"i'm suddenly surprised by the thought that it might actually be possible to make a living from type design. Wouldn't that be something?" Finnish font designer Emil Bertell describes the experience of starting out.
Finnish foundry Fenotype's visually impactful fonts have attracted recognition on an international platform. With seven years of font design and distribution under his belt, Emil Bertell is still just 23 and studying for an Art and Design degree in Helsinki. At the tender age of 16, he set up a freeware font website with his brother Erik, featuring fonts the two siblings had designed themselves. His passion for graphic design even led him to spend some of his compulsory military service as a junior designer on the army magazine.
At 18, Bertell decided to find a new platform. "I founded Fenotype because I needed a playground," he remembers. "I was playing a lot with graphic design and typefaces and I needed a reason to do it. I also wanted to be part of the design world, which all happened really quickly." Originally, the site featured a variety of multimedia projects as well as typefaces but this didn't last long. "After a short while it became clear from the feedback that the fonts were what it was about," he says. "In 2004 I started selling some of the families, and in spring 2005 I redesigned the site to its current look: a professional showcase as well as a font business." The site still hosts a portfolio featuring Bertell's graphic design work, posters, flyers, and so on, but Fenotype's 68 fonts are still the main draw. "It still strikes me sometimes that people actually buy them," he admits, "I was really quite sceptical when I started selling them!" His brother Erik has since moved on to become Art Director at Finnish culture magazine Kulttuurivihkot, but five of his fonts still feature highly as offerings on the Fenotype site and they continue to liaise on their latest design projects.
While at high school, Bertell was busy learning everything he could about design, in all its forms. "I was very interested in animation, graphic design and other applied arts," he begins. "But it was when I was doing my first imaginary flyers or posters that I realised the huge effect that typefaces have in graphic design." But using someone else's fonts wasn't for him. "I was a stubborn idealist and believed that anything I used I had to produce by myself. So I started making my own fonts so that the whole piece would look totally my own! It all got a bit out of hand and within a short space of time I had created 50 different fonts."
This led to the initial launch of '2theleft', the project he started with his brother. Now Emil has created over 90 unique fonts, though he is quick to admit some feature only A-Z and numbers, rather than a complete character set. "Initially, I misunderstood the idea of graphic design: it's not about what you can draw or produce by yourself or by other means, but how you use the stuff you've got to deliver the message in the best way." But the skills he gained on the path to this realisation have earned him a lot of recognition at an early age. "I became fascinated by totally geometric shapes and a rigid grid. I think that that period left a heavy impact on my work and my sense of aesthetics."
Most people have come across Fenotype on the hunt for designer freeware, but many are now returning for the commercial fonts too. Of the 68 font families and dingbats available from the Fenotype website, free or for a fee, it's the 'trashed' or grunge-style fonts that Bertell finds to be most popular. '3 The Hard Way' is a long-time favourite with visitors to the site. Originally designed as freeware, it's now available in three different styles and is still a strong seller for the company. "I've seen that font being used in pretty much anything you can think of: clothes, flyers, posters, CDs, books, magazines and television. Someone even used it on a stencil graffiti," he says. Rock It! Is another trashed design that gets seen everywhere. "I was walking to college the other day and saw it on a massive billboard for a political campaign. That was weird." The familiar typeface also flashed by on TV during a trailer for the Finnish equivalent of A Song For Europe, as the country prepares to defend its Eurovision title in Helsinki, and it's also been purchased by Playboy magazine in the US. Recognition indeed!
Bertell has his own theory as to why lowbrow, messy fonts are so popular: "Typography is a kind of difficult and strange art. People who haven't practised it feel uncomfortable filling white places with a clean and elegant font like Garamond or any other classic. They can't see the difference between the classic fonts and they don't recognise the fine nature of good type. Trashed types with all their texture seem to easily fill an empty space, but people should know how to use them properly. I sure felt strange selling my Nihilist Philosophy design to a Christian community..."
But it's not just trashed fonts you'll find on Fenotype, there is a versatile range of the clean and classy, the futuristic as well as the retro. The dingbat sets are also becoming increasingly popular. The Fenotype Dingbats collection even features in the logo of super-fashionable Hip-Hop production duo the Sound Providers.
Making it big
At present, Fenotype's offerings are only sold via its website, but Bertell is looking at making some available through international font foundries, and so increasing his already blossoming profile as well as saving some precious time. "I never expected too much. I make enough via sales of the fonts to double my study grant some months, but I'm suddenly surprised by the thought that it might actually be possible to make a living from type design. Wouldn't that be something?" While Bertell admits that it isn't the easiest path to take, one of the things he finds most attractive is that fonts can last for years and years, rather than the length of an ad campaign. "Most typographers work around their area too, in logos, magazines and books, and I'm happy with that," he adds.
While the international attention is gratifying, typeface design is largely an anonymous profession, something Bertell admits to struggling with. "It often seems that people don't care about the fonts they're using and may not even think that an individual has made them. I have a feeling that people know my fonts better than Fenotype, and Fenotype better than me. But then again, nice things happen too, like when people think to send me the CD or book they've used my fonts in."
Although Bertell started with freeware, when it comes to copyright, he asks for a 20 euro friendly fee or a sample if any of the free fonts are used in commercial projects. He admits to seeing his fonts used without permission, but when you're just starting out, legal action isn't a real option. "Typography is immaterial property, it's like stealing music. Don't steal from a typographer, it comes straight out of our pockets!" he warns. "I don't mind about unsigned CD covers and so on but companies should pay. They pay for programs, music, design and everything else. Fonts are no different."
Alongside the geometric shapes sits a passion for illustration that feeds Bertell's ideas for his highly visual typefaces and dingbats. He has produced a wealth of sketches and paintings that are available to view via a link from the Fenotype homepage. "Most of these images are a result of my 'visual meditations'," he says. "Besides just drawing, I find reasons/ arguments for the images afterwards. This helps me to develop my style and I've learned a lot about imagery when dealing with them from only one approach at a time."
When it comes to creating a new typeface, Bertell starts by scrolling through a huge folder of photos and art collected from the web. "Every time I pay attention to different things, depending on what I'm doing. It's really funny, there are some images I've never paid any attention to but then for one project they'll just pop out!" he says. Most fonts start with a sketch before going through the process in the Adobe Creative Suite and FontLab. "FontLab Studio is great. It's really designed to help the typographer. However, it's a very complex program and I don't know the half of it yet."
For the designer looking to create that first font, Bertell recommends trying to sketch photos, shapes and symbols in black-and-white with a pencil or vector software ("Che Guevara-style"), just to get used to working with the limited colour palette. "Practice will help you find the necessary features to determine whether the image will be recognisable. Then you can start simplifying."
Starting so early has meant professional-student Bertell has put seven years and an immense amount of effort into exploring and honing his skills before he's even under pressure to make a living, an enviable position to be in. Watch out for a Fenotype explosion in the next few years...