Interview with Overtone founder Nicolaj Bak about overtones, typeface design, visual identity and film scores.
Text: Hanne Hedetoft
Photo: Jesper Balleby
Article published 2016 in OdL Magazine no. 40
With a passion for consummate craftsmanship, Overtone design consultancy develops visual identities for businesses. As one of the few agencies in Denmark offering the service, founder Nicolaj Bak and his staff even create custom brand typefaces that give unique resonance to a company’s identity.
Every narrative has an underlying tone. There may be more or less pleasant undertones in that text from your spouse or partner, and when a discussion gets a little too heated, we might be accused of lowering the tone.
Every day, we use a host of musical metaphors without even realising it. But for Nicolaj Bak, the name Overtone was deliberately chosen as a concrete reference to the world of music. To put it briefly, overtones are what give an instrument its unique sound.
“It isn’t possible to eliminate overtones. But hypothetically, if we imagine we could remove the overtones from an oboe and a flute, in principle, you wouldn’t be able to hear the difference between the two instruments,” explains Nicolaj Bak.
That question is frequently asked of Nicolaj Bak when he proposes to create an custom typeface for a company as part of the general work with branding and identity. Why not simply choose the font in Windows that best fits the new logo and overall graphic profile?
“The typeface you choose exists as a company’s tone of voice on all marketing and communication platforms. In other words, the type design becomes a kind of film score that colours and influences the recipient’s understanding of and response to the messages you use this typeface to communicate.”
Nicolaj Bak compares Overtone’s work to that of a film composer who must generate various moods and feelings, creating iconic music that can serve as a theme song for a particular film.
“If you want to communicate clearly and consistently on all platforms, it’s important that the keynote of the typeface is also clear; that you don’t create a muddled image by using various different typefaces, which may also be used by other companies with a whole different identity and message than yours.”
Nicolaj Bak knows what he’s talking about when it comes to overtones. In fact, he was trained as a classical musician at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus.
The writing on the wall
However, when it came to establishing himself as a professional musician, the young guitarist quickly saw the writing on the wall. He knew it would be difficult to find permanent employment and did not want to make a living primarily through teaching. Instead, he interned at a design agency and subsequently founded Overtone in 2003. The transition from music to graphic design was gradual and came very naturally.
“During my time at the conservatory, I spent a few years in Germany where I earned money transcribing sheet music. Making proper musical notation is very graphic work, almost a kind of simple calligraphy.”
The design consultancy has several clients from the music world – from Grim Fest (Denmark’s Ugliest Festival) to Musikkens Hus in Aalborg, for whom Overtone developed full brand identities, including type design.
“We work at deeper levels with subtle effects, but at the same time, we must create something immediately recognisable. Fonts for newspapers require discreet means, while the design for Musikkens Hus was intended to be more distinctive. However, the look of the typeface also needed to be suitable for everything from pop, rock and classical music to providing general information. For example, if a door is out of order, the venue can print a sign written in their own typeface. That gives a more official and professional impression.”
But the consultancy’s list of clients also includes very different businesses, such as Grundfos, Jyske Bank, ARoS Aarhus Art Museum and Aarhus Light Rail – as well as Dutch KLM Airlines. And Overtone hopes to spread its wings and take on more foreign clients.
A global language
It makes sense to think in international terms, because, like music, typefaces are a global language understood across borders. Meanwhile, the Scandinavian wave that came in the wake of television series such as The Killing and Borgen means there is again great interest in Scandinavian design.
“And as with furniture design and architecture, Scandinavian type design also displays particularly Nordic characteristics in the form of clean, simple lines and functionality,” says Nicolaj Bak.
However, the ambition to try their luck abroad is not only about typography and type design.
“In connection with the Aarhus Light Rail project, we received a design brief from which we were asked to make a usable typeface. Typically, however, we create type design as part of a commission to develop a full visual identity. I believe that international companies can also add value and enhance their overall visual profile with the help of our expertise – and our roots in the Scandinavian design heritage and tradition.”
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What are overtones?
A musical tone is not actually just one tone but a combination of a fundamental tone (the actual tone) and various weaker overtones. For example, when a guitar string is plucked, the strongest vibration constitutes the fundamental tone, while a number of secondary oscillations create overtones. Depending on which overtones dominate, the same tone can be perceived as light or dark. The overtones give the tone its timbre.