#18 My biggest professional fuck-up
Back around 1996 / 1997, before data was available in the Cloud and all computers could easily be connected to each other, to printers, servers, and even telephones, we had persuaded the rather conservative people at VW’s headquarters in Germany to let us try something new.
We had designed a new family of typefaces for them – part of the big rebranding project we had started with VW and Audi in 1994. I was in charge of the work at MetaDesign and had been bragging about the fact that we had actually hired in-house back-end programmers, which at that time was not something that other CD agencies would do. We said that we could easily write a programme to upload the new fonts onto all their in-house printers – at a time when applications and other data were being shipped on CD-Rom disks and then manually uploaded onto individual machines. While still sceptical, their IT people believed us, as long as we would provide a back-up in case of problems.
So we installed a help-line via fax, sent out the font data across the VW intranet and waited. After a few hours the first faxes arrived, pages showing typefaces such as Hobo, Cooper Black, Zapf Chancery, and other faces that definitely were not and never had been part of the VW corporate design. Comments were scathing.
It didn’t take us too long to work out that we had overlooked a simple fact: in those days printers worked to the First In First Out principle. As the printers were never fully switched off, the fonts that had first been installed would override those that came later. Our new fonts had, indeed, been properly installed, but when test documents were printed, the old fonts overrode the new ones. We had forgotten to send code which would delete existing fonts and allow only the new ones to be printed.
This was embarrassing beyond belief: We were, however, saved by the fact that all those other fonts had been used to print private documents: a church newspaper, football club leaflets, and other publications which showed what VW employees did in their spare time. As these activities were not part of their job descriptions, neither were the publications. We talked to the Workers Council (Betriebsrat), rather a powerful institution at VW (which is still partly state-owned), and they were as interested as we were to not make too much of a fuss about the whole thing.
We rewrote the code with a command to delete all existing fonts in every printer and uploaded the new ones again. Worked beautifully. Finally, our client in the marketing department could brag about the cool stuff their design agency had done.
Definitely the worst moment in my professional career. For a few days I honestly thought this fuck-up would be the end of it.