How did it all happen?
I wish I could say I hatched a brilliant long-term plan and had it all mapped out. But it was more reactionary and immediate. I moved to Chicago in 2002 after having never spent any time in a big city. It was wild — amazing. But it was also incredibly overwhelming. I didn’t know many people and felt isolated in the busyness. So, I wanted to create a simple, calming message amid the chaos, to say: “Breathe. Relax. Take a moment. Everything’s okay. You’re all good. Now go about your day.” So, I made 100 stickers and began slapping them up anywhere I could.
How did you come up with the phrase, “You are beautiful”?
I played around with a lot of different ideas, but when I landed on that phrase, it just felt true — for everyone. “Beautiful” has such a broad interpretation, which gives it a lot of flexibility and freedom in any language.
What were your initial hopes for the project?
My initial hopes were to just make things a little better for those who stumbled across the message. I’ve always said that this sticker isn’t going to change the world. But it does have the power to change someone’s world, and that’s enough for me. It’s taken me over a decade to realize it, but the main idea running behind this project is hope. It’s the hope that things can and will get better than they are right now.
So, you printed some stickers, made a one-paged website for orders, and kept your day job. Did anything change after the launch of YAB?
I mean, there wasn’t any launch or release party. It wasn’t anything fancy. It was just this hopeful kid slapping up stickers in the street. My life wasn’t any different before or directly after. I was just breaking some laws for a positive reason.
How has the project changed since then?
I never planned much out. I just worked on whatever needed to happen. I bought a label maker and shipping software because writing envelopes by hand was getting old. I purchased shipping supplies when the envelopes from the local office store were bursting in the mail. And I brought on help when I couldn’t get all the work done in time. As orders piled up and installations got bigger, I simply couldn’t do it on my own.
It’s always grown bit by bit in that way. So, although it’s evolved over the last 16 years, I believe it holds as much power as it did in 2002. We still want this positive message to spread to everyone. We want people to feel good, and we want our art and design to be appreciated by people in all walks of life.
Was there ever a moment when you thought this is getting big?
That’s a tough question — I always play everything down.
We’ve printed over 4 million stickers in 100 languages. We’ve been invited to paint murals and create installations around the world. I’ve met and worked alongside incredible artists, such as Shepard Fairey, FAILE, Darkclouds, and so many others. Seth Godin has talked about the project at a major conference. It was featured on Oprah’s Sunday morning show for a year. We now run a full-time studio with a staff. We ship orders daily around the world and pull off some massively fun installations.
But to me, its “bigness” is the community that has grown around it. The lives a little sticker has touched and the interactions it’s created — to me, that’s the good stuff. Coming across a sticker in the wild is crazy and heartwarming. There aren’t words to explain that feeling. I think the hands-together/center-chest emoji comes the closest.
Why do you think it resonates so much with people?
The most common story we hear is that someone came across a sticker randomly — that it took them by surprise and created a moment, that after a little research, they found out where the sticker came from and ordered a pack to share that moment with others.
It’s human to want to feel good about yourself, and the act of sharing that with others can be even more rewarding. It often creates an endless loop of positivity.
A lot of the installations you’ve created through your main studio, Hey It’s Matthew, also have simple, positive messages (i.e. Go For It, What You Do Matters, Work Together, Let’s Be Human). Before YAB, did you think that such encouraging messages could create a sustainable career?
YAB has shown me that being positive is not silly or trite, and it has the potential to be rewarding and accepted by the world at large. Often in the art/design world, our focus is on negativity or what’s going wrong. To do something with such a positive message is almost a rebellious act. It’s pushed me to have the confidence to believe in what I’m putting out there. So, Hey It’s Matthew is the playground where I try out these new, off-the-wall ideas — where I play and take risks.
How else has YAB changed the way you see yourself, creative projects, and the world at large?
Honestly, this project has brought me so much hope. When things seem dreary — when I feel completely overworked, undervalued, and utterly exhausted — we get a letter in the mail or get tagged in a photo. Someone says, “Thank you so much for doing this. It means the world!” That right there, that simple little remark, makes all the difference. It makes the hard work worth it, and it gives me hope that we (humanity) have the power to make things better.
What we’re doing is hard to categorize. In some instances, we’re classified as “sign installers,” “sticker printers,” or — my personal favorite — “an internet business.” So, even if you don’t fit in with how things have always been, it doesn’t mean you can’t make it happen.
I started this project as a defiant act, as a protest from all of the self-doubt and garbage society throws on us, as a battle cry against the negativity that’s so easy to focus on. So, to be able to offer hope every day — it’s humbling. It’s amazing.
Have you seen any YAB stickers in the wild? If so, we want to hear about your experience finding them. If not, keep a look out!
Or, if you’re interested in ordering your own pack of stickers, head to you-are-beautiful.com and pass along a bit of positivity.