Drawing the Dictionary: An Interview with the Wordsmiths behind Lexigrams

Lexigrams are cards that feature the most interesting, strange, and entertaining words in the English language, by illustrating their definitions. Not only do you have the opportunity to learn some of the most mischievous members of the dictionary, but you'll also get to see some pretty hilarious illustrations. Oh, and some of the illustrations involve some playful cartoon nudity, because these words are for the orally experienced.

We spoke with the creators of Lexigrams, Veronika Hecko Wu and Albert Wu, to learn more about this creative endeavor. 





Can you tell me more about the project?


Lexigrams are illustrations of the best, most interesting words out there. It combines our love of language, art, and humor into one product.


The project has evolved quite a bit from the early days. I went from thinking 'these illustrations are kind of cool' to 'let's make the world's best visual dictionary'. One day we'd like Lexigrams to be the world's best visual dictionary translated into multiple languages so non-English speakers can also experience the product.

A lot of people don't realize this, but the modern alphabetized dictionary is only 250 years old. Some guy named Samuel Johnson put it together, and revolutionized the way people could search & retrieve words. So even the dictionary as we know it today is fairly new technology in the grand scheme of things.




How does the creative process typically work?


I read a lot. As I'm reading, I'm on the lookout for any words that are particularly evocative or have interesting meanings. I write out all the words in a notebook and let them marinate for a while. I do a lot of sketches. I usually make a grid of boxes and just force myself to do as many sketches as I can, withholding judgment and just trying to capture all the emotions and visuals that they bring out in my mind. Once I get to about 20 or so sketches, I will consult with Albert on which ones to pursue. When an image makes me (or Albert) laugh, it's a good indication that it will be compelling and easy to remember. Once we've chosen a sketch, I spend a day or two creating a detailed drawing. Then a day of inking, followed by coloring in Photoshop. The entire process usually takes between two and four days to complete for each word.






What inspired the project in the beginning? How did you decide on the words?


Years back, when I was thinking of applying to grad school, I was studying for the GREs. Studying for the verbal section was truly torturous (even for me, and I love learning languages), and I was just looking for a way to make it more bearable. I started procrasti-learning by doodling the words. My study buddy loved them; as did Albert, who encouraged me to do more full-scale illustrations. More generally, when I first immigrated to New Zealand (I moved to the US a year later), I learned how much it sucks when you can't communicate. I've since devoted myself to mastering visuals--which are a form of universal communication--so I don't have to go through that pain again.






Did any words come AFTER an idea for illustration?


Hmm, usually not. But sometimes I'll spot a sketch in Veronika's notebooks that inspires me or I find funny, even though she isn't particularly fond of it. One example was when I saw a sketch of a fat guy jumping into a meat grinder in her notebook. We somehow made the connection that "Gadarene" would be the perfect word pairing for the illustration, since it means 'engaged in a reckless rush towards destruction.' It's that kind of humor that really gets me going.




Did you know all these words from the very start?


No, definitely not! To me, the obscurity of the word is less important than the fact that the word/concept exists. Knowing what the word actually means is a nice cherry on top.


Mostly no. I think not knowing the word beforehand makes my work better. It allows me to have a very recent experience of what it feels like to learn that word for the first time--an experience that connects me to many of our viewers. There are some words I knew prior--like fecund and juggernaut--that I just happen to love and couldn't resist illustrating.





What was Albert's role in completing the project?


I help out with a lot of the nitty gritty and tech. Stuff like making coffee, moral support, pushing the project forward, website development. Sometimes I'll help Veronika choose words to illustrate when she's stuck.


Haha, Albert is funny. I'm the one who makes the coffee! He's a fantastic chef and makes sure we both eat delicious healthy meals (if it was up to me, we would just drink coffee and eat sugary things). Besides that, where do I even start. Albert gets stuff done! I like to turn over ideas in my head for a long time before coming to a decision. He pushes me to make decisions faster. Honestly, if it wasn't for him--Lexigrams just wouldn't exist--I would probably still be thinking about it!




Any highlights and favorites?


I have a natural appreciation for round, plump things - so I love "Batten",





and "Garrulous".



I'm also a big fan of "Arriviste" because of its depth - it's almost a mini-lesson on how not to live your life.



I find "Xenophobia" hilarious, because of how terrified the woman is of a frenchman wearing a beret and holding baguettes.



[Veronika] It's like choosing favorites among children--they are each special in their own way. I'm very slightly partial to "Torrefy" because I feel technically, it's probably the best illustration I've ever done. Every line is exactly where it should be.




What's next? Any new ideas on the horizon?


We've gotten some feedback that people have no idea how to pronounce some of these words so we're going to add an audio feature to the website.

A good friend of mine makes mobile games, and is helping me with an interesting mobile game concept. Another friend of mine in Brooklyn wants to help us out with a Kickstarter video so we can raise funding for all these ideas.

But mostly, we're excited about all of the new word illustration that are coming soon!








Meet your new favorite words through Lexigrams

Meet the design team!