Graphic design major Abbey Nesbitt poses with one of the Saxbys chalkboard signs displaying her art
Frida Coffee-o. Adele singing about “Someone Like Brewww.” The iconic “Jaws” poster reimagined as “JAVA,” complete with a floating coffee mug and the tagline, “We’re gonna need a bigger cup.”
These half-and-half pop culture and coffee puns (complete with visuals!) and more were found on the chalkboards outside of the Saxbys on 34th Street at Drexel University and the Saxbys on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus (as well as on Abbey Nesbitt’s Instagram page). Even better? They were made from scratch by Nesbitt, a rising graphic design senior in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.
Since February, Nesbitt has worked as the designated chalkboard artist for those two Saxbys locations. Every Sunday, she updates the boards with a new design unique to each location, usually taking cues from something she encountered during the previous week.
The board with Marge Simpson holding two growlers of Saxbys coffee? That came about because she was watching a lot of “The Simpsons” re-runs that week. The one with Calvin telling Hobbes he wants to drink coffee but his mom says it makes him too neurotic? She was re-reading her dad’s comic books.
“I just try to build off of things that make me laugh in general,” said Nesbitt.
Translating her personal experiences or interests into a display meant to be seen and enjoyed by everyone who walks by is no small task — and Nesbitt takes it one step further every week by making her signs creative, funny and visually pleasing.
“I think my biggest goal is to make people smile or laugh, because often the boards might be the first thing that they see before going into the café,” she said. “Whether it’s 7 a.m. and people are tired or if they’re going in at a later time, I want to make a good impression for them because often it’s the little things that can impact someone’s outlook on the day.”
Usually, it takes Nesbitt 20 to 30 minutes to design each side of the chalkboard, and about 50 minutes to an hour to draw a design on one side. She designs four sides of a chalkboard a week, and she makes sure that customers will never see the same design twice.
“I hate to repeat designs because I feel like it’s unfair to customers, and I also would rather push myself creatively than just do the same thing at both locations,” said Nesbitt.
So far, her favorite displays were a recent sign inspired by “Rick and Morty” as well as the Frida Coffee-o display.
“Not only do I love Frida Kahlo’s work and what she stood for, but I also kind of took a risk with the illustration style,” said Nesbitt. “It was super satisfying to see that people were reacting to it so positively.”
Another job perk, she said, is having the artistic freedom to complete designs and knowing that her employer has absolute confidence in her work.
“Since the beginning, Saxbys has completely trusted me with all of the content, which is truly amazing,” she said. “I appreciate it so much because it allows me freedom to try new things.”
Nesbitt first heard about the job opportunity from a friend working at the Penn Saxbys who mentioned that the two Saxbys on the neighboring college campuses were thinking about hiring an artist for the chalkboard displays. After meeting up with the Drexel café manager, Nesbitt was hired — and three weeks later, she was hired at the Penn café as well.
This professional experience marks the first time Nesbitt tried her hand at chalkboard art, though she’s been drawing her whole life and has learned a lot about typography and craft in Drexel’s graphic design program.
“I have taught myself everything from chalking out my designs with a chalk pencil and then going over it with chalk markers to taking advantage of magic erasers to clean the boards thoroughly before each design,” she said. “This experience has helped me build a diverse portfolio and hopefully it will help with a job after graduation, because I am really interested in combining illustration and graphic design and seeing how the two can intertwine to communicate across different audiences and bring people together. It’s helped me dabble in a niche artistic category, and it makes me excited that I get to do this every week.”
Plus, she said, the drinks on the job — she loves the milk and honey cold brew and iced chai — is pretty sweet, too.