Typefaces have long been named for their designers: Baskerville, Caslon, Goudy, Zapf. Names mostly known by an elite group of art directors, typesetters, printers, book publishers. Today, almost everybody with a Mac knows the name Hoefler.
That's because Hoefler Text has been bundled with the Mac OS since the launch of System 7. It's part of Apple Computer's "GX" project, a pre "OpenType" technology that allows a font to have a huge character set—small caps, swashes, foreign-language punctuation marks—and a programmed-in intelligence that tells it when to, say, use lining or oldstyle figures or ligatures: "If an 'i' follows an 'f' and there are fewer than 50 units of tracking, substitute the fi ligature."
If all that sounds arcane to you, it's the stock in trade of Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones of Hoefler & Frere-Jones Typography. The firm name was until recently The Hoefler Type Foundry; the new moniker reflects Frere-Jones's increasingly prominent role and perhaps the fact that "foundry" means a workshop for casting metal.
You won't find any clanging anvils and molten lead ingots in this tidy NoHo loft, most of which is filled with books. Here, G4s are used to design display and text faces for corporate and institutional clients and for publications from Newsweek and Business Week to Martha Stewart Living, Harper's Bazaar, House & Garden, and Rolling Stone. The Guggenheim and the Whitney museums have commissioned fonts. So have Tiffany & Co., the New York Jets football franchise and Smirnoff Vodka. Design firms like Pentagram have been longtime, loyal clients.
"There's couture type and there's off-the-rack type," explains Hoefler. "We design couture type."
Who, after all, wants to use a font out of the box (or download) when you can have your own custom creation? To some, a proprietary typeface can be as essential to branding strategy as the logo and color palette, part of a distinctive voice. "Making from scratch is definitely part of the Martha Stewart Omnimedia brand identity. That's why we wanted our own fonts," explains Barbara de Wilde, former design director of Martha Stewart Living, which has commissioned Archer, a slab-serif, and Surveyor, a display face based on nineteenth-century engraved map lettering, which she characterizes as "more decorative and luscious."
"People describe the typefaces they want with lists of adjectives, as if they were people," notes Frere-Jones "They use words like 'warm and quirky.'" He recalls that Robert Priest of House & Garden asked for something "refined and credible" and that GQ art directors Arem Duplessis [now art director of Spin] and Paul Martinez [now art director of Marie Claire] wanted "a geometric sans-serif, modular, modern and masculine," when they commissioned Gotham.
Yet unlike other accouterments of the privileged classes, Hoefler and Frere-Jones's typefaces are also available to the rest of us. You and I can buy them from www.typography.com and through the studio's catalogs. Some fonts become available when a client's license runs out. Many are designed for retail sale. And even this team's off-the-rack is high style, thoroughly researched and meticulously engineered. Whether inspired by vintage fight posters (Champion Gothic and Knockout Series) or an Italian Renaissance manuscript (Requiem), each font family is given a range of weights and styles, and enough ornaments, ligatures—an elegantly joined "ct"—and alternate characters—a Q with a graceful, longer tail—to keep the most assiduous typophile happy. How long does it take to research and craft a new face? Three to six months or maybe a year. Frere-Jones envisioned a public-building-vernacular aesthetic for Gotham, and began his research by photographing lettering on lower Manhattan walls, signs, awnings and windows. This has become an ongoing avocation that involves climbing rusty chain-link fences and fire escapes to capture building names carved on pediments and fading ads painted by long-gone, anonymous artists. Gotham will resonate intellectually with anyone who appreciates architecture and artifacts; on a practical level it complements GQ's impertinent editorial style. And the photographs are destined for a museum show and book.
Design work begins with several key letters, such as a cap H, cap O, lower-case n. From there it progresses to 210 characters. The team works in RoboFog, adapted from Fontographer 3.5 source code by Dutch designers Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum. "Maybe fifteen people in the world use RoboFog," comments Frere-Jones. With bezier-curve drawing capabilities, it allows the designers to assess hundreds of letter combinations like "cnidorian" and "unquent" that demonstrate letter fit and spacing. "We want shapes that cooperate," says Hoefler. "When a face sells in Helsinki or Budapest, we want designers there to be able to use it." The software also allows the designers to build custom tools, like those that streamline repetitive tasks such as adding drop shadows and shading.
Ever-vigilant to future uses and copy-fitting issues, the designers typically include what Hoefler calls "all the trimmings": fractions, numbers in circles, foreign characters, each with a specific use in mind. "We create typefaces that do things other faces can't," he explains. That means legibility in three- to six-point classified ads, movie listings, stock tables and box scores. Both principals scrutinize the racing forms and futures tables—not because they're betting on the horses or pricing pork bellies—but because they're analyzing the type. "We get immense satisfaction out of the heavy-lifting things, out of doing this kind of research," says Hoefler. "Helvetica doesn't have 1/3 and 2/3 fractions, so you can't set baseball box scores and innings pitched. We like to think that our type can solve problems you don't even know you have."
"Much of what we publish is so information-based," concurs de Wilde on Martha Stewart Living. "We needed a typeface that would work hard for us in recipes, charts and listings, and that in display sizes would support our heroic photography and make the words compelling." Retina, created for the Wall Street Journal, is also an extra-hard worker. Designed primarily for classifieds and such, it's what the designers call "decaplexed." Unlike most faces, which get wider as they get bolder, Retina is built using uniform character widths; text can be re-set in any weight and style from Weight 1 (extra light) to Weight 10 (bold extended) and it won't affect copy fit.
The processes needed to accomplish all this are so exacting and time-consuming that only five or six typefaces can be in the works at one time—perhaps not the ideal formula for economic success. Business and marketing manager Carleen Borsella, who came to Hoefler & Frere-Jones from Time Inc. and Bertelsmann, has helped develop the business model in which the client licenses exclusive rights for a limited period of time and then the typeface is sold on the retail market. She also heads up the catalog sales effort.
Reviving the old-fashioned type specimen book, Hoefler & Frere-Jones's ever-expanding annual catalog is mailed to up to 100,000 potential customers. Unlike contemporary type books that show several fonts on a page, a sentence or two in each weight and style, it allots to every font family as many pages as it takes. Catalog #7, for example, devotes 18 pages to Gotham 2; there are showings in weights from thin to ultra (heavy), in Roman and Italic, from 81/2 point to 240 point. Like a cookbook with luscious color photography that inspires you to start cooking right away, these catalogs make you want to set some fabulous looking headlines, subheads and body text. There's plenty to read, too, and Hoefler's literary talents shine in his informative background explanations and the phrases chosen for specimen showings. The Gotham pages are filled with New York real-estate jargon ("Beekman Place," "Eastern Parkway Extension"); the Hoefler Titling pages reveal musical interests ("Satie," "Toccata and Fugue in D minor").
As Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design museum, has said, "Between the two of them, they may know everything there is to know about type." Which is especially interesting because both Hoefler and Frere-Jones are self-taught. Type design wasn't offered in any U.S. design program in the late '80s, and still isn't, except in the class Frere-Jones recently helped develop and co-teaches at Yale with renowned type designer (and former mentor) Matthew Carter. "How did I learn to design a typeface?" he asks rhetorically. "By figuring it out myself. I liked to draw letters and always did it."
The son of an ad agency copywriter and a print buyer, Frere-Jones grew up with type galleys and mechanicals. "I was always aware that somebody decided what letters looked like," he says. "In high school I found a manual for comp lettering. Copying pages from it and studying specimen books rescued from the trash at my dad's agency was the closest I got to any kind of training. That was a gap I thought I'd fill at Rhode Island School of Design. Not so," he continues, "I had to take my education into my own hands, to involve the design of a typeface in a second version of every solution. Ultimately, one of my instructors called Matthew Carter in Boston and said, 'I've got this student I don't know what to do with,' and that's how I began my apprenticeship at the Font Bureau under David Berlow." Frere-Jones worked there for seven years, lettering Neville Brody's typefaces ("I'd spin five letters Neville had drawn into a font of 210 characters") and gaining worldwide acclaim for Interstate, one of the most popular faces of the '90s.
Hoefler, the son of a set designer, also grew up surrounded by rubylith and presstype. After graduation from New York's selective Hunter High School, undecided between music and graphic design, he took a job at a Flatiron District output bureau and soon found himself doing production jobs for top designers and art directors like Roger Black, Fred Woodward and Louise Fili. He spent hundreds of hours perusing books on design history and styles—and typography—in the libraries of his clients and colleagues.
The principals met in 1992 in Boston on the Apple GX project and became fast friends, competitors and collaborators. They joined forces at Hoefler's New York shop in 1999. They share an affinity for the classical as well as the vernacular, and have as little interest in the '70s curlicues of Herb Lubalin and Ed Benguiat as they do in cartoony and novelty faces, and in so-called deconstructed type. "We don't do teen things and fast-car things or jive lettering," says Frere-Jones. Adds Hoefler: "
The maimed typefaces produced by this kind of drive-by bowdlerism are boring and never as useful as the ones they began as. They're also illegal to sell or distribute, but that's another story."
Finding and nurturing talent that can produce work with the exactitude required by these genius-moves guys isn't easy. Illustrator and lettering artist Kevin Dresser has been collaborating on projects, and two young designers recently joined the studio. The day I visited, Jesse Ragan, a recent RISD graduate, was refining a shaded version of Surveyor. Assistant designer Josh Darden was creating sets of numerals for Sterling, making the "1" and the "9" the same width so they could align on decimal tabs in the Tiffany & Co. annual report.
"We conceal evidence of any kind of struggle," explains Frere-Jones. "These technical refinements tend to go unseen by the user, but sometimes the most impressive things aren't immediately obvious."
Perhaps they aren't immediately obvious to the general public. (Though there's something about the fresh, energetic look of a well-designed magazine cover that attracts attention, even if the most discerning GQ reader has no idea that the font isn't Futura or Avant-Garde or Gill Sans but a custom design.) Those refinements, however, are clearly obvious to, and appreciated by, the studio's clients.
"Jonathan and Tobias are good with letterforms the way Stradivarius was good with wood and Van Gogh was good with paint," sums up Susan Casey of Time Inc. magazine development. "Once you've worked with them, there's no going back." Adds Barbara de Wilde, "Their faces are beautiful expressions that continuously inspire me to be a better designer. The possibilities are endless." ca