The Family Five: Jonathan Hoefler - Design Bureau

The Family Five: Jonathan Hoefler

Monday, July 11th, 2011


Each issue, The Post Family interviews a new designer/studio with the goal that they reveal all of their most secret wisdom so we may learn to be as radical as them.

There are two of you behind H&FJ. How did you meet? What made you decide to join forces?

Tobias and I had known each other for a decade before we started working together. We met in the early '90s, when the typographic community was considerably smaller than it is today, and the notion that there might be someone out there who does what you do pretty much guaranteed a friendship in advance. We spent those years working independently, but regularly consulting one another for design advice, and quickly recognized in each other the capacity to be both one another's best advocates and harshest critics. After a few years of this, and also fighting over the same type specimen books that we'd both reach for at antiquarian book fairs, we decided to join forces. The decade that we've worked together has been everything I'd ever hoped, and more, and not just because I now get to thumb through Tobias's prodigious library unencumbered. We're still pretty ruthless about editing our own work and each other's, which is why H&FJ has grown to 17 full-time employees but we still have trouble pushing more than three fonts out the door every year.

The Post Family loves us some Knockout. What's the story of Knockout? Boxing? Is it related to Champion?

Why thank you. Knockout is indeed Champion's successor, and both have boxing in their veins. Champion Gothic was my first typeface, a set of six headline fonts commissioned by Sports Illustrated in 1990, and its style names — Bantamweight through Heavyweight — are indeed a nod to the sweet science. (They're also a bit of caprice that helped solve a genuine typographic problem: since Champion comes in widths, rather than weights, there isn't really a reliable taxonomy to refer to its styles. I'd started with Regular, Condensed, Compressed, and Extra-Compressed, but quickly ran out of superlatives, so out came the boxing classes.) In 1994, Sports Illustrated asked me to expand the Champion family to include not only additional widths, but a weight axis as well, extensions that really required a gut renovation of the original design. Knockout now runs to nine widths instead of six (Flyweight to Sumo), and its four weight classes are called Junior, Regular, Full, and Ultimate. I've always wanted to do an even lighter set of Knockouts, just so I could call it "Peewee."

Knockout is definitely a workhorse, and something I still reach for after all these years. The original intention was to supply enough widths so that art directors could work independently of their editors: S.I. had a habit of late-night editorial changes, in which a headline greeked as "hed tktktktk" would suddenly be replaced by real text that was too long to fit, so we thought that giving designers a set of ever-narrower fonts to choose from would guarantee them a way to set the type and call it a night. It worked, and it also gave them a broader editorial palette than most magazines have. I think that's one of the reasons people like Knockout, because it offers an especially large range of different voices.

"Seeing our work in the Obama campaign, and now on the website for The White House, is absolutely one of the most meaningful things I've ever experienced, and it's still a little surreal."

What went through your head when you first saw a couple of the Democratic candidate using Gotham in the 2008 election?

Great pride and enormous surprise. I still get a little shock when seeing our fonts out in the "real world," since the memories of having made the things are always fresh. Seeing our work in the Obama campaign, and now on the website for The White House, is absolutely one of the most meaningful things I've ever experienced, and it's still a little surreal.

I will say I was surprised (and heartened) to see Gotham make an appearance in political typography, knowing that the medium has never been especially quick to embrace anything current. I have a good friend who's worked political media for most of his life, and for 20 years, he's declined the offers of my typefaces because he considers them too "out there" for his candidates. After Obama, Gotham's become the de facto choice of whichever candidate is being positioned as the most ambitious, which means there've been a few Gotham-vs-Gotham campaigns, too.

Designers often pass type around like some swap MP3s. What are you thoughts on this?

It's great for the designers who land your accounts after you get fired. The thing is, using a bootlegged font isn't like listening to a borrowed MP3 on your headphones, it's like using that MP3 in a national television campaign. There's no denying it, and once you reveal yourself, chances are good that you're going to get caught. Whatever torments a type foundry might have in store for a mischievous designer, it's one's clients who are most likely to get ugly. You'd be amazed how many organizations call us in a panic to license the fonts their designers never paid for, and they'll do anything to distance themselves from trouble.

How many faces are you designing at any one time? Can you let us in the magic of your process?

We just put two projects to bed, so at the moment we have six families in active development. Another two should be starting up in the next two months. These all range pretty wildly: one of them is a single style, another is a family with nearly a hundred variations. The process itself is a bit of a mystery, and always in flux, but what's always the case is that an entire team of people end up contributing to every project. One of the projects we just finished is something that I started in 1989. We had occasion to pick it up a few years ago, when Tobias and I agreed that it needed a pretty brisk scrubbing, so Andy Clymer (one of our senior designers) took on the project of expanding what was there. Ksenya Samarskaya contributed to some of the more daunting parts of the character set, which in turn raised some questions that none of the rest of us had thought through, so work proceeded iteratively for about a year, with all four of us tweaking things as local as the design of the figure "9," and as general as the font's x-height. Our two newest designers, Aoife Mooney and Erin McLaughlin, are both working on projects with senior designer Sara Soskolne, which seemed from the outset to be very straightforward design challenges. But both have revealed complex issues that nobody imagined, so each of these projects has become a philosophical free-for-all in which all ideas are welcome.

There is an ever-growing movement in the use of web fonts. When are you guys planning to joining in?

We were planning to join in 15 months ago, and have had our fingers on the trigger ever since. At that time we were ready to announce something similar to the webfont services you all know and love, but we just couldn't do it in good conscience. We thought the fonts weren't good enough. Let's face it: the quality of most web fonts out there is abysmal, and not many of them are improving. The system fonts that ship with Microsoft Windows are still demonstrably superior to the way commercial webfonts render on Windows, which doesn't really make a compelling case not to use them. We decided that this wasn't worth doing unless we could make fonts that are better than Arial and Lucida and Verdana, so this has been our goal. So it's taken some time to get things to the place where we want them, and we're now getting close to being able to announce. I really can't wait to share what we're working on — I think if we wait much longer, Brian Hennings (our graphic designer) and Meagan Fisher (our web designer) might burst, or mutiny. So, fingers crossed, it'll be soon. Follow @h_fj on Twitter if you want the inside scoop.

Serif or Sans-serif that is the question.

Serif for evenings, of course.

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