“A Type House Divided” is Jason Fagone’s feature for New York magazine on former partners Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, who split up earlier this year after disagreeing about the nature of their partnership. (TFJ thought he was a fifty-fifty partner; Hoefler says he was an employee.)
While the story covers both sides of the dispute with detail and pathos, the most affecting bits treat how H & FJ worked together and the tiny details of the letters they made and loved:
At his computer, he drew an uppercase H, O, and D, because they contained flat and round elements that would determine how other letters looked. When he moved on to the G, the R, and the S, he started to deviate from the mathematical grid, hoping to give the font a subliminal playfulness. As he filled out the alphabet, the letters revealed a promising flexibility; if Frere-Jones set text in caps and spread the spacing out, the words felt authoritarian, imposing, and if he set them in lowercase and pulled the spacing in, they felt fresh and young. He tried to think of a name for the font that would showcase some of the more distinctive letters: the stark, powerful G; the circular o; the strange-tasting a. For a name, he thought about Goats, and Gomorrah. He finally settled on Gotham.
If the deep dive into the beauty and business of lettermaking doesn’t grab you, the essay’s packed with other-cultural analogies. My favorite is probably this: “According to a designer who used to work with Frere-Jones, his eye is so sharp that he can look at a printout of a letterform and tell if it’s one pixel off, the same way Ted Williams was said to be able to hold a baseball bat and tell if it was a half-ounce too heavy.”
Disclosure: Jason Fagone is my friend. Kottke.org uses Whitney Screensmart, a version of one of the fonts discussed in the article. Also one time Jonathan Hoefler got really mad at me because of a story I wrote about iPad magazines. The font people don’t play.
Update: If you want to know just how much the font people don’t play, I immediately was contacted by a friend to change “typographer” to “type designer.” I’ve spent years writing about this, and if I ever manage to get all of the terms right, the universe will collapse on itself.