CRF Blog

Font War: Inside the Design World’s $20 Million Divorce

by Bill Hayes

In Font War: Inside the Design World’s $20 Million Divorce, a feature story, Bloomberg Businessweek reports on the split between two major font designers.

For 15 years, Frere-Jones and Hoefler seemed charmed. They made typefaces that rendered the stock charts in the Wall Street Journal readable and helped Martha Stewart sell cookbooks. They created an alphabet for the New York Jets, based on the team’s logo. And they saw their lettering chiseled into stone as part of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. 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 [the professional association for design] 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.”

Not quite. In January, Frere-Jones filed a lawsuit against Hoefler, saying that their company was not actually a partnership, but a long con in which Hoefler had tricked him into signing over the rights to all of his work, cheating Frere-Jones out of his half of the business. “In the most profound treachery and sustained exploitation of friendship, trust and confidence, Hoefler accepted all the benefits provided by Frere-Jones while repeatedly promising Frere-Jones that he would give him the agreed equity, only to refuse to do so when finally demanded,” the complaint charges. Frere-Jones is asking a court to grant him $20 million. Hoefler won’t comment on the suit directly, but the day after it was filed a lawyer for the company issued a brief statement disputing the claims, which, it said, “are false and without legal merit.” (About Gotham’s creation, Hoefler writes in an email: “No one is disputing Tobias’s role in those projects, or my own, for that matter. [Our] typefaces have had a lot of other contributors, as well  —  everything we do here is a team effort.”) According to the company statement, Frere-Jones was not Hoefler’s partner but a “longtime employee.”

The conflict comes at a moment when the industry is soaring. Companies and institutions recognize that typeface matters, and they’re willing to pay for a good one. Customers have access to a wider range of fonts than ever before. Regular folks know what they like, even if they can’t tell their sans from their elbows. The increased appetite for lettering has created a distinct commercial opportunity in graphic design: the possibility of recurring revenue. Designers generally work from one commission to the next, but font licenses are akin to royalties for musicians. The software used to create a font can be licensed to multiple clients, temporarily or permanently. Fonts are often licensed to individuals for small amounts of money or given away for free, but corporations, magazines, and museums that want branded fonts sometimes pay up to tens of thousands of dollars for lettering used in publications or public spaces. [more]