Artist Uses Typography to Help Homeless in Chicago
Lingering alongside a middle-aged man on North Michigan Avenue is a sign. Printed on a clean-looking piece of cardboard are crisp, bold letters that tell a short story.
Dozens of signs like this one can be found up and down the busy avenue. From a former United States veteran to a man with health problems, the signs help to tell the stories of many homeless men and women.
“The first person that I made a sign for was Roger,” Ian Todd, the artist that produces the signs says.
“I’m honestly not too sure why I specifically picked Roger but I think it was just because he was the first person I saw.”
For Todd, art first began with Legos and coloring books. Then it grew into drawing and graphic design. From there, it became making typography signs for the homeless.
Todd says that art has been in his life since as early as he can remember. Now, at 23 years old, Todd has been working on a project for the past 10 weeks that is helping one population in particular—the homeless.
A crinkled cardboard sign, with a message scribbled in black marker is an accessory many people may associate with the homeless. The signs that many homeless men and women have are more than letters on a piece of material. These signs are a piece of the homeless people’s identity. They are truths and explanations. Messages and stories—and with the Urban Type Experiment, Todd is helping the public understand what those stories are.
The Urban Type Experiment allows Todd to make creative and artistic signs for homeless men and women. He asks the people what they would like their signs to say, and then he makes the signs for them and brings the finished products back a few days later.
“The goal was just to try and help. There’s really no huge goal of it all,” says Todd. “I just wanted to try and help others in any way that I could.”
Todd says his family has been supportive of his project. He says that at first he didn’t think his family members understood what he was doing, but once the project started to develop, they were proud.
“I’ve been into art as early as I can remember. It’s sort of always been a part of my family in one-way or another,” he says.
Even as a child, Todd says he had an appreciation for art. He claims the opportunity to have art constantly around him helped his inspiration.
The artist says he was born in Florida but he has lived in places such as Maine and New Hampshire. In addition to residing in those areas, he also attended Iowa State University.
“I ended up in Chicago to pursue art direction and while at school I was taking an expressive type class,” Todd says. He was working on a project that involved hand lettering and he really seemed to enjoy it.
“I saw an opportunity to further explore hand lettering while also helping others. It seemed like a great opportunity to use my skills to help these people and also gain awareness for the homelessness as an issue.”
The signs are created on sturdy pieces of clean cardboard. Each sign is different and has an individual and personal message written on them in various fonts and scripts.
One of the most challenging parts for Todd with his experiment is trying to find the people to so he can deliver their signs. He mentions that timing and weather can mess up finding them. Sometimes, he says, it can take a few weeks to find the person.
“You just sort of have to keep an eye out and continuously check the area to see if they are around.”
One person that was easy to be spotted on the street for me was Fred—someone who Todd had recently made a sign for.
Fred, 50, says that Todd approached him about five weeks ago and offered to make him a sign. He says he told Todd his story of how he got to the streets and where he wants to be in the near future. Fred says that his situation is only temporary and that he will be off the street soon.
“Ian came up one day. Asked me how I was doing. Asked me about my story, so I told him,” he says.
Fred says he is a father of three and his daughters are ages 17, 16, and 12. They don’t know that he is out on the streets, he says, but wants to be able to provide for them.
He says that Todd asked him what he wanted his sign to say. After thinking about it for a couple minutes, Fred says, he came up with the message.
“This is only for temp. I’m looking for employment. God will be blessing me with a job very soon. I can pass a drug test at any given time. God bless you,” Fred reads off of the first side of his sign with pride in his voice.
He reads the second side just as confidently.
“Single parent with three children in need of some temp help. If you can find it in your heart please do so. God bless you.”
A couple walked by Fred on the street and handed him a small loaf of bread from a bakery and asked how he was doing. The three of them had a small conversation and the couple walked away. Fred mentioned that the couple drops off bread every day for him.
After tucking the bread into his bag, he took out an umbrella to keep dry from the rain. Fred says that more people stop to read the sign Todd made for him and ask about his situation.
“From the feedback I’ve been getting it sounds like they really are generating more interactions,” Todd says, “And I think with the traction it has been gaining on the web, it’s starting to raise some awareness.”
Todd mentioned that he wasn’t sure that he has taught much to the people who he’s worked with for the experiment. Instead, he says they are teaching him.
“If they’ve gained anything from me, it’s tips on how to grab people’s attention in different way,” Todd says.
“I’ve learned how appreciative people can be of the smallest gesture. I’ve also learned how much the smallest gesture can make a difference.”
Taking a walk along the streets of the city and seeing the signs that Todd has produced is one way citizens can visibly see a difference that has helped a dozen of homeless men and women in Chicago. Whether it is giving a pocket full of change or just a simple conversation, it is apparent that any act of kindness might just help someone in need.
“As humans we crave interaction, and so I think even just having a short conversation can change the course of someone’s day.”
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