Gotham Suit

A Bold Names’ Quarrel Disrupts
Elusive World of Fonts & Typefaces

Their muted elegance often goes unnoticed by readers. They can’t be detected by word count, spelling or other resources at writers’ disposal. Their selection is personal. Yet once a font is chosen, a whole world of subtle references is added to the content.
Even designers, unsung heroes of the print trade, may fail to pick the right type. And few knew that two stars of the form, Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, had split up.
Called ‘the Beatles of the font designing world,’ an unusually hyperbolic reference to a trade that most people ignore, these two developed a partnership creating some of the most recognizable fonts we’re all familiar with these days.
We’ll get back to their contentions acrimony and ultimate settlement. Their Gotham font has a huge following, but most people are more familiar with Helvetica, in part due to the ominousness of Apple gadgets. Fonts are like that: you don’t even know that you like them.
Typefaces have served way more than their purpose, as design subtly drives people’s tastes and acceptance of new products, a strong sales point. Helvetica, for instance, is so influential that it’s inspired both a Swiss watch company and a Dutch cookie-cutter designer.
Sweden Sans is now that country’s official lettering, playful and patriotic. And, in another welcoming stretch of functionality put at the service of the well being of many, there’s Dislexie, another Dutch designer-created font to help people with the disability to read better.

Since Johann Gutenberg‘s erroneously perceived invention of printing, there’s been a certain fuzziness about what consists a font, what’s the difference between that and the older term type, and whatever the hell does it matter to anyone to know anything about them both.
The 1400s were a time of great inventions, but the one that originated a press loosely resembling printing machines of the Industrial Revolution, came to life at least a century before, and it’s generally credited to a Chinese government official, Wang Chen.
But neither he nor the German goldsmith, however, should be given sole authorship of any contraption built to print text on paper. The process was already been developed independently all over Asia, China and Korea in particular, through the previous 600 years of tryouts.
Adding other six centuries forward doesn’t change much the quagmire of quantifying such a vital invention, not so much to determine its precise origins but for forecasting its future. Premature death certificates for printing notwithstanding, the way we shape our thoughts in letters is nowhere near dismissal.

Nothing like attaching human drama to those shapes and forms so to inject blood into the design narrative. Eventually, John & Paul overcame their differences to come to terms with their co-joined legacies; so should Jonathan & Tobias, even without the same ring(o) to it.
Their dominance has arguably only one other parallel in typeface designing during the post-war years: with that of late Herb Lubalin, who’s credited with successfully having navigated the technological transition from old print machine fonts to that of the Offset era.
Lubalin‘s graphics became the 1960s visual signature of many American magazines and ad campaigns, the same way that European designers such as German-Czech Heinz Edelmann, British Alan Aldridge, Italian Guido Crepax, plus a number of Polish and Czech artists, became so dominant during the period. Somehow, legendary American movie title designer Saul Bass, also belongs in this paragraph.
Through their 15-year plus association, the Hoefler Fonts became logos for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Sports Illustrated. Specialists in what’s called corporate typeface, is theirs the lettering for Tiffany & Co., the U.N., Guggenheim and Whitney museums, Radio City Music Hall, and the New York Jets.

Gotham, naturally, is a quasi New York trademark and one of its most celebrated entries into the font design universe. It’s all over the city’s buildings and publications, and movie goers around the world will recognize it in trailers of U.S.-based film productions.
But if anywhere the Beatles referential became appropriate was during the two designers’ breakup late last year. Vicious accusations, thrown from both sides, shook the reputation of their company, whose name is now changed to Hoefler & Co., a clear indication of who’s in charge.
The $20 million lawsuit settled last June revealed that, although both had developed distinctive fonts on their own, Frere-Jones wasn’t aware that he was not a partner, but an employee of Hoefler, and as such, was not entitled to equal distribution of the firm’s considerable profits.
Words such as ‘treachery’ and ‘betrayal’ were tossed with abandon during their legal dispute, but they now seem to be letting the letter of the law speak for itself. That’s just fine for an industry not nearly as well known as the products it helps sell and the cultural impact it holds.
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3 thoughts on “Gotham Suit

  1. I see there are some terrible typos in my comment! Must slow down.


  2. Having studied graphic design, with a heavy emphasis on typography, in the late 1960s, it’s a pleasure to read something on the largely unsung heroes of visual communication.

    Univers beat Helvetica by 3 years, having been designed by Frenchman Adrian Frutiger in 1954. Swiss typeface designer, Max Miedinger designed Helvetica three years later in !957. They are almost indistinguisable to the untrained eye, and I still like both.

    Nevertheless, we shouldn’t forget Grotesque, the granpappy of all modern sans serif typefaces. Originally released by Berthold Type Foundry in Berlin, under the name Accidenz-Groteskin, in 1898, few designers appreciate its elegance these days. This is partly to do with spacing, as to use properly, the font needs to be hand set with individual spacing acording to the weight and look of each letter. To use fonts like Grotesque to full advantage on a computer, means having to cut and paste each letter separately.

    It is a little sad the real art of typography is being slowly lost, with companies like Microsoft copying designs and changing them slightly, presumably in order to avoid paying royalties


    • colltales says:

      Very insightful, Bryan. Once in another life, I’ve worked as a newspaper page designer, and it was like meeting a friend for life; I’ve never stopped loving graphic design and have followed it with interest ever since. Thanks for your input.


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