Photo by Yoshihiro Makino

This week we’re running online for the first time six pieces from our past issues of Eye on Design magazine. This story was originally published in the “Psych” issue.

 

It’s no longer just a sneaking suspicion—the science is in, and the news isn’t good: your social media habit is not just bad for your mental health, but every like, comment, and endless scroll is only making you sadder, lonelier, and more depressed. And as opposed to older users, young people can also count on social media contributing to poorer sleep, body image issues, and relationship problems. But wait, there’s more. Instagram—the platform of choice for most designers and other visually minded folks—is the biggest offender of the bunch, easily out-depressing every other social media platform. Amid the hundreds of thousands of Facetuned feeds and accounts brimming with beauty shots of the #blessed lives of others, a surprisingly small number post messages that are helpful or remotely true-to-life. Out of that select group, there’s one profile that goes a step further to fight Instagram’s insta-negativity with posts that are consistently smart, insightful, hilarious, and weird-in-a-good-way: @itsanimatedtext. Scrolling down the feed, you might not think a classically trained graphic designer was behind these GIFs, which frequently feature neon rainbow gradients, stock photos (watermark very much included), and twirling 3-D text. The glitter effect is often involved.

It’s not that Cat Frazier didn’t learn about traditional design in school, or that she doesn’t know how to kern type. She did, and she can. But unlike many of her grid-abiding classmates, it just didn’t interest her. While they were busy pushing pixels, she was trawling Tumblr and discovering a wide world well beyond the borders of the International Typographic Style. And even if she couldn’t have predicted the recent social media backlash when she started the project in 2012, Animated Text nevertheless went on to become one of the few social media safe havens for people battling mental illnesses—illnesses that can be aggravated, ironically, by the very media where Frazier posts her messages.

After graduating from Pratt Institute in New York City, Frazier moved west, eventually landing in Long Beach, California, where she’s just signed a two-year lease on an apartment. It’s less than an hour’s drive south of Los Angeles, to where she commutes once a week to work from the downtown office of Super Deluxe, an entertainment company that seems to exist in order to produce an endless supply of weed memes, trippy games, and nonsensical web shows (“Blaze ‘N Build,” for example, pits two stoners against each other in a timed competition to assemble a piece of furniture). Frazier has run the company’s popular social media channels for years, but recently she decided she’d had enough. 

As the Animated Text community grew, and her freelance work along with it, committing to her day job became a struggle. So she quit. Or at least, she tried to. Super Deluxe asked her to stay on full-time, even if it meant moving to Long Beach to be closer to her girlfriend’s family and coming in only one day a week. If her work-life balance seems pretty ideal, Frazier would agree. But even though she’s just 27 years old, it’s taken her a long time to get here. Prior to college in New York, Frazier moved from Montgomery, Alabama, where she was born, to live with a foster family in Atlanta, Georgia, after her mother died when Frazier was just 10. Her ability to turn pain into humor has served her well IRL as well as online. It’s her unique combination of rhymes and clever turns of phrase about subjects that range from G-rated dad jokes to the taboo, often highlighting the darkest sides of depression and issues around gender and sexuality, that make her work so eminently shareable—and so much more substantive than their spinning, glittering text would suggest. 

First things first: Do you say GIF or Jiff?

GIF. 

How did your love affair with GIFs begin and eventually grow into Animated Text?

I started Animated Text in 2012 while I was at Pratt. It was a weird kind of rebellion for me, and a way to express myself. I was under all the pressures and deadlines of a hard school program. Tumblr was just beginning in 2012, and the communities there were still strong. I started connecting with other people who had a really good technical background, and also had a very strange tone and point to prove. I started joining these transparent communities—as they were called back then—of people who make graphic edits that were transparent, which look better on a personal blog. That’s how I started getting into it. The inspiration for me wasn’t “Oh, I love graphic design, I love GIFs.” 

I was also really interested in old Internet. Internet Archeology had a lot of these old 3-D word things that people could put on their GeoCities sites back in the day. I fell in love with that and wanted to learn how to make them. 

Was Internet Archeology the first time you saw those kinds of graphics, or was that visual language already part of your own experience growing up on the Internet?

I had seen it before, but it was the first time I had seen it curated. Earlier, when I was in middle school and we still had computers with floppy discs, I would go to MySpace, AOL chat rooms, and GeoCities sites, but I was never as enamored of the design aesthetic and 3-D text as I was when I saw it curated all in one place; that’s when I really saw the beauty of it.

Did you ever show any of your instructors at Pratt what you were working on?

Oh my gosh, no! I was so scared. The only time it got out was in my Graphic Design 2 course, I think. Somebody was like, “Hey Cat, I found your Tumblr.”

You were outed!

The whole room went dead silent. Everyone was like, “What’s a Tumblr?” They started showing it to one another and saying, “We didn’t know that was you! That’s so cool!” There was a lot of support, and actually a lot of people who I went to school with still follow me on different platforms and talk to me about it. But at the time, I felt like I was betraying the design community because it was so overtly not what we were being taught.

Photo by Yoshihiro Makino

What were you learning in school that you wanted to rebel against? Was it a prevailing aesthetic, or the way it was taught? 

It was the rules. I remember taking a website course that was so pixel-perfect I almost lost my mind. I was also interning at the time, so I had this dual experience of working at places where I was needed and my bosses considered me an amazing designer, and then going to class and my teacher being like, “This pixel is horrible. This doesn’t follow the grid rule.” I was like, “I can’t do this!”

There was a job at Pratt itself, an office job, and there were really amazing graphic designers there who were like, “We’re gonna make the style guide, and this is how it’s gonna be.” I was impressed, but also kinda turned off by the idea that you would make these rules for yourself, and then create within them. That’s great design; that’s what you’re supposed to do. But I felt like there were just too many rules, and that it wasn’t as freeing as I wanted it to be. That’s when I started to do my own stuff.

What do you say to people who call your work “ugly design?”

Ugly things being appreciated for the sake of being ugly was revolutionary for me. Tumblr went through this phase where Comic Sans was unironically on everything. I appreciated that I could make something with Papyrus and people loved it. I could never do that in design class. I never felt as confident in class as I did online because of the rules.

In school, was there room for experimentation, or did you feel compelled to design in a way that went against your nature, that was perhaps more traditional and accepted?

I think at first I did. I remember a site I designed for a web design class that looked like a Wikipedia page. Everything was in a box, there was no creativity. It was so ridiculous. Later, around the time I started doing Animated Text, I designed a depression brochure for class. Instead of making it extremely happy and colorful, it was really dark. I drew illustrations by hand and used grungy type that was really expressive. I didn’t realize that in the real world this wouldn’t fly, because depressed people need to feel happy when they’re reading a brochure like this. Still, my teacher was really supportive, and the students were, too. I think that was the first time I thought, “Design in the real world can be expressive, too. It can have an attitude.” Before that I thought I had to do things in a set sort of style. It felt like I was imitating something.

If we can call Animated Text a result of your college rebellion, was that just the latest in a series of rebellions? Were you rebellious growing up? 

I was bullied constantly in middle school, but I would never outwardly rebel. I would write an essay about something that was kind of out of bounds. I didn’t want to get into trouble or disobey authority because I still wanted to be voted “a pleasure to have in class.” But I didn’t want to make it easy for them. 

I’ve always been very sarcastic, and even though I was really good in school, I always had some kind of an attitude or sassiness about me that turned teachers off. I was a bit of a class clown. I gravitated toward humorous things to help me cope with what I was going through. It’s so funny, because that’s actually what I get paid to do now. 

“Design in the real world can be expressive, too. It can have an attitude.”

How did you fit in within your family? Were you the black sheep?

I was the worst. I was just a piece of trash as a teenager. I’m gay, so I blame a lot of it on that. My family’s from the South, and that comes with its own ideas of what and how you’re supposed to be. I was creative and artistic, and when I realized I wasn’t gonna fit that Southern standard I told them I wanted to move to New York to be in advertising or design, and they were just like, “Okay, Cat’s just the weird one.” I was way more introverted than everyone else in my family, for sure. 

Do you have any fond memories of home? 

I think of it mostly as the place that didn’t accept me. When I go back now I almost feel like a stranger in the town. I have an outsider’s perspective, looking in.

Are any of the topics that you focus on in your current work, like depression or mental illness,  part of an open conversation in your family growing up?

Therapy was extremely silenced. My mom had auditory and visual schizophrenia, but a lot of it was seen as “Oh, she’s just that way.” It was normalized. I see that now, too, in the South. People don’t really go get treatment; they just accept the family member as being a little different, when in reality they’re suffering from a mental illness.

When I was a teenager and going to therapy, it wasn’t put down upon, but it wasn’t spoken about. I never spoke openly about it with my family. It was just like, “Oh yeah, time for my appointment.” It’s still very much brushed under the rug.

Did your mother get treatment for her schizophrenia?

She did. I’ve heard some stories from my siblings that before I was born she was actually a lot worse. There was this taboo about getting her on treatment. When I was little, I remember her being almost like a zombie, medicated, or swinging back and forth between extremes. She got treatment, but the issue with schizophrenia is you feel like you’re getting better and you stop taking your meds. So it was kind of like that cycle. 

“You can talk about really dark topics and still make people cry-laugh.”

Were you able to have an open dialogue about therapy or mental health with your mother?

Not really. When I spoke to her she seemed like the sanest person in the room, surprisingly. As a kid, I would ask her things like, “Can I move things with my mind?” I was really into Matilda. And she would say, “Yeah, you can do anything you want to do.” To me, that was so inspirational, but she probably really believed that. 

My mom passed away when I was 10, and I was adopted into a foster family. I’m still close with my biological family. We’re a blended family. When I speak to my siblings now, mental health is a way bigger topic because of what I went through as a teenager, and also the history in our family. And I’m also old enough to talk about it.

Was it your idea to go to therapy in high school, or did it come from someone in your family?

The earliest memory I have is from when I was eight. I was crying and saying, “I need therapy.” My family was like, “You don’t even know what therapy is.” I don’t know how I knew what therapy was, but I watched a lot of TV so that may have been it. 

In high school, a lot of my friends were in therapy, and that’s when I realized the benefit of therapy. It also felt like it was a class thing, a social class thing. The people who were higher class talked about it, but everyone else who couldn’t afford it couldn’t talk about it. I went to see the school counselor, and they recommended that I see an actual therapist once a week to help me cope with coming out and feeling like the black sheep in my family. That became a part of my identity while I was home.

Was that something you were able to continue at Pratt?

Yeah. It really helped me senior year, because I started experiencing symptoms similar to those I had in high school—panic attacks, feeling overwhelmed. But for the first three years of school I didn’t go to therapy. What’s funny is I think Animated Text definitely started during one of those three years, and then kind of ramped up once I started therapy again. I was mostly talking to school counselors when I was at Pratt, but I wasn’t really dedicated to my mental health like I was senior year at Pratt and before, in high school.

Photo by Yoshihiro Makino

Did you start Animated Text as more of a visual relief, as a way to find different means of expression for your design work? Or was it equally about creating a space online where you could express feelings around your own mental health?

It was definitely both. But when I first started it was much more centered around pop culture: “Yolo, toys, swag!” I also accepted a lot more requests for texts for the GIFs back then, just indiscriminately, so it was very funny and of the times, but I wasn’t really seeing it as relief for my emotional state or anything like that until I got better at making the text and felt comfortable enough to make something about depression. Now, it is definitely about the emotional state. It’s more about navigating this world than it is about the design.

“Therapy felt social class thing. The people who were higher class talked about it, but everyone else who couldn’t afford it couldn’t talk about it.”

You post actively across Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. How do you vary the content and decide what to post and when on all of them?

On Tumblr or Twitter, I would never post videos back-to-back like I do on Instagram and Facebook, so there are fewer visual elements there. It’s much more idea-driven. On Instagram, it’s the exact opposite. Because of the visuals, I feel like more of a graphic designer because I have to combine both text and images and think about the composition. For Facebook, it’s become this mode of curating and seeing what’s actually gonna pass Facebook policies, and I’m thinking more like a social media director as opposed to an artist.

How has the project, and your work as a designer, evolved over those six years?

For one thing, I’m much more comfortable now not accepting everyone’s requests and being super cautious about which groups of people I marginalize and which groups of people I highlight. I think now I’m more confident talking about my own sexuality and my race.

Back when I relied a lot more on Tumblr, I worried a lot about rhyming. Stuff that was really stupid, like “Shy, bi, and ready to cry.” Okay cool, that passes. Or, “My couch pulls out but I don’t.” But now maybe I can do something that’s a little more nuanced, that’s clearly talking about depression, or is more experimental. The subject matter has definitely become deeper than it originally was. I’m more comfortable with that.

Does it always start with a joke? Or does it start with you wanting to express something about, say, sex or depression specifically?

It always starts with a joke. It’s gotta be funny, that’s the one thing, even if it’s something dark. I made one that says, “Don’t let being a dumb bitch keep you from reaching your dreams.” At the end of the day, that’s a mom quote from Facebook: “Reach your dreams.” It’s gotta have a certain tone, something that relates to the way we talk now. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’m just a motivational speaker for Instagram? That’s just weird.

How did you develop your comedic voice? Have you always been funny? Or is that something that you’ve really focused on for Animated Text?

I’ve always been unintentionally funny. I’ve always loved comedy and comedians, but only recently have I become obsessed with other joke writers and been deliberate about having a comedic tone and trying to understand how to write. It’s only been in the last two years that I’ve tried to take “being funny” and hone it.

Who are some of your favorite comedians?

I love Issa Rae, Awkward Black Girl all day. Tina Fey is awesome, and Rashida Jones, but then I also really like Dave Chappelle. He was one of the first people who made me realize “Oh, you can talk about really dark topics and still make people cry-laugh.” 

What do you think it is about the way Dave Chappelle constructs his jokes that lets him get away with things that other comedians just can’t?

I always describe it as the food you eat at a funeral. It’s nourishing, and we’re all at this horrible event together, but this is helping us cope so we can talk and laugh about it. Comedians like Dave Chappelle can pull funny elements from something that’s horrible, like a baby in the projects who has no mom and is on the street. He can turn that into a joke, even when the reality of that situation is tragic. You’re pulling these tiny moments, or screenshots of this horrible event, and you’re seeing the humor or the absurdity in it. That’s one thing that I really gravitate to: the absurdity of things that are really sad. 

Are there any subjects that are out of bounds for you? Things that you just don’t think can be funny or that you wouldn’t joke about?

I never talk about rape. There’s also a request I get a lot, and it’s a joke, but it’s literally always the same joke from people asking me to make a GIF saying: “Hitler was right.” No subtext, no nothing. I’ve been getting that one since I started my blog, and I’m never gonna make that. It’s this kind of edgelord mentality that I’m hoping is dying away on the Internet now, this need to be provocative for the sake of being provocative—I don’t ever do that. That’s why I say it has to be funny, at least to my taste, because I’m not gonna say some horrible stuff just for shock value.

You’ve made more than 9,000 GIFs at this point. Do you have any favorites? 

I do have favorites. “You don’t deserve working headphones.” I like that one a lot. That’s actually my header right now. Also, “Howdy partner, I’m not okay,” and, “I hope you step on a Lego.” 

This one blew up on Facebook and people stole it, but it was my joke: “When I’m feeling #blessed or #stressed, I’m always lookin’ my #best.” That’s kinda the narcissistic vibe that I always have. Or, “Damn girl! Are you a fire alarm? Cause you are really fucking loud and annoying.” You know, stuff like that.

“I think the more people who talk about mental illness the better. There’s never going to be a fetishization of feeling like shit.”

Has your process of making these changed at all since you started? 

I used to just take a request or think of a joke in the shower, write it down, and that’s gonna be it. But because I’ve made so many at this point, most of the time my first idea for a joke is too similar to something I’ve already done. It takes me a lot longer to make stuff now because I want it to be different. Maybe I want to make something about a hot pocket or a pizza roll, but I’ve made so many of those. How can I talk about depression, or being tired, or what I’m going through right now and turn that into a piece? Or maybe I scrap that altogether and rearrange it with some other stuff in my notebook, which is something I keep now.

 

When you say it takes you a lot longer now, how long is that?

It takes me a couple of hours to make one now. It takes longer to think of it and craft the joke than it does to actually make it. We’re talking about Xara 3D—it’s a super short amount of time. Maybe an animated text with a video and images takes a few hours, just because I want to be sure that the music and the stock photos all match up.

How did you start to incorporate the Ask Cat project into this? And please tell me you’re not using your personal phone number.

That project started thanks to Adrian Chen, who is now a staff writer at The New Yorker. He was a huge fan of Animated Text and used to do this thing called IRL Club. He said, “What have you always wanted to do? We’ll make it happen.” Technically speaking. I said I’ve always wanted to write an advice column, and for someone to be able to just flat out ask me a question that I could reply to with a funny response. It’s become part of my practice, turning a text from someone wanting to die or about somebody cheating on you into a one-liner.

That’s how I started. Adrian built the system where I actually type in the text that’s sent to a burner phone, and it spits it out with the animated text that I upload, the GIF that I make, right into the text as if it was a single conversation. Once they built that out, I started accepting requests and getting people to text me.

It got overwhelming for a while because I was talking to 50 people a day, texting me everything from, “I’m too afraid to pee in front of my roommate,” to “How do I get through today? I’m feeling so sad.” 

It’s a bit ironic that you maintain a physical distance from this community, yet you foster an emotional connection that’s closer than most real-life relationships. What’s it like to have all of these small yet deep connections with people you’ve never met?

I like that distance. It’s really calming, actually. It feels safe, but fulfilling. I often hear from people who tell me, “Hey, your stuff helped me get through the day.” That’s why the text advice is so hard. For some reason having someone’s phone number and talking to them is like, “Oh my God, you’re a real person!” It almost feels like, I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s like this collective friend that I have. It feels easier than being a one-on-one connection.

I try not to think too much about it, though. I don’t want to negate the fact that they feel very deep things with me. But when I think about it too much I get overwhelmed, because I’m still a person with my own trash, and I just make this stuff that everyone else can relate to.

The one thing that I do worry about is self-diagnosis. If you’re following someone who, let’s say, has Bipolar II Disorder, or talks a lot about a very specific disorder they have and their symptoms and the very specific meds they take, it’s very easy to associate yourself with them and think, “Oh, maybe this is my issue.” I think it’s totally fine to make posts about mental health disorders and talk to people about your personal mental health disorder as long as you’re also open to going to therapy, and you’re not relying on these posts. I think that’s why it’s important to make therapy mainstream. When that’s taboo is when horrible things happen. 

How many text questions do you field every day?
I try to do at least five a day.

And that’s on top of the regular Animated Text stuff.

Yeah. I’ve stopped letting it feel like an obligation. When the project was in full force and there were articles about it, I really did feel like I had to answer every single text, but a lot people ask the same questions, so I don’t feel as bad if I don’t reply to each and every one. Or I tell them, “Hey, check this out cuz I already answered this question.”

Photo by Yoshihiro Makino

How do you balance that with your job? Does it get overwhelming to be doing all this on the side?

Yes! That’s exactly why I was like, “Hey, I’m out.” These jokes I write, a lot of times they’re inspired by people I talk to and by events that I experience. If I’m just doing the same thing every day, it’s not gonna be funny and I’m not gonna feel inspired. It got to the point where I was posting lots of stuff every day to not posting anything for a week. Creatively, I was drained. Emotionally, I felt stressed and tired for a long time. I realized I needed to step back. I was going to quit my full-time job, but that’s when they offered me the consulting gig, which is great because I only have to come in once a week.

It seems like people are getting a lot out of you, even just the sheer amount of time that you’re giving to this anonymous community. What are you getting out of it?

Probably just three hours a day of not feeling depressed.

Because dealing with other people’s problems is a distraction?

Yes, in a way, but creating this stuff makes me feel good and feel connected to the world. I always felt that way; I wanted to draw, or I wanted to write, or I wanted to be a designer. It almost feels like this is a gift for me as well. That’s why I feel so grateful when people follow me or send me stuff or like my stuff. It is the process of me doing that. What I went through to make it is what I got out of it. Once it’s out in the world, it’s theirs. That’s why when people ask if they can use my GIFs or my art, in a way I feel like they already own it. That makes it really hard when you try to monetize it, because I got great pleasure out of this and now I’m gonna sell it? 

How do you monetize it?

A lot of times I work with brands. I just did a branded deal with a T-shirt company. I’m working with Comedy Central right now. I’ve worked with TV shows on the Oxygen network. Most of my work is taking really corporate brands or products and incorporating them into Animated Text. Sometimes I’ll actually work with other memers to make content that’s related to whatever their account is about. To me, that is so far removed from what I would personally make. I would never actually sit down and make this entire dissertation about the Olive Garden. But if I’m doing this for Animated Text then it kinda feels like “All right, you guys can pay me for this.”

Do you think the same thing applies to brands that are co-opting mental health the same way they’ve co-opted feminism? It may all be happening because those things are becoming mainstream, which, on the one hand, is great. But what about when brands bandwagon it just to sell their product? What happens to the legit conversation then? 

I had this similar experience recently, when I saw a tweet of a picture of a sad Pinocchio that said, “When someone compliments you, but you’re dead inside.”

Who tweeted that?

Disney tweeted that! So crazy! Back when I was doing my 2012 Tumblr thing and I made something about being dead inside, it was, like, a huge deal. Now it’s just common talk. I wouldn’t do it for a brand. The last brand was this female-run sex shop and my animated text was, “My last meal better be either pussy or pasta.” I asked myself, “What would I normally say for Animated Text?” I’m very aware that I’m trying to push this on people who are emotionally attached to my brain. It’s something I’m still learning how to do. I still try to see the fine line between selling the product and selling this idea. I don’t think I would mix those two things together. I’m somebody who’s supposed to really be inspirational and help you get through a hard time, and then attach you to something you need to buy? For me, brands doing that is horrible, but I also hate when regular people, like content creators, do that just to further their brand as well. That’s one thing I try not to do. I’m not gonna make a bunch of depressed memes or panic attack memes and be like, “Okay, I’m selling this now.” That’s not my personality.

What happens when the conversation about mental health goes mainstream? Is that helpful, or does it create a kind of fetishization around mental illness that’s counterproductive? What do you think are the effects of the conversations you’re fostering with your online community? 

I think it’s amazing. I get this critique a lot, especially when I’m saying things about depression and I don’t really zone in on it. I also talk a lot about dissociation and panic attacks, because those are things that people who have anxiety, like me, have physically experienced, and they really like to see attention paid to it. I don’t think it’s a double-edged sword like a lot of people think it is. I think the more people who talk about mental illness the better. There’s never going to be a fetishization of feeling like shit.