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A Type House Divided


[9] A type designed for newsprint, with its thin inks, pulpy papers, and fast-moving parts. Designed by Hoefler and Frere-Jones.  

They had some very good years. The best thing that happened to them was undoubtedly Gotham; most type foundries rely on one or two blockbuster sellers to generate the majority of revenue, and Gotham soon became that for H&FJ. They were making a lot of money. But another way to measure their success was in the rising social status of type designers as a class. More and more, design magazines and websites and even art museums were recognizing digital type as a true and important art form, seeking out its leading practitioners—people like Spiekermann in Germany, Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans in Berkeley, and Neville Brody in London—and exalting them as icons. And Hoefler and Frere-Jones probably enjoyed more of this sort of treatment than most. There was something about the union, the partnership, not just one font master but two, like a pop band (later, during the split, design geeks would say it was like the Beatles breaking up), an irresistible concentration of design wisdom and firepower, the two men regularly giving interviews and talks together, racking up prestigious awards. In 2011, the Museum of Modern Art acquired 23 digital typefaces for its permanent collection, including four of H&FJ’s fonts—Gotham, Retina, Mercury [ fig. 9 ], a serif-text font, and HTF Didot. “Type is a design universe unto itself,” a MoMA curator wrote, “an essential dimension in the history of modern art and design.” Hoefler and Frere-Jones were also interviewed and featured prominently in the 2007 documentary Helvetica, about the ubiquitous Swiss-designed font; a lovely exploration of how type can rewire our collective visual consciousness, Helvetica bubbled up from the type-design world into the wider nerd universe and became a surprise festival hit.

By 2011, though, the distinctive personalities of Hoefler and Frere-Jones were generating a slow friction. Jay Moore, an account manager with software-industry experience who worked at H&FJ between 2011 and 2012, describes Hoefler as “pretty intense” and prone to fits of pique. But as much as Hoefler embraced conflict, Frere-Jones avoided it. Moore adds, “Tobias has the capacity to let things go a bit longer, and I think Jonathan has the capacity to harden like steel.” They didn’t spend as many long nights in the office as they used to, in part because both men now had families; Frere-Jones and his wife, Christine, a lawyer from Australia, were caring for a newborn baby, and Hoefler and Borsella would vacation together in France. Borsella was becoming his confidante, taking on a larger role in the company, planning business strategy with Hoefler.

Meanwhile, the terrain of the type business was shifting beneath Hoefler and Frere-Jones. For one thing, it was getting harder to answer the always difficult question of how to place a dollar value on a font—a tiny piece of software, a digital luxury good—in a publishing marketplace frothing with new platforms. How much should it cost to use Gotham in a video game? How much for a magazine’s iPad app? Part of the reason Hoefler hired Moore in 2011 was to negotiate with powerful companies and organizations that might try to get H&FJ’s fonts for cheap. Moore once received a call from the 9/11 Memorial designers. “We picked your font, what do you think of that?” they told him. Moore replied, “Well, did you pay for it?”

Another big change was the increasing competition from young designers looking to break into the font world. “Type designer” was becoming a more popular career choice, partly because Hoefler and Frere-Jones had popularized it. When they were first studying type, back in the ’80s, universities didn’t offer majors in type design. Now there are at least three well-respected schools that crank out trained designers. Hoefler didn’t necessarily need Frere-Jones to train designers anymore; he could outsource that function to the schools.

But if Hoefler believed that Frere-Jones was becoming dispensable, Frere-Jones never caught wind of it. He was too immersed in finishing H&FJ’s web product, cloud.typography, which everyone called “the cloud.” If the cloud worked, it would make H&FJ’s fonts available to a whole new market—web designers—and solidify the future of the company. Starting in 2010, Frere-Jones worked to create 120 special versions of fonts for the cloud, inspecting every glyph in every size across 15 different families. He enjoyed the challenge of solving a problem, but it was also a brutal slog, trying to get the fonts to look good across all web browsers and operating systems. The launch kept getting postponed, and several other companies, including Google, released their own cloud-font services first.

Frere-Jones describes “a sense of crisis” in the office during this time. Says one former employee, “I’ve seen [Hoefler] snap at Tobias in the office, in meetings, which made me very uncomfortable. Also, I was under the impression that they were full partners, so it was really weird seeing that happen.”


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