May 7, 2014

Trust and Tobias Frere-Jones

Trust-Fall icon designed by Juan Pablo Bravo from The Noun Project collection

I admire the typeface-design work of (formerly) Hoefler & Frere-Jones. Their work helped inform the ascent of typography on the Web. In their appearance in the documentary “Helvetica” (2007), they looked like a solid creative duo. Like many, I assumed that the ampersand in their business name was more than symbolic—that it meant that theirs was a joint partnership more than in name only. It shocked me that they broke up in January 2014.

I didn’t read Tobias Frere-Jones’ complaint (because legalese is complicated language). But I don’t have to, in order to feel like his relationship to Jonathan Hoefler reinforces harsh realities caused by human behavior.

Trust begins with a meeting. From Joshua Brustein’s Businessweek article “Font War: Inside the Design World’s $20 Million Divorce”, Hoefler and Frere-Jones met for dinner, in 1999, at the Gotham Bar and Grill (aptly named considering one of their most popular fonts Gotham) where they officially entered into a “partnership” to make fonts together. I envision that a pleasant conversation took place, with smiles and anticipation to the future, perhaps a handshake, sealing a commitment.

First meetings like this are pivotal. They create confidence. There is the feeling of reliance—to primarily rely on one’s word. Though naivety is a liability when it comes to verbal agreements, the inclination to be trustworthy remains natural to act. I recall all of the first meetings I had where the word proved strong as oak. I will also never forget all of the first meetings I had where the word proved shallow.

In the context of a partnership, words—expressing shared interest, exchanged from one person to another—matter a lot. They form the foundation upon which to build a relationship. Trust starts with words, but is felt without them.

From 1999 onward, the verbal sheen of trust between Tobias Frere-Jones and Jonathan Hoefler persisted until the fall of 2013, when Frere-Jones expected Hoefler to make their partnership official—on paper. Hoefler didn’t budge. Frere-Jones left.

There is a camp of people who (seemingly have the foresight to know better and) fault Frere-Jones for waiting too long, for failing “to put it in writing” from the start. The ease of such armchair criticism is not surprising.

Sadly, human history is loaded with stories, where the Frere-Joneses of the world are subject to the Hoeflers of the world. The former have faith in people. The latter steer the faith. The essential question is: Why didn’t Hoefler ultimately give Frere-Jones full partnership (thereby equal rights and equal share)? The fact that Frere-Jones didn’t get what he expected—stated at the start, with someone he relied on—is most telling.

Trust excels when we trust. But when vulnerability is learned to be an asset, trust excels in layers of willful omission instituted by those who have the knowledge to benefit from it.

When the entity of Hoefler & Frere-Jones existed, I happened to never buy a font from them. I now look forward to buying type designed and owned by Frere-Jones.

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