Geek of the Week: Lauren Hallden, Designer, Penn Squirrel Photographer, Dating Ipsum Creator

By | on October 23, 2013 | 3 Comments

A few weeks ago, my pal Elizabeth Fiedler over at WHYY tweeted out a link to the Penn Squirrels Eat Things Tumblr, and I couldn’t stop laughing at the little blog. Especially of this picture. That squirrel is my spirit animal.

I quickly discovered the gal behind the blog, Lauren Hallden, is an amazing local Philadelphia designer. She’s also the one responsible for the hilarious Dating Ipsum, which you might have spotted on a Philebrity not too long ago. Or on Slate. Or Jezebel. Or The Hairpin.

Read on, and meet this week’s Geek of the Week.

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Okay. So squirrels at Penn. How did this Tumblr happen.

A little background information about me: I’m the kind of person who likes going on nature walks and taking bad iPhone pictures of everything.

One day I was walking through Penn’s campus and I passed, perched on the seat of a bicycle as if he had ridden the thing there, a squirrel eating something that looked like a Girl Scout cookie covered in dirt. Naturally, I put the picture on Instagram. Then a week or two later I posted a squirrel eating a Cheeto. Then one clutching a butterscotch candy.

People seemed to like the images, so I jokingly tweeted that I should start a Tumblr called the dopiest name I could think of: Penn Squirrels Eat Things. And because my twitter friends are equally weird, they encouraged me to do it. Blame social media.

What’s been the highlight of your squirrel photography adventures so far?

Photographing squirrels is hard! There’s a lot of stepping in flower beds and shrugging my shoulders innocently at onlookers as if I’ve never chased a squirrel eating a banana before. I think the strangest moment came last winter when I was sitting on a bench snacking on pecans. A squirrel strolled up and I decided to feed it — which I don’t normally do myself — and the little critter climbed up my leg looking for seconds. Straight up my tights.

For me, though, the real highlights come when other people submit their own pictures. I recently received one of a squirrel eating a taco shell. That was a personal favorite moment.

When you aren’t busy photographing squirrels, you’re a designer! Tell us about that.

I am! I’m currently managing marketing and communications for a center at Penn that does some really great work around public health research, practice and awareness. There’s a good bit of visual design involved in what I do, but I want to push myself to learn more so I keep busy with a variety of side projects. I’ve done a few collaborations with Big Yellow Star, a local company that develops websites and apps geared towards improving healthcare. It’s been a great way to learn about responsive web design and to improve my coding skills.

I’m also wrapping up a graduate certificate in graphic design at Penn. My latest project involves creating a series of beautiful but ultimately meaningless “inspirational” quotes for Pinterest and tracking how much they get shared (A LOT, to my amusement and dismay). And I freelance, too. I’m a worker bee.

pinterest-project1Who are some of your favorite designers? Favorite artists? Anyone local?

I’m terrible at picking favorites. Whenever one of those questions comes up on OkCupid I tend to cop out and list whatever I’ve been absorbing recently.

I studied sculpture in college so I can at least pick a favorite sculptor: Constantin Brancusi. If you’ve never been to the little room of his work hidden away at the back of the PMA’s contemporary wing, go. It’s worth a trip. His work is all about editing a form down to its essential elements; how much can you remove and still communicate your inspiration?

The resulting pieces have this magical combination of simplicity, solidity, movement and eloquence. Even though I’m not making sculpture anymore, I still look to Brancusi’s work because I believe learning to edit is one of the most important skills a designer can cultivate. When I work I’m always asking myself, “Is this texture (or color, or line) adding something? Is it necessary?”

I still feel like a bit of a newcomer to the word of design, though, so I’m trying to take in as much information as possible. Recently I’ve been enjoying the Let’s Make Mistakes podcast put out by the Mule Design Studio in San Francisco, which does great work. I also try to keep up on current projects by our excellent Philly design studios, like P’unk Avenue, who recently revamped the Moore College of Art & Design’s site (my alma mater).

And not just graphic design… but interior, yes? I mean, you’ve got a blog about your house!

Ha, yes, I keep a somewhat-neglected house blog. Five year ago I bought a place up in Port Richmond, a neighborhood above Fishtown. There are tons of little 2-story two and three bedroom rowhomes up here and they’re surprisingly affordable. (Shameless plug: come be my neighbor, bring decent beer. Better yet, bring bourbon.) The house I bought was covered in wood paneling and teal paint and purple plush carpets, though. And it reeked of smoke. So I started writing about the process of fixing the place up.

The internet is already home to several incredible home renovation/DIY blogs, but I’ve always found the experience of reading them somewhat frustrating because their authors tend to have more resources on hand than I do. My goal is to keep my blog honest: I’m doing this myself, on a very limited budget, with a few power tools and a lot of googling. Things break and I make mistakes. The blog is there to record the failures as well as the successes, and hopefully present the humorous side of having your basement sewer line crack.

For me, the trick to staying sane throughout it all has been to treat the house as one huge design project. Embracing a project’s constraints is part of being a good designer. So if purchasing a West Elm living room is not an option for me, can I build some pieces myself? Can I decorate with objects that I find, and with artwork by my friends? What do I already own, and how can I modify it to do more? That’s where the challenge gets fun.

And the web stuff just doesn’t stop. How did Dating Ipsum come about?

Confession time: I’ve been hanging around on OkCupid for a while. If you’ve used dating sites you may be familiar with this feeling: the longer you date, the more people’s profiles start to look the same. I now live in fear of a coffee and/or bicycle shortage gripping the city because according to the “six things I could never do without” question, every eligible man in Philadelphia will immediately perish.

Not that my profile is any better. Writing about yourself on dating sites is inherently awkward. We’re all trying to be be funny but not crazy, unique but not weird… the system asks us to create what is basically an Official Single Person Resume, and it results in a lot of us filling out our profiles in similarly dull ways. I wanted to poke fun at that. So I gathered a list of the most common words and phrases I see in my matches’ profiles and I created a little website that generates dummy text by stringing them together in random ways. Online Dating Ipsum says things like: “Grab coffee or a drink Game of Thrones if you’re still reading this mountain biking local sports teams, I’m a good listener Oxford comma chilling at a bar with friends whiskey I value art.”

My friends got a kick out of it when I threw the site up on Facebook but I figured that would be the end of the project. Then somehow it made its way on to Philebrity and I started thinking, “Hey, people are laughing at this, why don’t I send the site to one or two of my favorite blogs?” And then it was everywhere. To date, Dating Ipsum has been seen in 114 countries. People are using it to generate content for their real dating profiles! OkCupid is one of my main sources of traffic. It’s wild.


Awesome, thanks for… wait! WAIT. There’s another animal in your life you love photographing. Tell us about that little guy.

Yes! Oxide — Ox for short — is a rust-colored crested gecko. He looks like a tiny dinosaur with eyelashes.

If you’ve never owned a reptile, crested geckos are perfect starter pets. They don’t need live food and can survive on what is basically vitamin-enhanced fruit smoothies, and their natural habitat is pretty close to room temperature. They have semi-prehensile tails and the pads of their feet use van der Waals’ forces to stick to vertical surfaces. They can lick their own eyeballs. What more could you want?



Author Description

Eric spends most of his time writing, reading, and hanging out with his chinchilla and bunny. By day he's a literary agent, by night, he's an author of humor and YA books. His writing has sold into nine languages. His Young Adult series, Inked, is out now with Bloomsbury.

3 Responses to “Geek of the Week: Lauren Hallden, Designer, Penn Squirrel Photographer, Dating Ipsum Creator”

  1. […] Geek of the Week: Lauren Hallden, Designer, Penn Squirrel Photographer, Dating Ipsum Creator (Eric Smith) […]

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