Friday, April 11, 2014

Forget what font it’s in: just get it in writing.

When it comes to fonts, you only need to take a look at Pink Slip to appreciate that I probably don’t spend a lot of time worrying about things like look and feel. (For the record, this is Georgia, which looks a lot like Times New Roman to me. I.e., it’s a bit less type-writer-y than Courier. Pink Slip aside, I tend toward Calibri, Verdana, and Tahoma. They just look  cleaner. However, I have been told that serif fonts are, however, easier to read than sans serif.)

Oh, well.

Anyway, while I don’t dwell on fonts, I do like them. And while I’m mostly a content person, I enjoy design as much as the next guys. I just don’t typically practice it.

And, in terms of the written/typed word, I think the world was getting along just fine when, it seemed, that there were only two choices, Times and Helvetica (which was pretty much the Arial of yesteryear).

But I like the idea of designers creating new fonts, making minute and subtle changes that most of us don’t notice one way or another: how thick is the outside of the capital O, how high does the i get dotted, where do you cross your t’s?

And I don’t like the idea of designers squabbling over their business after one gets screwed out of said business by the other.

Tsk, tsk.

But this has happened with what was once the partnership of of Jonathan Hoefler & Tobias Frere-Jones, of the company Hoefler & Frere-Jones, which over the course of many years developed some mighty important fonts, the most prominent and famous of which is Gotham, a font as sleek and modern as Gotham, a.k.a., Manhattan.

Gotham has appeared on Netflix envelopes, Coca-Cola cans, and in the Saturday Night Live logo. It was on display at the Museum of Modern Art from 2011 to 2012 and continues to be part of the museum’s permanent collection. It also helped elect a president: In 2008, Barack Obama’s team chose Gotham as the official typeface of the campaign and used it to spell out the word HOPE on its iconic posters. (Source: Business Week.)

To others in the business, the team of Hoefler & Frere-Jones was considered a sure-fired pairing: peanut butter and jelly, green eggs and ham, Barnum and Bailey. Or, in the hallowed words of Debbie Millman, the head of the trade association for designers: “They were like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.”

The couple – Jonathan and Tobias, not Brangelina -  got along together for 15 years:

Last year, the duo won the AIGA Medal, the profession’s highest award. It seemed to be one of those rare situations whereby two successful soloists had combined to make an even better supergroup. Hoefler was asked if there were any troubles in their working relationship for a video produced for the AIGA in 2013. “We do have a longstanding disagreement over the height of the lower case t,” he said. “That is the only point of contention.”

…Within the industry, Hoefler is widely seen as the driver of that end of the company, with Frere-Jones credited for being the creative force.

And from Frere-Jones perspective, they were in a true partnership: both names on the door, even steven, one for all and all for one, etc… Then, after all those years of verbal agreements and an implicit understanding that they were, indeed, in it together, Frere-Jones started pressing to get it in writing. Then, and only then, did he find out that, whatever words had been passed between them, however many times their relationship was – for marketing purposes – referred to as a partnership, whatever the outside world thought they were about, they were just another unequal pairing of boss and minion.

Frere-Jones decided to sue, but Hoefler (surprise, surprise) believes the $20 M suit is sans merit.

According to the company statement, Frere-Jones was not Hoefler’s partner but a “longtime employee.”

And behind the curtain, the company that was doing business as Hoefler & Frere-Jones was actually a legal entity called Hoefler Type Foundry. Not to mention that Frere-Jones had, in 2004, somewhat dopily – especially in hindsight – “signed an employment agreement describing him as an employee of the firm.” And which includes a non-compete.

Frere-Jones doesn’t contest this, but claims that he only agreed because Hoefler was “always promising to formalize the partnership soon.”

Oh, my dear, sweet, naïve, trusting Tobias Frere Jones. (You really thought he’d respect you in the morning?)

Anyway, after 15 years, Frere-Jones decided he wanted to make the relationship officially official. Hoefler’s response wasL ain’t gonna happen. And, in anticipation that he may have ticked his partner, oops, employee, off enough to get him to leave, Hoefler registered a bunch of URL’s that someone named Tobias Frere-Jones might want for himself:

…,, and Anyone who types these URLs into a Web browser is now redirected to, the homepage of Hoefler&Co. When asked about the domain names, Hoefler writes in an e-mail: “The company maintains dozens of domains that are variations of its registered trademarks, in keeping with best practices.”

To me, the broken partnership promise makes Hoefler look like a snake; grabbing the URL’s that Tobias Frere-Jones might want to claim, and directing them to his homepage, makes Hoefler look like a Grade A bastard.

Several designers I spoke with said they were under the impression that Hoefler was almost exclusively focused on managing the business in recent years, leaving design to Frere-Jones. This makes it easy to cast Hoefler in the role of the villain exploiting the work of a naïve genius. But Hoefler and Frere-Jones’s relationship was more complicated than that, says Mike Essl, who teaches design at Cooper Union. Hoefler had all of Frere-Jones’s design chops, but also had the ability to propel Frere-Jones to prominence in a way he couldn’t have done on his own. Business partnerships rarely last forever, says Essl, and when they end, it’s often ugly. “Van Halen isn’t going to be Van Halen forever,” he says. “Someone is going to leave.”

Maybe Hoefler’s business savvy did propel Tobias Frere-Jones to the point where Business Week is writing about him (and Pink Slip is blogging about him: talk about prominence!). And maybe Hoefler will have the law on his side.

But I suspect that in the court of public opinion, Tobias Frere-Jones is winning. Too bad that’s not worth anywhere near the $20M Frere-Jones wants from Hoefler.

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