Julia Sagar sits down with one of the UK's most exciting and innovative illustrators to explore what cream, baking soda and blowtorches have to do with typography
"It's really gone off this year," declares Sean Freeman, the brains behind design studio There Is, and one of the most exciting and innovative illustrators to emerge from the UK in recent years. He's right: with a striking nationwide project for the Department of Transport plastered across the capital's buses, and festivals up and down the country, not to mention a stunning back-catalogue peppered with work for the likes of Nike and VH1, it was only a matter of time before the 23-year-old designer got himself noticed.
"It's been a weird snowball effect," he reflects. "I was working full time and doing my personal projects in the evenings, then the first commission came in from The New York Times. It was a really small piece, $250 - I thought, 'Wow! You can actually make money off this.' Then the next piece came in from Esquire mag, and then another piece came in, and another."
Eight months ago, Freeman gave up his three-year daytime job as a designer. "It was getting a bit tricky," he admits. "The balance was becoming difficult and it tipped over the edge with the Think! piece for the Department of Transport, so I had to leave." After a two-week stink working in his bedroom - "the worst two weeks of my life, I think other people must have nicer houses than me" - he moved into a shared office space with four other people. He shrugs: "It's another cost, but it needed to happen. I was really nervous at first, but everyone's really into the work. It's amazing."
Think! is Freeman's best-known work. A typographic illustration for an ad campaign about drug driving, the image features an eye with an intricate vein system spelling out the word 'cannabis'. Each vessel is hairline thin, and was added to the piece individually. "I'd done a project with Craig Ward using Processing - it gives you these really thin lines that you don't get any other way - so I went through all the shots that had been rendered out, and selected a whole load to use," he recalls.
Overlaying some of the thinnest lines, he discovered, resulted in a "natural darkness" that lent itself perfectly to the bigger blood vessels. "That was really lucky," he grins. He then coloured the piece, and added shadows and flesh tones. Of course, not everything ran smoothly: "They originally wanted it to be totally illegible, then they asked for it to be hyper-legible. It's a massive file as well. It's on the back of the bus, so they asked for 600dpi at A2 in CMYK. But I did it a bit lower and bumped it up. You can't really tell the difference."
Legibility is an important issue for Freeman, who started out illustrating song lyrics. Anybody can create "cool, illegible" work, he says - the challenge is to maintain readability as well as an interesting aesthetic. It's about adding meaning.
"Type is able to reach people on more levels than a plain illustration can," he explains. "It's words, and it explains something. What I like about type is that it touches everyone. I did a piece where I took the word 'hot' and made it look hot. I can show it to my grandma, and she knows exactly what's going on."
Hot is a classic Freeman project, summing up his approach to illustrative typography perfectly. Commissioned by Harper Collins to create a cover for a book called Hot House, he experimented with the idea of melting the word into a red fireman's helmet. "It was about a fire fighter," he says. "I said let me do a test and I'll get back to you in a week - that happens a lot. I always do a little test to make sure it'll work."
He bought a pack of four plastic picnic plates, borrowed a blowtorch from a friend ("the kind you use for "crème brûlée"), and set out to see if it could be done. "I ruined my hoody unfortunately," he laughs. "I couldn't do it in the office and I don't have a garden, so I went onto the street, laid my hoody down, set fire to the plates and shot them. I held them as they were melting, so I got lots of drips. I was really lucky and got one or two glossy bits as well."
Freeman shot around 30 or 40 pieces before comping the best results together to create the letterforms. Much of his typographic work takes this digital collage effect, with each part stored in a huge library for potential use at another date. "I always shoot loads and loads of stuff - once you've got it in the library there are plenty of things you can do with it," he explains. "I try to find other applications for the effects: I open them up and think, 'OK, I can use it for type, but can I do an illustration with it as well?' My type and illustration work often crosses over in that respect."
Sadly Harper deemed the piece "too horror" and decided not to use it for the cover. He was disappointed: "It was a shame because it would have been cool. I was going to burn in the same 'hot' on the next page, as though it had come through."
For Freeman, it's all about experimenting with as many different materials as possible. Nail varnish, sand, ice and milk are just some of the substances he's worked with recently, but the possibilities are endless. Bubbles popping "with that nice sheen you get", and petrol are both on his list, and he's always on the lookout for new things.
"I go online and find those science experiments for kids - they're just amazing because you can do them all really cheaply, and get some great results."
He continues: "I like stuff that moves. Explosions are really fun, dripping too - anything that's a bit more tactile. I love the idea that you could feel it, so furry is nice and gooey's good. I really like controlling stuff that's sometimes a bit out of control. It's all about playing around."
Part of the problem, he admits, is that some of these projects require the hand of a professional photographer. Photoshop helps, but the "real" aspect remains crucial to his output. Fortunately, as his profile increases, people are becoming increasingly receptive to helping out - which is just as well, because that list of new elements to work with isn't getting any smaller. "I've got one full of nice type that I look through when I'm not doing commissions, and there's another one for things that look cool - it's a big PSD where I just drag ideas off the internet: cream, food colouring - the possibilities are endless."
Fame was his first big project, created for VH1. The channel wanted a piece to announce the second season of a series that followed a handful of Z-list celebrities through rehab. "They wanted the word 'fame' written in cocaine, but in a cooler way than just lines of cocaine," he explains. "I played around a lot - it's not real coke!" he clarifies quickly, "it's baking soda and crushed up Paracetamol tablets. When my mum came over to visit, it was all still on the table."
He crafted the first version with some "really harsh" edges. VH1 liked it, but suggested softening them with additional lines of cocaine. "They also wanted one huge line underneath the whole thing, but it didn't work so the idea was dropped."
Personal work plays an active part in Freeman's portfolio, and is often where he experiments the most. One of the biggest challenges, however, is finding a framework for each new piece. "I did these furry letters," he explains. "I made one or two and thought they looked kind of interesting, but they didn't have anything to say about being furry or fat - unlike if I had been illustrating a word - so I had to do the entire alphabet to give them a recognisable context."
Fat & Furry was the first typeface Freeman had ever designed - and could be the last. "It's 26 pieces. You get halfway and find it's wearing thin," he laughs. "I did one letter a night - it took ages."
It was also his first 3D rendered project. Designed in Cinema 4D, each letter comprises a number of spheres, with the texture added afterwards in Photoshop. But while the 'O' and 'P' evolved naturally, the 'G' proved to be a fair bit trickier.
"I'm not sure it even works," he admits. "The 'M' was difficult as well. But it's interesting: you can get away with some illegibility because it's an alphabet and you know the letters that are next door. If you saw the 'M' on it's own you'd be like, what the hell is that? But you recognise the context. It means you don't have to go hyper-legible with every character - it depends what it's next to or what the overall word is."
He continues: "I'm working on a rope piece at the moment. I'd been wanting to do something with rope for ages, but the last thing I was going to do was the alphabet in rope. With type, it's all about finding the right application. Fortunately I found a lyric for it: 'Tie the rope and kick the chair' by The Format."
It's a slow-burning project, shot piece by piece with Freeman holding the rope. It's a shocking way of working, he says, which involves getting the lighting right and bending the rope laboriously until it "looks cool" - but then he's clearly not one to be afraid of investing time and energy into his projects.
"I've got the camera on a timer, and I hold it in place, shot by shot," he grins. The good thing is it's all quite organic. For example, when I started playing with it, it actually felt nicer for the rope to come down and the loop make the dot of the 'i' - that wasn't in my sketch, but it's a nicer way of doing it. It's not finished yet; I've got it all set up in my room to work on when I can."
Inevitably, when your approach is so experimental, you'll start a project that just isn't going to work. "The biggest worry is how the hell it's actually going to come together," agrees Freeman. "There's never a plan B. I've had some very dark times, but it's also the most exciting part, too."
Fear, an exploding-letter project for Wired, has been his biggest challenge in this respect so far. The piece didn't have to have a 'meaning', but it did have to reference a shot of an exploding hypodermic needle. When the job came in I thought, 'Wow - this could be amazing'. But then it was a case of thinking, 'OK, how do I actually make these letters?' It didn't work for a long time and I got really worried," he says. "It was a really fun piece in the end, though."
Freeman filled his freezer with different glass items ("photo frames and glasses and stuff"), and smashed them on the floor, shooting the glass as quickly as possible to catch it at the right temperature. "To get the way the glass explodes, I stupidly tried to shoot it falling. I got my brother to drop the glass, and I was under the table - it just got ridiculous," he laughs. "I then realised that you get a similar result when you chip away ice, so we chipped away at a big block and shot it all. Because some of it came onto the camera we got this really nice effect, and it feels a lot more involved."
His vision can, occasionally, be difficult to explain to clients. "I send out sketches, but no one gets sketches. That's where I fall down on commissions." Instead, Freeman sends work in progress shots, concentrating on one letter and waiting for the okay before continuing on the piece. "I put so much work into it," he says. "Normally they're cool and say carry on."
Having recently finished a collaboration with illustrator Pomme Chan and designed a book cover, Freeman is currently working on a "hyper secretive" project for an Xbox game, and balancing a number of personal projects - including a moving image piece. "It involves hip hop and tango dance students," he says. "I'd love to do more motion stuff - my work lends itself really well to moving image. It's just a whole new world." He grins: "I'm still amazed that you can do this full time - I honestly never thought that would be possible."