Exclusive Interview: Designer Frank Jonen Settles with Fitness SF

Frank Jonen, the web designer who replaced Fitness SF’s homepage with a public collection notice, has reached an agreement with his former client.

In a joint statement, Jonen and Fitness SF said they had ”resolved all disputes between them amicably and to everyone’s mutual satisfaction. Fitness SF and Mr. Jonen regret any inconvenience caused to Fitness SF members, and are pleased the interruption of web service was promptly rectified.”

It’s been a long road for the designer and the owners of the fitness chain.

Jonen, who is based in Germany, was hired in May 2012 to build five websites for Fitness SF: one brand site and one site for each of the gym’s four locations in the San Francisco area, including SOMA, Oakland, Marin, and Castro.

He gave Fitness SF an estimate for 10 weeks’ worth of work. Out of three proposed designs, Jonen said the client picked the middle-priced option, which combined php-coded structures with WordPress and did not originally come with a fixed deadline.

The proposed site would connect to social media sites, would be optimized for iOS devices, and would include the information supplied by the client, such as photos and bios of all the trainers.

On February 16, Jonen showed SocialTimes the estimate, as well as a wireframe of the initial design and an invoice dated February 5. (He did not wish to have these documents published.) None of the documents were signed by the client, but they showed how the project evolved over time and matched some of the artwork posted to Jonen’s portfolio on Behance.com, including logo designs.

Jonen confirmed that Fitness SF paid him a $5,000 retainer, which Fitness SF marketing director Jeff Brooks, his main point of contact, had also cited in his statement to the press.

Then things got complicated.

The deadline, which was set for September 2012, did not go as planned.

“I had close to zero content at that time,” Jonen explained in an email on February 16, 2013.”In traditional publishing terms, I was to design a book before the first sentence was written.”

Instead, he put up an interim site (below) using the information he had to work with, which is also reflected in his invoice.

By mid-September, Jonen said he was still unable to complete the project without all the text and images he needed. “So I told Jeff I’d refund and they should find somebody else,” Jonen said, but the project did not end at that point.

Instead, it grew. The final invoice Jonen showed us included features that he said the client had requested that were beyond the scope of the original estimate, such as a free pass membership acquisition system and sample Passbook passes for iOS 6, an operating system that Apple did not announce until later in September.

Other things that would ultimately increase the bill were multiple logo re-renderings and changes to the schedule pages (see one page below), as well as overtime and weekend fees for the additional work.

“Done the proper way this would be more than eight different contracts since they constantly changed the scope of the site,” Jonen said.

Five days before the next site was supposed to launch on December 1, Jonen said he was tasked with removing the backgrounds from 60 photographs of the gym’s trainers, which he was unable to complete in time because the photos were not shot on a green screen and were harder to extract.

He was also missing a style guide. “At that point I should have quit and just blown the December 1 deadline,” Jonen said. Instead, he “pushed more 24-hour days in a row to come up with a new style guide, base the new design on that, and create the most important pages first. Then I was fired.”

While Brooks asserted in his statement that Jonen “voluntarily passed the incomplete and non-functioning website to our new design firm” in December, Jonen said he did not end the project voluntarily.

He did confirm sending the company the remaining materials: a new WordPress theme that he said was working but incomplete, and a transfer of intellectual property letter, which Jonen said they never got.  He also said he sent photos to a third party, whom he assumed was the new designer, at Brooks’s request.

The final invoice he showed us, payable upon receipt, was approximately twice the amount of the original estimate, even after factoring in the $5,000 retainer.

And the payment never came. On Wednesday, February 13, Jonen replaced Fitness SF’s website with an angry letter demanding payment for his work on the company’s website, sending a rallying cry to every independent contractor who had ever been stiffed by a client.

Shots of the home screen were captured and distributed on the web, sparking conversations on Twitter and reddit. An internet folk hero was born.

Fitness SF’s subsequent claims that the website was hacked (a word used by multiple Fitness SF employees in correspondence with SocialTimes) drew ire from the internet at large, as SF Fitness director of operations Don Dickerson’s response to Adweek’s headline that referred to Jonen as an agency: “He’s not an agency,” Dickerson wrote. “He lives in his parents’ attic in Germany.”

In response to the company’s claims that he hacked the site, Jonen said that he did not break into the server from the outside. Using his password, he set up a new DNS server while making sure that his former client had full email capability.

“What they’re suggesting is a bit like saying, ‘You broke into their house’ – ‘What did you use?’- ‘My keys.’ – ‘What did you steal?’ – ‘My stuff.’ Just that I didn’t take or break anything,” Jonen explained at the time. “I just took the road leading to their house and pointed it towards another house with a rather tastefully done sign gracing the front of it.”

Fitness SF saw things differently. “Now, Frank is attempting to portray himself as the victim,” said Brooks in his statement to the press, “when truly the victim is Fitness SF as he attempts to get paid for work he did not complete and has decided that blackmail is the way to accomplish that.”

Despite the bitter exchange that unfolded publicly online, Jonen expressed his desire to resolve the matter. “The press is blowing this up internationally into astronomical proportions,” Jonen said.

Fitness SF was also willing to make peace, according to Jonen. After an initial meeting, the DNS was pointed back to Fitness SF’s server and the two parties got to work on a new agreement.

By March 8, the dispute had been resolved. The carefully worded statement they released contained none of the venom of the original exchange. Jonen could not disclose how much he was ultimately paid, but he said he felt good about the outcome. He’s even gotten a few job offers since he posted the letter.

When asked if he would change the way he drew up the contract in the beginning, Jonen said, “It would be a new type of contract drafted by a lawyer that then would get amended and signed off at every substantial deviation and direction change from the original. Then after things like multiple sites happen I would insist on a new contract.”

But he doesn’t regret his decision not to go to small claims court. “That would have required me to travel to SF if the case would get accepted at all,” Jonen explained. “Then again, even if you win any case, you can’t force payment. You can just keep suing.”

Nor does he think a collections agency would have been the way to go. “Even if you give them all the evidence they need, once the client denies the case plausibly enough, they have to stop pursuing it…and you just wasted money,” he said.

What about the letter?

“I don’t know,” said Jonen. “It did achieve a lot for a lot of people. It started a conversation on how people are treated by those who hire them. I got a lot of solidarity, even from past clients for speaking up in a visible way. Then we (the VFX community as a whole) got snubbed at the Oscars for speaking up outside the theater. But in the end the Academy too learned, you can’t stop the signal.”

 

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