WORD FOR WORD pins down issues closest to our hearts
First, Nicole Russell made pinback buttons and then she made enamel pins. But before that, there was art school. When Russell pursued her bachelor and master of fine arts degree, she worked a lot with color and language. She worked, too, with concepts and theories of how people move through the world and interact with one another.
Russell’s academic work was often made on a large installation scale, which was difficult to sustain. So Russell started exploring new ways to work. That’s where the pins came in.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CC: How did you get started making pins?
NR: A friend brought her button-maker over one night for fun and I was a lot more obsessed with making buttons than anyone else was. Something kind of clicked and it sent me in a new direction. Accessibility was always a goal in my art work, and the pinback button offered a way to work on a smaller scale — and in a way that was affordable and accessible to folks outside of the art world.
I made my first Social Alert button in 2011, “Migraine Day,” for myself. I’d always wanted a simple way to let people know, especially at work, that if I seemed strange, it wasn’t personal: it was because I was in pain.
That eventually launched a tiny collection of Social Alert Buttons that grew to, now, close to 200 designs and counting — ranging from health-related buttons to politically-oriented ones, to ones related to cats, weed or books. Something for everyone.
No one else was really making anything like them at the time, and slogans and text on apparel and accessories weren’t popular yet either. In 2015, when enamel pins started to creep on the scene, there were only a handful of makers at first. It made a lot of sense to try designing one. So, I turned my best original phrase, “Feminist With A To-Do List,” into a gold + black hard enamel pin.
I had no idea how to manufacture an enamel pin at the time, so as with much of my business growth: I did a lot of research, jumped in, experienced some trial and error, and eventually found a quality manufacturer (through the help of another pin-maker friend) which I still use today.
CC: How did WORD FOR WORD start becoming a reality?
NR: I unofficially started it in grad school when I made some impromptu valentines from cut-up hardware store paint chips in my studio. A friend from Chicago who I sent one to convinced me to make more, and helped me with a name and logo.
I sold a few, but had no free time and the process of making the greeting cards was very labor intensive, so it sort of faded away over time. WORD FOR WORD was reborn around 2012 with the beginnings of the Social Alert Button collection.
It took a few years to really get things going though, as I was working a full-time day job then. So. I slowly chipped away at developing the product line, branding, package design, photographing products, and trying to grow the business on nights and weekends.
CC: What is the creative process for pins? Like how do ideas or phrases get to be turned into the physical pins?
NR: They originate a lot of different ways. Some come from the Social Alert Buttons. If a button phrase is popular, then I’ll try to make it into a pin.
I have a running list in my phone and sketchbook of phrases and ideas that come from different places: a conversation, a random thought, or something I’m reading or watched.
Like “Feminist Century” came from an Eileen Myles essay. And sometimes it comes to me all at once, like “Intersectional” — that was an early one that I’m pretty proud of and I’m still quite fond of.
The classic phrase “A Woman’s Work Is Never Done” had been on my mind awhile and I’m kind of obsessed with time — and collect hourglasses — so that one came together quickly, too.
Sometimes, I think I want to make something into a pin and the design doesn’t quite click, and I’ll sit on it. There’s no perfect recipe.
CC: What activist causes are close to your heart?
NR: In 2018, I feel like everything! The GOP wants to erode the rights of everyone who isn’t a cis straight white male and that’s scary because it’s slowly, quietly happening. The Supreme Court seat open right now, if filled with a conservative, potentially [Judge Brett] Kavanaugh, that will change our lives for decades to come in terrible ways.
It’s incredibly frightening. I’ve always been a feminist and cared about gender equality, a woman’s right to choose, and gay rights. Now trans rights as well, and immigrant rights, the importance of DACA and protecting dreamers.
It feels like so much is at stake right now and there are so many causes that are important. I have some friends working on voting rights, which I also think is incredibly important in a democracy under attack.
Disability rights and the right to healthcare has been a huge one for me. too. I’ve had chronic migraines my whole life. So I kept office jobs I hated and were hard on my health for over a decade, because I needed the healthcare coverage. With a pre-existing condition, I couldn’t get it otherwise.
I got very sick in 2014 with arsenic poisoning and was eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. I really had to change my life to survive, and being in control of my time and body became a big necessity. Having Obamacare as an option deeply changed my life. I couldn’t be running my business without access to health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
CC: What kind of impact do you want WORD FOR WORD pins to have?
NR: On a small level, making people feel seen and heard. I want them to see themselves and their needs and interests — often divergent from mainstream — represented in our collections.
We focus on feminism, queerness and chronic illness. Feminism has gotten pretty integrated into pop culture, the diversity of queerness is starting to get attention, and chronic illness is just starting to enter the cultural dialogue as well.
That’s actually where I started the business, in a way: wanting to communicate something simply, [something] that was complicated to communicate, about my health.
And politically, after [President Donald] Trump won the election, people really felt the need to show what side they were on. And pins and buttons allowed that in a really immediate way. I felt strange about getting an influx in sales after a devastating election, but I was also happy that people wanted to identify themselves as liberal and inclusive, and that my pins could help them express that.
In my non-commercial work, I’m really interested in the quotidian. I think that shows through in the Social Alert Buttons; a small way to make someone’s day easier. They don’t have to explain themselves, as the button does., Or a pin sparks a conversation with someone they wouldn’t have had a conversation with otherwise. Our tagline is: “Start a conversation, or causally avoid one.” And I hope that rings true.
CC: From an entrepreneurship side, what are the advantages or disadvantages of working with Etsy vs. Squarespace?
NR: Well, as so many makers do, I started out on Etsy. And I’m really thankful for that platform, and that early access to an audience. In recent years, they’ve made decisions that aren’t great for shop owners and discontinued their wholesale program, which is really unfortunate — as I gained so many new stockists through that platform, [when] we never would have found each other otherwise.
So, my love has faded some in recent years for Etsy, but I still appreciate access to that audience, and folks still discover me on Etsy.
A strange thing is often people ask me “How’s your Etsy Shop?” rather than “How’s your business going?” It feels like a way to kind of minimize achievements, especially by female makers.
I have my own online shop, built via Squarespace, which is much cleaner and branded, and I appreciate that. But it has some downsides, too: updates are not quite as easy as Etsy, less control over shipping prices on individual products. A lot of back-end stuff. For the most part, running my website through Squarespace works. I think it’s smart to have multiple platforms you’re selling from.
CC: What kinds of challenges have you faced running WORD FOR WORD? What triumphs have you had?
NR: Where to start?! I have an art background, but zero business background. When I started out, there weren’t as many blogs and podcasts about how to be an artist and run a small business.
So. I taught myself everything through research, and trial and error. What’s a linesheet? How do I process four wholesale orders by the end of the week or an order for 4,000 pins in a short time period? How do I get these things manufactured? All of those challenges have been stressful at times. But it’s also rewarding. I somehow got through all of it and now. I’m teaching myself new stuff.
A big milestone triumph was getting an email from Urban Outfitters and working with them for a few years. It was a goal of mine to get an account with a big box store, so when it happened, it felt really validating.
I think my biggest challenge and triumph has been growing and running my business while chronically ill. I have chronic migraines and Hashimoto’s, a thyroid autoimmune disease. Being full-time sick is what ultimately led me to grow my business so that I could be in charge of my body and time myself, rather than some company dictating that.
The flexibility to take Rx and a nap when I have a migraine — or work on a Saturday instead of a Wednesday — is so valuable. But on the other hand, sometimes there’s a deadline and I have to work through pain, to make it happen — because in the end, I run a business and I have to get the work done.
An ongoing challenge is keeping things fresh, coming up with new products that appeal to my diverse customer base, all the while keeping all the other gears moving: like filling online orders, wholesale orders, finding new stockists, keeping up with social media + marketing, photographing products, accounting, et cetera.
It’s a lot of hats to wear at once and that’s always an ongoing dance that I’m learning the intricacies of. It’s a lot of hard work, but I feel really lucky I get to do it as my job. 🍒