Why designers fall out - and how to avoid it

As H&FJ hits the headlines in a big way, Adrian Shaughnessy shares his thoughts on why some creative partnerships are doomed to fail.

As a designer and former studio owner I've made many bad decisions over the years. One of my better ones, however, was to set up my studio in partnership with a non-designer. I didn't realise it was a good idea at the time. The benefits only became clear later when I discovered the many advantages of going into business with a financially savvy partner rather than another designer with a similar outlook and skills to my own. Today, when students and young designers ask me for advice about starting a studio I always tell them to include at least one non-designer.

Partnership with a non-designer worked well for me, but it's no guarantee of a dispute-free working relationship, as illustrated by the recent legal wrangling between type designer Tobias Frere-Jones and his business associate Jonathan Hoefler. Widely acknowledged as the pre-eminent digital type foundry of the 21st century, Hoefler & Frere-Jones is a hugely successful company with numerous wealthy corporate clients and thousands of admirers among designers and type nuts. But as the old music business adage goes, where there's a hit there's a writ.

Typographic tussle

It seems that the pair have fallen out over a disagreement concerning ownership of the company. The Quartz website gives this account of the quarrel: "The suit portrays Frere-Jones as the firm's design genius, and Hoefler as the business and marketing man. In public, the pair have generally been regarded as equals. But the contract that made it so, according to the lawsuit, was never actually written down and signed. Frere-Jones claims he had an oral contract with Hoefler that entitles him to half the company."

There's no need to dwell here on the rights and wrongs of this case - only the two participants know what really happened to cause one to sue the other. But what we can say is that disputes in creative enterprises always seem especially disheartening.

Perhaps, as creative people, we feel we should be above toxic business squabbles and grubby legal battles. When you read that the brothers Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks loathe the sight of each other, it's depressing to think of all that wonderful music underpinned by hate. How can this be?

In design there are many celebrated examples of partnerships going down the S-bend. But it's not often you get to hear the reasons why. One exception to this is the case of Wally Olins and Michael Wolff. In a highly entertaining talk at Designyatra 2009 (available on YouTube) the founders of branding agency Wolff Olins (Wolff, a designer; Olins, a non-designer) give a frank account of their famous partnership, which was formed in 1963 and came to an end in 1983 when Wolff was dumped out of the company.

Creative collapse

The combative and articulate Olins gives a good-natured (if somewhat acid-flavoured) account of what drove him mad about Wolff. According to Olins, Wolff lacked self-discipline and had a "total disregard" for time and money. Olins was also infuriated by his partner's creative capriciousness and cites an example of a client presentation where Wolff suddenly announced the work he was showing was wrong and the client wasn't allowed to have it. As Wolff describes in an interview with the designer Mike Dempsey on his blog Graphic Journey, he was eventually ousted from Wolff Olins in a "well-documented boardroom coup".

Both those men are intelligent and sophisticated people. But like sugar lumps in hot tea, partnerships can dissolve in an instant when financial reality meets creative passion, and it's usually the money that wins. Unfortunately, the creative ego can be as destructive as the financial motive. And while there are some wonderful and enduring creative partnerships - studios run by designers that have stayed together over many decades - there are others that have failed to survive the first quarrel.

In truth, there is no foolproof system to avoid disputes among partners. Partnerships are like tiny infants - if they're to survive they have to be constantly cosseted, protected and nurtured. Take your eye off any aspect of a partnership for a millisecond and you could be following Frere-Jones and Hoefler into the law courts.

Words: Adrian Shaughnessy

Adrian Shaughnessy is a graphic designer and writer; he runs ShaughnessyWorks and is also founding partner of Unit Editions, producing books on design and visual culture. This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 224.