Today, we are joined by Emil Bertell , he is an Illustrator. You can view his portfolio here.


  • Firstly, I’d like to thank you for the interview. We’d like to understand how your interest for illustration & Typography started shaping up. Tell us a bit more about what made you go this route!

It was always quite clear for me that I’d pursuit some kind of visual or artistic career. I’ve been interested in media and journalism though I’ve only crossed that path as an illustrator. I’ve been drawing for my whole life and I started once per week art school studies before I could read and continued that until I was seventeen or eighteen. I naturally did art oriented high school and there I decided to apply for the multimedia department (?) and got accepted.

There I was first introduced to Flash, Photoshop, and other more and less relevant programs and bezier curves. That’s when I got to know the concept of graphic design. Before that I had wanted to be an artist but I realized I was actually more interested in posters and illustration and all kind of graphic design in general but before that I didn’t have the concept and word for that. In my first attempts to design some kind of calendar I learned the impact and power of the typeface in design and
I wasn’t really satisfied with any of the fonts available there, or have the knowledge how to properly use them I started to think I should draw my own fonts to truly “take over” my design. I designed and immediately released my first clumsy freeware fonts in the age of 16. I released them under the name 2 The Left Typefaces (2000-2002) which I founded with my brother Erik. He had gone the same high school and we shared the same interest for design and fonts. Some of my first stuff got featured quite quickly in a Japanese book featuring freeware fonts and few Japanese magazines of the same subject. In 2002 I founded Fenotype Fonts to release my fonts and got something that I considered proper website.

After high school I went to army which is compulsory for any male Finn still and there I managed to get the place as a graphic designer for the army magazine. That was my first introduction to “real” work of a graphic designer. The layout design was quite predefined but I also got to do some illustrations there too. A few of them were actually quite decent and I would still be surprised to see something like that in the military mag. Other than that I mostly spent my months there designing fonts and playing with the wax printer they had that made prints with really striking colors. I printed all kinds of small posters and stickers with my own fonts and illustrations.

While in the military service I applied into the University of Art and Industrial Design (UIAH), nowadays known as the Aalto University and got in. In 2004 when I started the school I also started to offer commercial fonts for the first time. I only sold them via my own site and that was rather complex but I was quite excited whenever anyone wanted to buy them. While in the school actively (2004-2007) I focused more on studying rather than releasing fonts or doing any proper work but in 2006 or 2007 I took a course named Illustration II held by Klaus Welp and there we had one assignment that one of the course works could be chosen for the Voima magazine as an editorial illustration for an
article about farming pigs (named My Brother Pig). I decided to put my efforts on that and chose pencil for my tool and did this

and that work got chosen for the magazine. I had then found my illustration instrument. Later in 2007 I put up my portfolio and started designing stuff for Mbar (Tapio Mäkelä, one of the owners of Mbar was looking for “a graphic designer with a typographical handprint” and when I saw that I instantly knew I need to apply for the job):

I was doing plenty of flyer & posters and some festival identities and simultaneously I worked on my illustration portfolio. When I was done with my portfolio I joined the freshly found Finnish illustration agency Agent Pekka:

I had been doing Photoshop treated pencil illustrations for Voima magazine after the pig illustration and then for some other mags as well. That stuff started to sell and I focused my Agent Pekka portfolio only on those. I was sure capable of doing plenty of other styles as well but Pablo Steffa, the founder of Agent Pekka wanted me to focus on a single style since “that’s easier to sell”. That’s one of the decisions that had a big affect on my life.

  • Tell us a bit more about how you learned it all. What changed in the last few years in terms of ease of expanding your skills and knowledge?

My first step was learning how to handle pencil -but I had been drawing for years and I already had that quite well. When I first used computer for sketching the illustration layout in the Pig illustration I learned that I could work effectively on handmade illustration in two phases (later three): first I use computer to work on the sketch and layout. Then in the manual part I could focus on working the pencil texture since I already had the layout. That made it for me. Earlier I had had trouble focusing on time consuming hand drawn / painted illustration because I would’ve needed to have the finished layout first. Later I started adding colour to the pencil illustrations and then I finally had tools for producing basically any kind of illustrations. That became my burden later.

I had done one illustration combining letter shapes and realistic pencil illustration:

and later I did this one as my piece for Agent Pekka exhibition:

Then when clients had seen those two pieces I started to get a lot of commissions under the theme “illustrated letters” during following years.

Meanwhile I had started designing the fonts in 2000 in the age of 16 and in 2004 I released my first commercial stuff. Then I had many years of slow period when I drew letters only every once in awhile or never. 2009 I finally found the will to fill in MyFonts agreement that I had had for many years and found again my love for drawing letters. I had previously always struggled with grid in my font design and I eventually started to get rid of the grid. That was the first step towards the script stuff I’m nowadays working with. First I worked a lot with block capitals ( like this ) and rather abstract display letters (like this and I tried to start a script font every now and then but I never seemed to get it right. In the end of 2010 I finally pulled together Verner ( font, derived from my earlier release Verna, and that was quite a hit and seemed to predict my big effort in “hand-made script” genre. I’ve later released only script fonts and become a true professional with that work.

With the pencil illustrations and even more with the script fonts I feel that something’s happened in my brains during the many years of practice. I can nowadays make the letter shapes work together. I have completely abandoned script and I rely on my eye, not the mathematical distances. Script letter shapes need certain characteristic yet they should have enough family look (or what’s that called in English?) to fit together. I think that my special field in scripts is “sign painting” . It’s a bit tricky field since it’s more or less based on letter compositions (logo or headline etc.)  and in that kind of compositions you’re not concerned with the overall functionality of characters in a font – you just need to get them work in that specific letter combination. So now with my script fonts I’ve created kind of synthetic lettering – style. I don’t try to pretend authentic hand lettering with the fonts but I clearly show what’s my influence for the fonts. I’d like to think it’s kind of modern synthesis. The letters look quite smooth and polished yet they have some funny features or little flaws that make them look more human and distinct them from many other more “correct” scripts. I’ve now focused a few years almost completely on designing and releasing script fonts. I see their time is now (people are looking a bit backward as you can see from the popularity of Instragram style retro effects)  and I hadn’t had the time for the pencil illustrations. They just take so much time. I used to work everyday more than ten hours, easily from nine am to two am most of the week but then our daughter was born in 2011 and I didn’t have the time anymore so I had to dust my habits and ambitions a bit. We also happened to buy a water damaged apartment and had quite a trouble with it for over 16 months so I decided to ditch commissions and focus on designing products for sale since that makes economically more sense in the long run. I still eventually do commissions every now and then and I was just asked for a big illustration set for Lebanese wine house Château Ksara – that would’ve involved a lot of illustrated letters and the wine enthusiast I am I would’ve really wanted to do it but the work amount was just too much for me right now.

I’m also currently doing something quite different from what I’m known for – being an art director for an interesting start-up project now that I’m capable for that. I wouldn’t have had time for a continuing project like that before when I was struggling with deadlines all the time, working with 1-3 ad agencies and magazines simultaneously all the time. I’ve really enjoyed my new-found freedom I feel that I’ve learned more in few months with the start-up than in the past 3 years. Though there’s different kind of learning’s – learning within a niche you more likely develop and brush up special skills and become a specialist – that’s what I feel that has happened to me with the script fonts and pencil illustrations. You get better with practice but practice doesn’t change your course, more likely you just get swallowed in what you’re doing. I’ve been thrilled to put my focus on something completely different for a change (and notice how the world’s gone by me in the last 7 years of my professional life…)

  • What does your creative process look like?

It depends what I’m doing but I’ve developed quite sturdy processes for doing stuff. If someone commissions me an illustration I try to digest the brief as well as possible. Like I mentioned before my rather unlimited style in terms of expressing things became a burden to me. Since my work order was usually following: a company (the Client) orders a job from an ad agency. Ad agency needs an illustrator and they contact me. Since my style allowed basically any kind of story to be integrated in the illustration the art directors started to get crazy. And since my portfolio had these complex vivid illustrated letters that I had spent a week drawing one letter -every once in awhile someone wanted me to do something similar but a whole sentence for instance.

So later when I’ve been doing illustrations  I try to digest the brief as well as possible – then deliver a sketch that show’s what’s going on in the illustration and the layout. After that’s alright I draw every object in the layout on different piece of paper. I used to draw the whole composition as a single piece but after I got a couple of change request like “put her hair on a ponytail” or “he’s not supposed to hold it like that” I started drawing everything as a single because making adjustments on a complete pencil illustration is nearly impossible. Then I scan the pencil objects and put the composition together on Photoshop as a grayscale illustration. Once that’s done I throw in some colors and contrast and some more pencil, ink or paper textures and then it’s usually done.  But that’s maybe more of a description of a work method rather than a creative process.

When I design fonts I go on really straight forward. I Start sketching letter “a” or “d” or some other lowercase character. Once satisfied it I try to expand it to the whole lowercase set. If that still looks good to me I make it to a complex font family with bold and black weights and maybe ornaments too. Or I might see some hand painted text that looks intriguing to me. Then I draw the words from the reference on computer and work on them until they’re something else. Then if it still looks good I expand it to a font and a font family. But mostly I’ve been just working on my own stuff over and over again.

The real creative process for me is when I’m asked to do something that I don’t know. The method is in a way simple. I go online and offline and find out about the subject. I create a picture folder (or a mood board if that’s what you call it) on pics that I like or that I feel somehow discuss the subject. I might even collect a folder of pics that are not what we’re looking for. Then I create my verbal synthesis based on the pics that I’ve selected from my collection to communicate my idea what’s good or relevant in the project (and what’s not).

  • Do you have any recommendations in terms of good books, programs you use, or media choices you’re willing to share with us?

Currently I’m inspired by the Five Tibetans and meditation and being sincerely enthusiastic. Other than that I can cope with pretty much anything. I’m really omnivorous what it comes to culture.

  • Do you have a special place or object that boosts your inspiration and helps your creative drive? What is it like and why does it have this effect on you?

I can work anywhere and I get my inspiration and will to carry on from the work itself. I have more projects planned than I have time to do so no worries of running dry on ideas or having nothing to do.

  • What was one of the most challenging typography problems you have ever had to solve?

If typography means arranging type in the best or most appropriate way then I’ve never solved any too challenging problems. When I’ve done magazine or book layouts I’ve usually used Caslon for the body text. Typography is not really my cup of tea. My main interest within type and fonts has been display use and words as an images.

  • Where are some of the areas where typography is improving and where do we need to see more growth?

I see there’s lot of improvement happening in the technical side with web fonts and the possibilities of Open Type. At the same time anyone with a Mac is a graphic designer so we’re seeing a huge increase in the amount of graphics and pictures created everyday and more and more amateurish use of fonts and a huge load of freeware fonts and poorly designed fonts on the market.

On the other hand I believe that I’ve seen Comic Sans used less and less every year so maybe there’s some kind of education happening on the use type. I suppose that the rise of social media has something to do with that.

  • Could you describe how a productive day would look like from your point of view? Which are the most important hours for you?

I’ve been pondering a lot about productivity. I’ve tried working most of the day for several years and that didn’t really pay off for me. The problem with that seemed to be that when I filled my days with work I didn’t have time to think about the jobs. I became really effective in producing images and dealing with clients but it didn’t fulfil me. My time was just shared between different projects but eventually I had no time to think about the projects, only to accomplish them in the fastest possible way.

Now that I’ve been lucky enough to get more free time I have identified two categories of working. Some stuff needs thinking. Some stuff needs skill accomplished by practice. Both need time. For the last two years I’ve been working in general for four hours per day (though I’ve kept many months of “holiday” renovating and moving three times these last two years). I’ve tried to keep the pace regular so that some progress happens everyday. Now that I’ve had some time to think about it I’d say an optimal work routine for me is something like few hours of work in the morning. I wake around nine am and make coffee and start working. Then I’ll have another period of work in the evening or night. I usually try to do difficult stuff involving thinking or design problems in the morning. In the evening or night I try to do more hands on stuff – drawing letters, working on the font, or drawing pencil illustration. During the daytime I do something else. My kid isn’t doesn’t go to kinder garden so then we do something with her and go for lunch and so on.

Four hours of work per day seems to be quite enough for me to be productive. I don’t work everyday and sometimes I work way more if there’s something special or I’m too excited to quit but in general I don’t really mind which day of the week is it. I really enjoy working but often it seems that if I continue working too long during the morning I get restless and that’s not good for productivity.

When I’m talking about four hours workdays I’m not really talking about downgrading. I somewhat tripled my income while I cut my work day by two thirds. By limiting my work hours I was forced to focus on what I really felt worth doing and not just doing everything that I was asked for. I only learned to say no by the hard way.

  • What is your stance on today’s ever growing opportunities enabling artists to take on remote design work?

I’m totally in favor of remote work. Then again I’m a font designer now. There were times when I worked every night from 10pm to 3-4am (I didn’t really have choice while we had all the trouble with the water damaged apartment) and I started to feel like a monk working every night and repeating the same procedure – drawing letters, making them into a font, releasing the font and starting a new one. For one period I even worked only on my 2006 Mac Book pro that had lost cmd key and “c” and I draw some of my bestseller fonts only with it’s track-pad. That said I’m nowadays really happy that I’ve got my own studio upstairs in our house with plenty of desk space for computers and papers though during summer I don’t even use it that often because I rather sit in our garden with my laptop.

The other side of that is that I haven’t yet ever been an employer and I don’t know how that would work. I’ve been lately thinking about that though and I believe that economically it would make sense to hire people from around the world rather than from your own town, especially within a special field like fonts but that seems rather sterile to me. If I was to set up an office I’d probably want it to be local and know the employees in person not just by Hangouts or Skype and I believe that for many the office working would still feel more like real work rather than just hanging wherever they want. But who knows. I’ve never worked in an office and I believe that’s the more likely the direction where this field will go.

  • What would you prefer: a steady, well paying job in a local agency, or the freedom and often stressful life of a freelancer? Why?

I’ve never really considered working in an agency/office an option unless I was a partner or owner of the company. I sure had my years of stressful life as a freelancer but for me that was the only way to go. Now that I’ve managed to stabilise my income by changing my focus from commissioned work to designing products I’m not in that sense a freelancer anymore but I sure am free as ever. Or perhaps I’m a real freelancer now not just a hired gun for anything.

I don’t see that would’ve happened had I stayed in an agency as an employee. So, freedom enables bigger stress and unsteady income but also bigger dreams and possibilities.

  • How would you describe “the ideal project”? Did you have any recent opportunities to come close to this?

No matter how lame it sounds but to me it means a project that involves challenging yourself to learn new stuff and getting out of your comfort zone. This to be inspiring usually requires the project to be rather special. I’ve learned that even good ad agencies produce dull campaigns for dull campaigns with their dull stories. If the project is an interesting one to begin with there’s a chance for a special outcome.

I love working on fonts but the project I’m currently working on is rather precious to me. It involves a good story, good idea, devoted team and endless challenges.