Thursday, April 10, 2014

Designing Men

This article at Business Week tells the surprisingly gripping tale of a long and rewarding relationship in shambles.  The forces at work in this story – creativity and design, a friendship spanning decades, the brutal effects of legal action on a dynamic not only professional, but personal – are the stuff of the best literature we have.  And the building blocks here – fonts, and their design, which make a surprisingly interesting subject – are very much the stuff (literally) of writing.  Jonathan Hoefler almost makes the perfect betrayor, Tobias Frere-Jones his hapless, almost spousal, “victim” in the framing of the history of a relationship (I would say “partnership” – but that is the very point under contention; *were* they partners?) doomed now by lawyers.  And doomed (here is the literary part, kids) by the failure to communicate.  By diffidence and assumptions … the same things that doom so many marriages, love affairs … and partnerships, to be sure.

Font design is an unexpectedly emotional and political arena.  Most of us are aware that Lucida Handwriting makes a poor showing for a business contract, and many people are aware, or at least would not be surprised, that Comic Sans is a bit of a joke in the world of letter design.  But how many of us know that the choice or conception of a typeface design carries with it a raft of subjective baggage?  How many are aware that New York’s Helvetica subway signs , so much a part of the city that people who’ll never go there in their lives recognize the font and the color scheme, raise in some folks a certain suspicion at their institutional strength bordering on the fear of brutality – and in others an almost happy satisfaction with its clean and reassuring simplicity?  How many knew just how strong the movement was, particularly beginning in the 1990s, to create messy, unpredictable – “punk” (hah) fonts?

Aggression and confrontation seem a counterintuitive part of something we might routinely imagine would be as boring as font design, and yet X-treem fonting was a big deal when it began, and its progeny are here to stay, even if their marketability may trump their nonconformity in the end.

Our heroes eschewed the paint-splatter or letters-cut-from-magazines scary effects of “edgier” fonts, but the success of the business that bore their name skirted trends like that.

The Business Week article documents the dissolution between these men with an almost leering set of insinuations about how much more the relationship was than a business arrangement.  “Divorce” is the word in the headline, and the very silence on the more personal aspects of a friendship which clearly goes back a very long way is suggestive in much the same way Victorian mores were on the topic of love which dare not speak its name.  The breathy description of Mr. Frere-Jones is heavy on pathos, casting him as a betrayed wife, and perhaps a bit of a naif or at least too delicate to be a Real Man in real business.

The entire crux of the article comes down to this:

One place where Hoefler has never referred to Frere-Jones as his partner is on any kind of contract.

At this point, I divorce myself from the engaging tale of a wronged woman (who happens to be a grown-ass man who signed, apparently, any number of legal documents NOT making a legal business partner of him, over a span of fourteen *years*) and have to consider agency over emotional outrage.  Frere-Jones, whatever his complaints, whatever the “promises” and expectations un-met – signed up to have them un-met.  His legal autonomy is no less than mine, he didn’t bother to know what he was signing up for – or he blinded himself wilfully – and the fact is, he appears very much to have participated in the truth of a situation which, no matter how often he and Hoefler teamed up to depict it otherwise publicly and for market reasons, he *could* have understood, perhaps truly did, and certainly had the responsibility to.

I’m no fan of the old “suck it up, Buttercup” school of writing off complexities in human relationships – but, as a feminist in particular, I’m not persuaded by “but but but”, “was gonna”, “coulda/woulda/shoulda” and “I THOUGHT” as legal arguments.  This is where the portrayal of Frere-Jones strangely feminized role as victim of his partner in this “divorce” falls flat.  It’s hard to see where Hoefler actively deceived F-J.  Flim-flammery and fraud are not the same thing, and Hoefler might not be the man I care to invite for tea – but, then again, neither is F-J, and the pair of them are both (so to speak) consenting adults.  With legal autonomy, and the power of their signatures.  If Hoefler took advantage – Frere-Jones let him, and could have done otherwise.

And that’s where the literary story gets *really* interesting, for me – because it’s so much more unusual than “bad man betrays wilting violet” at this point.  Frere-Jones isn’t Ingrid Bergman, pallidly and exquisitely being gaslighted by a paper-thin bad guy.  He made poor choices, he is a legal adult, and he didn’t get what he “thought” was his because he set no requirement that he should … I mean, you do not marry Henry VIII hoping he’ll change or you’ll be The One.  And Hoefler never even beheaded anyone.  I’m pretty sure.

Frere-Jones says that he agreed to this because Hoefler was always promising to formalize the partnership soon.

“Soon”, of course, is a word without legal basis.  It’s no way to have a child, plan for retirement, or conduct business negotiations – and what we have here is a negotiation.  Mounted with passive-aggression and self-interest and cross purposes – but a business negotiation, nonetheless.  The Elizabeth I-style prevarication and the failure to materialize, of a supposed mutual expectation, doesn’t change that.  The friendship doesn’t change it.  The strange framing device of this whole tale, in the trappings of some sort of unfulfilled union of a far more intimate kind, doesn’t change it either.  It may make the story more prurient, and sell Business Week advertising (using restrained, beautifully-immaculate fonts and graphics), but it ain’t journalism and it sure isn’t the truth of the story behind these two men, their business, their fame, their shared success – and their ultimate parceling out of what now can no longer be shared.

It’s a fascinating story, for a lot of reasons (design has never been my strong suit, but it’s always appealed to me), but I feel very sure it’s not quite exactly the story BW has told.  What IS fascinating is why Frere-Jones expects to be exempt from the requirements of personal autonomy and business the rest of the world has to deal with.  What IS fascinating is why Hoefler felt it was necessary to get more than the man he saw as being so valuable he proposed, when they were still semi-rivals, that they should join forces?  What were the dynamics at work, that the personal relationship had less weight for him than the potential business gains he saw in hooking up with Frere-Jones in the first place?  How strong and how deep *was* their friendship, after all?  Was it emotionally unequal?

Was there any of this behind-the-scenes folderol, with BW’s obvious (and also rather passive-aggressive) implications?  If so, what of that – does it matter, if they had a sort of intimacy which “should” have begged questions of the legal ramifications of their contracts?

In short:  Who? Are?  These characters?

Plot bunny it, kids.  Or maybe follow Henrik van de Keere down a different rabbit hole.  Or just throw a word or two in the comments, about your feelings toward Wachovia Celeste or the photos of these men or whether they SHOULD have gone DIY and messy with their fonts, for a buck.


Anonymous said...

You should read Frere-Jones' affidavit which includes multiple emails, text messages, and press releases from Hoefler, in whch it looks like Hoefler was pretty actively stringing FJ along with excuses. Trust in business is for saps:

DLM said...

Ohh, thank you for the link.

I'm sure Hoefler's hands are hardly clean, but as you say, trust is for saps, and passivity is for those who quite like being broke. I'll keep Pencil Scoop on my radar now ...

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