Bit by bit: How a mystery pixel artist helped change newsroom culture
On the morning of Monday, February 9, the staff of HLN Digital arrived in their Atlanta newsroom and discovered a large pixilated mural of Waldo made out of dozens of white, red, black and yellow Post-it Notes. The stripe-clad cartoon character smiled back at them from the whiteboard.
Three days later, another Post-it creation appeared on the newsroom’s whiteboard. There loomed a blue TARDIS, the iconic time machine from “Doctor Who.”
“We were blown away,” said Karyn Lu. “The creations were amazing, and the artist behind them was a total mystery.”
Lu is the director of product strategy and partnerships at HLN, CNN's sister network that’s reinventing itself as a TV station built on social media. She’s part of HLN’s product/partnerships team, which operates similar to a startup within the larger network. (Also, Lu and I briefly worked together at CNN, and have stayed friends since.)
The nine-person team, which oversees product, partnerships, design and development work, occupies part of the HLN Digital newsroom, a sleek but windowless space filled with shades of tan and gray.
“When our team began to grow, we immediately knew that we wanted to make our corner of the newsroom more colorful and inspiring,” Lu said. “We wanted our physical space to make us more happy and creative.”
They got rid of cubicle dividers, opting instead for a long shared table where laptops commingle. Staff built DIY standing desks and brought in colorful beanbags to create a casual meeting spot.
As the team discussed other ways to inject personality and color into the space, they joked about creating a wall dedicated to cats. “Because, as everyone knows, cats rule the Internet,” Lu said with a laugh. Eventually, the wall was born, with a large pixilated mural of a black cat, created out of – you guessed it – Post-it Notes.
“We decided to create it with Post-it Notes because it’s an easy, low-cost solution that doesn’t do lasting damage and, of course, they’re perfectly square,” Lu said.
Five days later, the mystery Waldo mural appeared. It was clearly a nod to the pixilated cat, but the product/partnerships team wasn’t behind it.
From there, new Post-it creations would appear overnight on the newsroom’s whiteboard nearly every weekday. A pixilated Pac-Man ghost stood alongside Mario and Princess Peach, while an 8-bit Michael Jackson looked on.
The Post-it art “started getting more intricate and amazing,” said Lu, who documented the daily surprises on Instagram. She estimated that at least one creation – a tribute to actor Leonard Nimoy – was comprised of more than 1,000 notes.
But no one could figure out who was behind the creations. A HLN Digital designer created a Valentine in hopes of reaching the mystery artist. Still no one stepped forward.
Word of the mystery artist began to spread beyond the HLN Digital newsroom walls, throughout the Atlanta CNN Center, home to CNN, HLN, CNN International and CNN en Español. Colleagues across the networks were buzzing with theories on the artist’s identity and began discussing ways to incorporate creativity and inject fun into their own workspaces.
“It’s created this culture ripple throughout the newsroom and in the building,” said Lu. Executives have also gotten word of the spontaneous art and largely support the effort, including HLN Executive Vice President Albie Hecht, who is reportedly “a big fan” of the phenomenon.
The pixel art has become a visual reminder to “step away from your desk every once and a while and recharge,” Lu said.
Over the past few months, the product/partnerships team has released a mobile app, data-driven art installations, and a social index tool – all tied to The Daily Share, HLN’s social-media focused TV show that launched in January.
Despite the breakneck schedule, Lu said the team keeps their creative spirit alive through extracurricular activities, like team meditation classes and monthly outings to Atlanta’s chapter of Creative Mornings, a worldwide lecture series for the creative community. Trying to identify the rogue pixel artist quickly became another fun team-building activity.
Lu, who spoke at Creative Mornings in 2013 about embracing the concept of play as adults, is thrilled that others are acknowledging the benefits of a fun newsroom culture.
“We spend so many hours in the day [in the office], it’s so important for your physical space to creatively stimulate you. The happier you are, the more productive you are.”
By mid-February, Lu’s team decided it was time to finally discover the artist’s identity. They set up a GoPro camera overnight and caught the culprit in action. The mystery man was Chris Moloney, a senior writer for HLN’s Morning Express who works overnights.
After spotting the pixel cat mural, Moloney said he decided to try a similar piece of his own. There was no strategy to it, just an excuse to do something creative during the quiet overnight hours.
“I wasn’t even thinking of it being a secret,” Moloney said. “I’m in the office in a building by myself. So it wasn’t necessarily that I was trying to have a secret identity.”
Moloney had no idea that his art had created such buzz over time – because of his schedule, he didn’t interact with the team trying to figure out his identity. For him, it was a fun way to brighten the office. Post-its were his medium of choice simply because they were available.
“Now that everything is digital, we don’t actually use tactical office supplies anymore,” Moloney observed. “I like the idea of repurposing these forgotten supplies and using your hands to make something creative.”
Once they discovered his identity, the product/partnerships team introduced themselves to Moloney over email, treated him to a group lunch, and chipped in for an Amazon gift card to replenish his Post-it supply.
“They’re the most fun people,” Moloney said of the product team. “Sometimes when you have structured team building, nothing really sticks. But when it’s organic, it’s more fun and lasting.”
As for Lu, she hopes to continue seeing other newsrooms embracing creativity, in whatever forms it may appear. Her advice for others who want to add creative energy to their workspaces? “Just do it.”
“There are so many creative ways to influence culture that don’t cost anything,” she said, adding that staff-driven DIY approaches often have the biggest impact.
“I think a lot of people feel like they need permission – they don’t. Just lead the way. People will be happy to follow.”