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

Illustration by Steph Davidson

Gotham is one hell of a typeface. Its Os are round, its capital letters sturdy and square, and it has the simplicity of a geometric sans without feeling clinical. The inspiration for Gotham is the lettering on signs at the Port Authority, manly works using “the type of letter that an engineer would make,” according to Tobias Frere-Jones, who is widely credited with designing the font for GQ magazine in 2000. Critics have praised Gotham as blue collar, nostalgic yet “exquisitely contemporary,” and “simply self evident.”

It’s also ubiquitous. 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.

Among those who draw letters for a living, Gotham is most notable for being the crowning achievement of two of the leaders of their tribe, Frere-Jones and Jonathan Hoefler. The two men seemed to be on parallel paths since the summer of 1970, when they were both born in New York. Hoefler and Frere-Jones were already prominent designers when they began operating as Hoefler&Frere-Jones in 1999, having decided to join forces instead of continuing their race to be type design’s top boy wonder. Each would serve as an editor for the other, and they would combine their efforts to promote the work they did together.

Colleagues still struggle to explain what a big deal this was at the time. Debbie Millman, president emeritus of AIGA, the major trade organization for graphic designers, begins by comparing them to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, then stops. “They were famous before they got together, so that’s how they’re not like the Beatles. It’s more like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young,” she says, before pausing again. “You know what—I’ll tell you what they were like. They were like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.”

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

Photograph by Charlie Neibergall/AP

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 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.

A market that was transformed by computers is now being transformed again by the increasing use of Web fonts, says James Montalbano, former director of the Type Designers Club, a trade group. This is a potentially significant commercial opportunity, but it is not a given that designers will figure out how best to take advantage of it. “The market is totally in flux,” says Montalbano. “Everyone is totally trying to figure it out.”

Hoefler&Frere-Jones seemed to have done just that. The firm, which had 16 employees as of this month, was known not only for design but also for business savvy. 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. The company declined to discuss its revenue.

As important as fonts have become for companies, politicians, and anyone with a drop-down typeface menu on their word processing program, the faces behind the typefaces have largely remained unknown to the public. Though Hoefler and Frere-Jones were renowned among font enthusiasts, their popular name recognition was limited. Their abrupt, confusing split has drawn a surge of attention that has surprised their peers. “Our business is interesting to us, but we would never think it would be interesting to normal people,” says Michael Bierut of Pentagram, a prominent graphic design firm. “Part of it is that it doesn’t have a whole lot of dramatic conflict and there’s not a lot of money involved. What makes this so riveting is that it has both.”

Tobias Frere-Jones seems like someone who could hold something in for 15 years. He’s a thin, neatly dressed man, with posture reminiscent of the capital letter I. Talking about Hoefler appears to bring him pain; in describing recent events, he stares at the wall and lapses into silence. He regularly compares his relationship with Hoefler to a marriage—one in which he was betrayed.

Frere-Jones came to typography as a compromise. His great-grandfather and father were both writers, and his brother is the pop music critic for the New Yorker. Frere-Jones wrote fiction in high school and also dabbled in Russian Suprematism, a form of abstract painting where squares figure prominently. Typeface design included aspects of both crafts, and Frere-Jones took to it easily. “Back in high school, I got kicked out of French class because I should have been reading Molière, but instead I was doodling a lower-case K and L and M and N,” he says.

When Frere-Jones enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1988, there was no course of study for type designers. He took what lettering classes they had and was partway through an independent study when his professor admitted that he had nothing more to teach his student, advising Frere-Jones to go to Cambridge, Mass., and show his half-finished font to Matthew Carter, perhaps the world’s most prominent type designer. Carter recommended Frere-Jones for a job at the Font Bureau, a Boston-based font foundry. Frere-Jones began doing freelance work there, and he joined full-time when he graduated in 1992.

Hoefler (center) and Frere-Jones (far right) at the ATypI conference in 1996
Photograph by Jean Francois Porchez

A few hours south, a second young man from Manhattan was making a name in the world of letters. Jonathan Hoefler was also a kid caught between two passions: in his case, computers and graphic design. Hoefler didn’t go straight to college after high school, instead finding freelance work designing lettering and logos. He also began teaching himself computer programming, enabling him to automate portions of the process.

It was a fortuitous time for a type designer to come of age. By the late 1980s the personal computer had begun to loosen the hold that big European font houses such as Linotype and Monotype had on the market. It was increasingly possible to sell directly to publications and designers, skipping layers of middlemen that typified the existing system. “I cut all that out and went straight to the end users, and that is because I knew all of them,” says Hoefler, who had set up an office in a 320-square-foot cubbyhole in downtown Manhattan. “I knew all the art directors in the city because I was the weird young kid with the Macintosh who knew the names of all the fonts.”

Hoefler cultivated a rolodex of graphic designers who became his clients, but he really rose to prominence in the late 1980s and early ’90s by designing typefaces for magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times Magazine. At the same time, Hoefler began selling fonts to individuals through his website, on which customers could print out an order form, fax in a request, and receive a disc of their desired fonts in the mail.

In the 1990s, changing industry economics was affecting its aesthetics, too. The democratization of the tools of the trade had given rise to so-called grunge typography, which trafficked in angst and messiness. Neither Frere-Jones nor Hoefler took to that trend, preferring a cleaner style based on historic typefaces. Both men were also scouring the Internet for books of samples of source materials. These were not the most well-traveled of EBay auctions, and Frere-Jones and Hoefler found themselves competing for titles. Given the relatively small number of skilled type designers, they were also facing off for commissions. The two began bouncing ideas off one another.

Citing the lawsuit, Hoefler declines to discuss any aspect of his relationship with Frere-Jones, including how they started working together or how things went sour; nor will he address any substantive issues in the complaint. Frere-Jones says that Hoefler began floating the idea of working together in the mid ’90s, jokingly proposing that they start a company called “Tobias and Jonathan’s Excellent Adventure (LLC).” One evening in 1999, Frere-Jones says Hoefler took him to the Gotham Bar and Grill and made a formal proposal that they become partners. Frere-Jones says the pitch centered largely on the idea that he wasn’t reaping the full benefit of his work at Font Bureau. He says he thought he was entering a full partnership in which the two would jointly control intellectual property, share business decisions, and have their names on the door.

Using a microscopic enlargement of an old document, typeface designer Hoefler explains, in 2007, the inspiration behind a variation on the firm’s Requiem typeface
Photograph by Kathy Willens/AP

His view was widely shared within the industry. When the two were awarded the AIGA medal last year, the company was described as a partnership. As part of the suit, Frere-Jones provided a series of e-mails in which Hoefler refers to Frere-Jones as a partner in communications with potential clients, the press, and Frere-Jones himself. “Never did it cross my mind that they weren’t equal partners,” says Bonnie Siegler of Eight and a Half, a designer who is friends with both men.

“If you go back and look at the old logo, you can see the deal that we made,” says Frere-Jones. “There are two names there—the same size, side by side, not one over the other.” While this is a compelling argument from a design perspective, it may not persuade a court. One place where Hoefler has never referred to Frere-Jones as his partner is on any kind of contract. In legal documents, the firm was described as the Hoefler Type Foundry, doing business as Hoefler&Frere-Jones. Frere-Jones says he never drafted paperwork to formalize the partnership he thought he was entering, nor did he hire a lawyer to examine the contract in which he signed over the rights to the fonts he had created at the Font Bureau for $10. In 2004 Frere-Jones also signed an employment agreement describing him as an employee of the firm. Both men agree that Frere-Jones signed this document, and the case is likely to turn in part on what the contract means—was he the firm’s employee? Or Hoefler’s?

Frere-Jones says that he agreed to this because Hoefler was always promising to formalize the partnership soon. In 2003 the two drew up a press release saying they had become full partners, according to Frere-Jones’s suit. It apparently never went out. There was always a project to be finished first, a commission on deadline, an aspect of the business that needed Hoefler’s urgent attention. Why would Frere-Jones allow 14 years to pass without formalizing such an important aspect of the business? He is at a loss to explain. “It would seem bizarre for this to not follow through, that we would just put all this work and patience into building this new company, and I put all this work into designing all of these typefaces,” he says. “It would, you know, it didn’t even occur to me that there would be some—you know. That I would get stonewalled.”

By Frere-Jones’s account, the situation reached a head last fall. He began pushing Hoefler to make his co-ownership of the business official earlier in 2013. On Oct. 21, he says Hoefler told him that a partnership was “not going to happen.” Frere-Jones began planning to leave and eventually departed in January.

While Hoefler declined to discuss when the fracture started, there is evidence that he also saw October as a turning point. Over two days, first on Oct. 21 and then again in early November, a handful of Web domains related to Hoefler and Frere-Jones’s names were purchased. Some of these, such as, seem to hint at a company without Frere-Jones. Others are derived from Frere-Jones’ name, like,, 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.”

Jonathan Hoefler still works at the same building in which he set up shop 22 years ago, although he has more space. Hoefler&Co, as the firm is now called, operates out of a tidy office above a Crate & Barrel (a store that laid out its logo in Helvetica—except for the first letter, setting off a minor typographical controversy). Hoefler does not seem like a man going through a divorce. During a recent visit, he was all smiles as he pointed out attributes of various ampersands with help from books he pulled down from shelves. He recounted the untold genius of Henrik van de Keere, a 16th century Flemish punchcutter whose work is the basis for a font the company is working on; expounded on the difficulties of designing typefaces in non-Western scripts; and asked an employee to demonstrate code that automatically adds shadowing to letters, taking a repetitious task out of human hands.

Frere-Jones holds a promotional book in 2007 containing examples of the Gotham typeface
Photograph by Kathy Willens/AP

At this point, only about a quarter of Hoefler&Co’s workforce is dedicated to creating fonts. Hoefler brightens as he discusses the website, which he sees as a sort of Bloomingdale’s window for typefaces, an aspirational display that gets graphic designers fantasizing about dressing up their own work in new ways. The office also has a legal team dedicated to policing its intellectual property—like many forms of creativity, fonts are susceptible to piracy—and a sales staff.

While Hoefler is widely respected for his design work, he has also gained a reputation for having a keen business mind in an industry where such skills are rare. Former clients and colleagues say that he can be aggressive when he thinks he has been wronged. In 2005, the firm sued Joshua Darden, a former employee, for incorporating its fonts into his own work. “For many years I personally felt like I wouldn’t want to say anything public that would get back to him, because I feared his wrath,” says Chester Jenkins, a type designer who knows both men. “I don’t think there’s anyone I’ve talked to who hasn’t had a run-in with Jonathan.”

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.”

Hoefler’s nonchalance about the break-up seems to stem from the feeling that he no longer needs Frere-Jones, whom he says he doesn’t plan to replace. When asked whether the company would miss Frere-Jones, Hoefler demurs. “Honestly, what we’re looking for next are people who can do new things that we’ve never done before. Typeface design is something we do very well,” he says. “To think about type design in the narrow confines of drawing alphabets doesn’t seem to me like a recipe for success.”

If Gotham is the typeface signifying the union of Hoefler&Frere-Jones, Surveyor may symbolize their falling-out. Like Gotham, Surveyor was created in 2000 when a magazine—this time Martha Stewart Living—approached Hoefler and Frere-Jones. The result was a “warm and inviting voice, with the charm of the handmade but the credibility of a textbook,” according to the font’s website.

Both Hoefler and Frere-Jones claim artistic ownership of Surveyor. Hoefler says the typeface came from a sketch he drew in 1997, while Frere-Jones says he was the lead designer. In late March, Hoefler&Co made Surveyor available for licensing to the general public for the first time.

A license to use the full range of Surveyor fonts on a single computer and online costs $299. In Frere-Jones’s lawsuit, he values the rights to the fonts he signed over to the company at more than $3 million, and he says his overall share of the company is worth $20 million. Citing the lawsuit, Frere-Jones would not discuss how these numbers were derived. Hoefler disputes them. “We have no idea how he arrived at these speculative numbers,” he said in an e-mail. “They are certainly not the product of a formal valuation of the company or the fonts.”

While this is in some ways the center of the conflict between the two men, Hoefler may be holding something even more valuable to Frere-Jones: veto power over his ability to work. As part of the contract that Frere-Jones signed in 2004, he agreed to a clause prohibiting him from working for any competing companies for two years without the firm’s agreement. This is potentially a big problem for Frere-Jones, although it’s unclear if or how it could be enforced.

The legal fight is likely to drag out for months or years. Hoefler’s attorney filed a motion to dismiss the case, citing the 2004 employment agreement and saying Frere-Jones waited too long to raise grievances. In response, Frere-Jones provided the e-mails showing that Hoefler had described their business relationship as a partnership. A judge has not yet been assigned to the case.

As the lawsuit winds through the courts, Hoefler will continue to draw income from the firm’s past work, while Frere-Jones will not. Hoefler says that releasing Surveyor for license is a normal course of business. “We would never identify any of these typefaces as having an author,” he says. “If nothing else, it’s offensive to the team.”

Frere-Jones is slowly getting back to work. He started his own website this week. He is also planning on launching his own firm. “I think it depends on how long it takes to get this situation worked out,” he says. Frere-Jones sees Hoefler’s decision to release Surveyor in the meantime as a slap in the face. “Anybody who knows that design knows I drew it, but my name is nowhere on the stuff,” he says. “I was just erased.”

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