The world has been using typefaces for hundreds of years – but only now has the first bricks and mortar shop started selling fonts. e-Types, the Copenhagen branding company behind the move, is hoping it’s the start of something big.
“Sometimes, it’s important to do something which doesn’t make sense.” Rasmus Ibfelt, partner and strategic director of the Danish digital foundry and brand agency e-Types, is explaining the rationale (or lack thereof) behind Playtype, its seasonal shop in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro. The shop, which opened last December, sells 200 or so fonts (some designed by e-Types, some by its London partners, A2/SW/H2), as well as a small range of products, such as mugs and T-shirts, featuring two of its typefaces. It is thought to be the world’s first physical shop selling typefaces.
“We all had a love of typefaces,” Ibfelt continues. “We really believe in the power of typefaces; they are possibly the most prominent element of a brand. Over 15 years we accumulated so many, we decided we wanted to sell them online but that we also wanted a physical shop too, somewhere we could share our love of fonts at street level, to show how they are relevant for everyone. I think, for a mature company like ours, it’s been a good experiment to go somewhere beyond our usual context, to puzzle people.”
In recent years, awareness and interest in fonts has spread beyond the domain of font nerds into the mainstream, as with the surprise hit 2007 documentary Helvetica and the brouhaha surrounding the “Ban Comic Sans” movement. Everyone seems to have an opinion about fonts and smaller companies are exploiting their infinitesimal subtleties. “We can see that demand for customised or unique typography has never been greater,” says Ibfelt. “Typefaces are relevant to everyone these days. They are an integrated part of our lives. There are more and more typefaces, so it is easier than ever for a company, or even individuals, to find one that most closely expresses their identity. Every computer has loads of font options, and you have things like Google Web Fonts, which are giving them away for free.”
E-Types was invited by Google to submit a font last year which it did, though not without reservations. “We designed one called Play,” says Ibfelt. “Of course, there is a concern about giving fonts away for free but perhaps everything will be free in the future unless it’s a very high-end product, and that is what we are about. Or, alternatively, it would be great to see an iTunes for fonts, where you can buy them for a dollar.” He also predicts that different fonts will find their way into text messaging in the very near future, and hopes e-Types will be at the forefront.
For Jens Kajus, creative co-director and co-founder of e-Types, the shop has been a way for the company to stand out from that ever-intensifying competition. “There are lots of font bureaux in the world, and perhaps 150,000 different fonts out there,” he says. “But by opening a lifestyle shop we have something they don’t. Plus it’s really nice to get something made in 3D.” E-Types has designed typefaces and consulted on branding for clients including Mærsk, Carlsberg and Georg Jensen, as well as the venerable Danish newspaper Berlingske. Current projects range from redesigning a local taxi company’s livery to designing a new Danish ferry brand, to a golf resort in Bangalore. The company has a turnover of around dkr30m (€4m), and until now has viewed its shop – which cost around dkr300,000 (€40,000) to set up but has yet to make a profit – as a one-year-only promotional exercise.
“Actually, we’re not sure the shop is going to close,” says Ibfelt when Monocle speaks to him at e-Types’ two-floor, open-plan offices around the corner from the shop. “It’s been great to see the different customers we’ve had: not just the typeface nerds but the girl who spent over an hour finding a font [the shop sells them on USBs for €50] for her boyfriend for his birthday. Also, there’s a nice synergy between us being a branding agency having our own brand, and working for other clients’ brands. They take us more seriously because they see we understand the mechanisms of retail. The shop has been amazing publicity for us, and now we’re getting ambitious. The mugs have been a great success. All my colleagues laughed at me when I bought 500 white mugs, but it’s an accessible product in an otherwise quite strange space. We’ve just ordered another 3,000 and have had agents from all over the world asking to sell them.” (The bestsellers are the letters “A” and “E”, while tourists prefer the Scandinavian letters “Å” and “Ø”.)
“We want to develop the product business. We’re very inspired by Acne Jeans, which was an advertising company that went into clothing – and now their clothing makes more money.” But, according to Jonas Hecksher, co-creative director and co-founder of e-Types, the ultimate commission would be to design a font for an individual. “I can only think of one person who had their own font: Louis XIV,” says Hecksher, who estimates it would set the client back dkr200,000 (€26,800). “But who knows? Perhaps a Sultan will approach us.” playtype.com
Three fonts from the e-Types library
“We have just finished designing a new ferry brand, which is wonderfully old-school, but I love doing things on a large scale. The font is called The Wave.”
“I’m now completing a new font, Agita, for a maritime museum opening in Helsingør in 2014. I was aiming for a boyish feel, a little bit technical, not heritage, contemporary. The museum is supposed to be for a man to visit with a child.”
“It’s amazing designing for a newspaper – you are effectively designing the style of the paper. We wanted something elegant and approachable. A single typeface – Berling – that could express five different styles was difficult. The ultimate test is that you shouldn’t notice the font when you are reading it, but if you tear off a corner of the paper, you have to be able to recognise it from the font.”