Why Sean Freeman has always been the type for art, and how he works in Chinese
The London-based artist, in Hong Kong for a project raising money for charity, talks about collaborating with big brands, why typography matters and publishing his own book
Q. So you always wanted to become an artist?
A. There was a short time in my life when I wanted to be a policeman. But that vanished quite quickly. My grandparents are both artists. My grandpa was an architect, and my grandma drew maps for a living. When they retired, they became more into art. My grandpa paints portraits and my grandma landscapes. So when I was a kid, I used to go and paint with them. I wasn’t good enough to be a painting artist, but that kind of put me on the track of art.
What eventually drew you to typography?
I did a university degree [in graphic design and advertising], but my passion for typography started back in university, when I found this course where I could do album covers and T-shirt designs. They just seemed like so much fun, so I started on that course. I really like music a lot, and I like lyrics and words in general. It kind of was the natural way to bring those to life.
What is the charm of it?
The thing about typography is the word itself. I really love how powerful the words are. They’re very poetic, and I love the meaning behind a lot of words. I’m fascinated with words, and my work really is just about trying to bring as much of that to life in the best way I can.
What work holds a special place in your heart?
My very first commission was a very big moment for me because I was working full time in an ad agency, and then in the evening I would do my own personal work, which I would upload to my website. One day I got a commission from the New York Times Magazine. It was a tiny piece, but that was a big moment to get there. After that, very slowly one became two. It started the whole thing. My next proudest work would probably be my first cover for Time magazine [in May 2012], just because I know the magazine a lot. It’s such a big magazine, and to be asked to do the cover it was really a quite proud moment.
When did you decide you wanted to be a full-time artist?
I’d never imagined I could do it for a living when it first happened. Things were quite busy for me, but when this commission came, it was such a big job. It was the first time I couldn’t work full time and do this; it was one or the other. So that day I walked out of my full-time job. I gave myself six months and rented a bigger space to freelance. It was an ad on the back of a bus and all about drug driving – if you smoke cannabis, you get bloodshot eyes, and that’s how people can tell – so they wanted the words written in bloodshot veins, which was really difficult at the time. It took me two very long, hard weeks.
Is it more difficult to work with a language that you don’t understand?
Yes. We did a campaign for Guinness in Singapore, Indonesia and China. The Chinese language is so beautiful, and I’d love to do more, but it’s quite a challenge because the characters are quite complex. You have to make sure that everything is perfect; otherwise, they can mean something completely different.
What brought you to Hong Kong?
We were asked by DBS to create something for their #MYSPARKHK project. The brief was about igniting possibilities and joy. We really wanted to create this alphabet thing where people have a lot of fun with making their own words. So we wanted to create a happy, joyful palette, and we looked to do as much treatment as possible to each letter. The backdrop was really fun because that was sound painting. We did it with a little speaker covered with latex and a little bit of paint on top, and you put some music on and shoot in very high speed. This was a really nice way to get some delicate colours on it.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on our very own art project with my creative partner, Eve Steben. We’re working with alphabets where each piece is done as a different treatment. It’s all about describing words. It’s 26 letters, so it’s taking quite a long time. We’d love to be in an exhibition and publish a book. It’s a passion project for us, and hopefully this time next year, I’d really love it to be done. We’ve got five letters just about done and 21 to go.
What makes a typographic work successful?
There are a few factors. The very key thing is, it has to be legible. People have to be able to read it instantly. And on most of our works, we really put a big focus on that, unless there’s a particular reason to make it hard to read, as part of the idea or whatever. And we have to make sure the treatment works with the meaning and is beautiful.
What do you think of your own handwriting?
Terrible. Shocking. It’s awful. It’s embarrassing. I can do some nice things, but it takes a long, long time. It’s something I’m pretty ashamed of. You’d never think I have anything to do with type.
Head to Hysan Place, Causeway Bay before September 27 to create your own words using Sean’s unique letters. DBS Hong Kong will donate HK$10 to Make-A-Wish Hong Kong for each photo shared on Facebook or Instagram with the #MYSPARKHK hashtag.