As the internet continues to streamline itself down to an increasingly uniform, minimalist aesthetic, many young people are pushing back against all that sans serif black on white. One of those young people is Cat Frazier, a graphic designer from Oakland who just might be the patron saint of this retro-maximalist aesthetic movement.
You might not know Cat Frazier by name, but I can almost guarantee that you’ve seen her work. The 24-year-old is the creative genius behind the Animated Text Tumblr, where she creates intentionally tacky-looking gifs of rotating text that occupy some tonal void between “Feeling Myself” and “Teenage Dirtbag.” Aesthetically, the gifs—each one requested by a follower—look similar to the kind of animated welcome banners you might have seen on someone’s personal web site circa Y2K. (Maybe your own?) According to Cat, that GeoCities feel is totally intentional.
“My background is in graphic design, where you’re told to make it clean, make it pretty, make it legible, and make it generic so it appeals to a lot of different people,” Frazier told me over the phone. “But the internet I grew up with—like GeoCities and Myspace and Blingee—was always really personal, as tacky as it was. You didn’t need a degree in design,” to claim ownership over your corner of the web, she explained, and that empowerment-through-DIY is something she wants to bring back with Animated Text.
Cat, who works by day as an instructional designer for California’s Pacific Gas and Electric Company, says that the point of Animated Text is not so much the retro-’90s aesthetic itself, but rather her “relationship with the followers.” Every gif was specifically requested by one of her fans, so she sees each post as a collaborative process, rather than one where she’s the “keeper of the keys” or whatever.
Thinking back on that “Rihanna/Azealia Banks stole seapunk!” moment from 2012, I asked Cat if she was worried about being cool-hunted out of commission by larger brands. “I see a lot of clothing sites [use my gifs without attribution],” she told me. “But it doesn’t upset me… It’s, like, more power to them! Someday, I hope to see an entire internet of animated text.”
Animated Text’s follower base has grown substantially since its launch in 2012—thanks, in part, to a crucial March 2013 reblog of a “ur not gucci lol” by Frank Ocean. While more followers is obviously a good thing, Cat says that one particular problem keeps coming up.
“Literally everyone assumes I am a straight white man,” she said. That’s why Cat started posting pictures of herself along with the Animated Text gifs in recent months, to “prove I am female, that I am black, that I am gay,” and not that unholy trinity of falsely presumed neutrality: straight, white, and male.
By injecting more and more of herself into the Animated Text project, she became more and more comfortable with being vulnerable on the internet, something she did not expect when she was designing ostentatiously disaffected gif mantras like “lol nothing matters” or “blog the pain away.” That newfound comfort with being vulnerable online also inspired Frazier’s latest venture: Ask Cat, an “advice column for the smartphone age” that you can submit to by texting 510-962-9372.
What sets this advice column apart from others is that Frazier responds to dilemmas—often relationship or career vs. passion-oriented—using a custom animated text gif. So, for example, a recent advice-seeker asked: “I like this guy but I think he’s straight.” Cat’s response? Back-flipping red-and-yellow text that reads: “cross your heart and hope he’s bi.” For more serious, life-altering questions—like, say, advice on coming out of the closet—the designer will follow up the animated text gif with an additional text message.
“I’m really affecting people’s lives,” she said earnestly—a far cry from the person you’d expect to have made that (iconic, zeitgeist-capturing, etc., etc., etc.) “lol nothing matters” gif. “It makes me feel like I can be a better person. I may still be the asshole that I am, but it makes me feel good and that I should treat everyone better and that maybe the internet isn’t so bad after all.”
A version of this piece was originally published on Fusion’s Snapchat Discover on Feb. 2, 2016. Hit up our Discover channel every day for more cool stuff like this.