Spreading kindness through cardboard at USC

Adam Novak
5 min readNov 6, 2022


A few weeks ago, I spent all day, everyday for a week straight holding up cardboard signs around USC.

Now, they weren’t just cardboard signs — they were cardboard affirmations. Some of them read:

  • “midterm season sucks, but your smile makes it better”
  • “if you’re reading this I hope you have an amazing day”

Each message had just the right balance of relatability and positivity. Even better—it was written on the back of a cardboard box, which added a level of nonsensicalness to it.

The purpose of the campaign was simple. We had just launched an app called Mist, meant to be an uplifting spin on missed connections. We wanted to promote the app with the type of content you might see on the platform while also spreading kindness throughout the USC community.

The stunt was inspired by the Instagram persona @dudewithasign. We did a twist on this by calling myself “dudewithamist”, wearing the same glasses he does, except I was in a Mist shirt every day (and yes I washed it every night ;) )

Each day I stood for ~8 hours holding one of these signs. I skipped classes. I skipped homework. I even skipped meals. Just to make people smile with a cardboard sign all day long? Totally worth it.

My friend Sammy and I would travel to new spots — we effectively did a world tour of the whole campus. I even got some laps on the treadmill and climbed onto USC’s sacred “Traveler” the horse.

At one point, a distinguished USC marketing professor at Annenberg approached me. Some of his students had talked about me up in their marketing class, and the prof was impressed. He told me they’d be analyzing the “dudewithamist” tactic in their graduate-level marketing class over the next week. Absolutely crazy.

Oh yea, I also met a high ranking Chinese official under Xi Jinping who had graduated from USC years ago. He was on one of those expensive university tours, like the type Jeff Bezos would take, and he thought the cardboard sign was clever.

At the end of the week, just about every person I knew had texted me either a photo they took or a social media story they screenshotted of me holding a cardboard sign. “The sign guy” had become a social phenomenon at USC.

Here’s a few things I learned along the way.

Alas, the 80/20 rule holds true

For several days, I vowed to stand the entire day straight, not even taking a break when passerby traffic was low. I thought standing all day would increase the shock and wow factor. It turns out this actually wasn’t worth the time investment. Many people walk around campus during class transition times (10 mins before and after the hour) but not so many walk around in between. I figured out that I could still give the illusion I was standing all day to 80% of people by holding the sign just 25% of the time, the ~15 peak traffic minutes of each hour. The rest of the time I would spend pushing app store updates for Mist, the product we were ultimately raising awareness about.

People can’t resist help but mirror each other

As soon as one person looked, others turned around. As soon as one person took a photo, others pulled out their phones. When one person engaged with “tall guy in pink shirt holding cardboard sign,” the likelihood that others around them would engage too significantly increased. “Social phenomena” are very real things that arise just because others are taking interest, too.

People really do appreciate kind little gestures

I was blown away by the number of people who looked at the cardboard sign and couldn’t help but smile. Many even vocally expressed things like “you really made my day better” or “thank you, I needed that!” People appreciated it so much that they even started giving me things: money, food… even a rose 🌹

After each day of holding a cardboard compliment for 8 hours, my body was aching. It was an exhilarating week — exhausting yet so exciting.

But I made new friends. I made some insights. And I made people smile.

After all, what matters more than making others smile?

I still plan to suit up and take to the streets of USC throughout the rest of my my senior year (when my face isn’t stuck in a book or XCode)

Stay on the lookout my usc friends~



Adam Novak

Monastic Living | Language Learning | Responsible Technology