Tucked discreetly beyond the palaces, government offices and shrines of Jongno-gu, Seoul, sits one of the most unique graphic design studios in South Korea, studio fnt. Founded in 2006 by designer Jaemin Lee, the studio has been steadily collapsing boundaries between categories to create a new world of delightfully simple graphic design from Korea.
Known for its clean and consistent body of work throughout the years, the studio has flourished through developing a straight-forward style. With an emphasis on playful geometric shapes and patterns, lines, and minimalist color palettes, its designs embody the idea that less is more. The studio’s bold application of Hangul scripts also energizes its refreshing and understatedly clean palette. Although many local designers overlook the creative potential of using Hangul, the studio has adapted its native language to generate new possibilities for creative typography, which makes its design all the more unique. At the core of it all lies the studio’s open-ended mindset, which favors the idea of space and abstract matters over concrete forms and rules. Lee and his team appropriately named the studio “fnt,” representing an abbreviation of form and thing, refuting a specific meaning or value.
When I sit down for an interview with Lee, he tells me that the studio must continue to take on challenging new projects. “I want to try multiple things, instead of focusing on just one,” he says. After a stint in the online startup arena during the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s, Lee opened his own design studio and began working on small projects. One of the earliest sprang from his passion for music, which started organically, through collecting record covers and, eventually, designing vinyl jackets and CD covers for friends and clients. The bookshelves of Lee’s office are filled with stacks of vintage record cases (along with Japanese comic books, or manga, and plastic toys). This passion is evident even now—music continues to play an integral part in Lee’s design practice.
Lee’s story took a new turn in 2007 when he joined forces with designer Woogyung Geel. Three years later, Heesun Kim, now the studio’s creative director, joined the group, bringing expertise in the promotion and development of corporate branding for big-name clients. With their diverse sets of skills and knowledge, the tight-knit trio was able to broaden the spectrum of their portfolio. When asked if their friendship has been a key aspect of their lasting partnership, Kim says, “We are good friends, but also have a good understanding of each other’s professional roles, like a triangle.” Having maintained an independent design studio for ten years—a rarity in Seoul, with its many short-lived design studios—their collaborative triangle has clearly been vital to the studio’s success.
Fighting against steep odds, studio fnt has built a diverse range of clients that come in vastly different sizes and specialties—from big-box chains like Hyundai Department Store and the Megabox movie theaters to national television network JTBC to cultural institutions like the Junglim Foundation and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) to brands like Sulwhasoo cosmetics. The studio’s client list has continued to grow, with projects for the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan), the Seoul Record Fair and Typojanchi: International Typography Biennale, all of which have a strong cultural presence in South Korea. In the process of building its ever-expanding portfolio, studio fnt maintains a compact five-member team—Lee, Geel, Kim and two assistant designers—that enables sharing long-term visions and choosing projects selectively in order to keep an innovative edge.
That edge has been a great asset in attracting clients who are looking to revamp their image. When Hyundai Department Store wanted to revive its brand to stand out from other competitors, studio fnt built on the existing logotype and lilac and deep green color palette—originally designed by New York–based firm Base Design—to present new Korean logotypes, typography and patterns. A central aspect of the studio’s application of the design included an H-motif pattern and a clean, contrasting effect in color and form, which embodied the idea of interlacing the store’s traditional heritage and modern appeal. The studio’s acute understanding of cultural nuances was a huge advantage when working with corporate giant Hyundai, whose market is relatively conservative. Eerang Park, art director of the department store, says, “We wanted to work with studio fnt based on our search for the perfect team that could offer an international perspective of design while having a sharp understanding of the distinct qualities of the Korean market.”
When the studio worked on relaunching the brand identity of BiFan in 2016, it similarly had to meet the client’s need to appeal to both Korean and international audiences. The design also aimed to communicate the story behind the festival’s creative energy and global outlook. Known for promoting international films across diverse genres, including sci-fi, romance, horror and thrillers, BiFan has been around for more than a decade and has gained global recognition despite being located in Bucheon, a satellite city of Seoul. With the goals of highlighting the festival’s consistent innovation and emphasizing its contemporary relevance, the studio created the Cell of Fantasy, which ascribed to the festival’s central theme of fantastic imagination. The organically shaped logo has curved edges, accentuated to express a flowing direction and movement. It is accompanied by a custom typeface highlighting features around the curves of the scripts, providing a cohesive visual system for Korean, Chinese and English scripts. The final composition created a distinctively unifying look that appeared to meld different languages together.
Another element of studio fnt’s unique appeal has been its ability to refine and simplify complex ideas without being overly academic or dogmatic in its approach. When I ask about the studio’s distinctive qualities, Kim tells me that the central characteristic of studio fnt’s graphic design is simply kindness to others. “We try to make design that can attract a diverse audience without having to give a difficult explanation,” she explains. “That way, everyone can understand our concepts easily.”
Lee’s designs avoid too many colors and visual elements; he limits them to one or two within his work. He has never felt truly comfortable with the idea of making elaborate designs to please an audience or a client. “I just want to inspire new ideas and give a cheerful and lively impression,” he says. Such an approach has earned him positive feedback from clients, who testify to the studio’s credibility and highly satisfactory outcomes.
Minhee Lee, curator of the MMCA, is one such advocate, having worked with the studio for three years. “One of studio fnt’s important strengths is its ability to convey an exhibition’s identity through an eclectic range of exhibition and promotional designs,” she states. “A majority of the exhibitions that we collaborated with the studio on have significantly influenced the museum’s visitor ratings. For instance, New Romance: Art and the Posthuman attracted record audience attendance for the Seoul museum.”
In its attention-grabbing design for the New Romance exhibition, the studio juxtaposed simple point colors using blue and neon pink to express the dual notion of new romantic trends in media art. Like the equally inscrutable topics of science and technology, new media art has always been a challenging theme for nonspecialist art audiences. Yet the studio’s uncomplicated usages of form and color provided an effective visual strategy to make this exhibition seem intriguing for a diverse audience, from all ages and backgrounds.
Instead of chasing other trends, studio fnt focuses on interweaving independent ideas and thoughts so as to continue to imbue its work with the quality and genuine authenticity it has become known for. Whether the studio is creating unique and distinguished projects for new media art or big-name department stores, its designs will have a lasting impact on the public’s imagination. ca