In 1950, Hermann Zapf a German typeface designer was researching Italian typeface design at the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence. Hermann Zaph noticed some interesting letter forms engraved on an ancient Roman gravestone which didn’t have any traditional serifs. This appealed to Hermann Zapf but he didn’t have any drawing paper so instead sketched the letters on a 1,000 lire bank note.
The gravestone inspired Hermann Zapf to create a classic roman typeface without serifs. For two years he worked to refine the characters shapes and perfect the proportions of his typeface. In 1952 he took his final drawings to Stempels, a master punch cutter. Making a typeface in those days was a complicated and time-consuming process as each letter needed to be set in metal. It wasn’t until 1958 that optima was commercially released and became an instant success.
Optima’s design is a humanistic typeface with wide, full-bodied characters, curves and straights which vary in width. Optima should be considered a sans-serif roman typeface; that is without small projecting features called "serifs" at the end of strokes. It was not the first roman typeface without serifs. The Stellar typeface designed by R. Hunter Middleton in 1929, predates it by several decades. Stellar is more calligraphic which meant it was limited to display usage. Optima is a versatile typeface and can be set across a wide range of letter and line spacing’s from very tight to very open.
Both the lower and upper case of optima have a distinctive feel. The lower case is neat, and professional. Hermann Zapf regarded Roman capitals as ideal forms. Optima’s capitals (like Palatino’s) were derived directly from the classic Roman monumental capital model making the upper case look especially strong. The capital S is a tad top-heavy with a slight tilt to the right. Only the E, F and L characters curve with narrower lines. The M is separated, and the N has lighter vertical strokes. Optima’s lowercase g is two-storied. Optima’s italic variant is oblique, sloped without changes to characteristic of the italic letter forms. The single-storey a and rounded base of v and w do not change in italic, which is unconventional for the contemporary sans and more typical of a realist sans-serif like Helvetica or Univers(i.e. relatively straight in appearance with less line width variation than Humanist sans-serif typefaces).
Optima font is easy to read and suited to a broad range of applications and integrates both serif sans, and serif features into it’s form. It has a similar weight stress, shapes and proportions to the Garamond and Centaur Typefaces, and is well-known for its suggestion of a glyphic serif (wedge-shaped serifs with a diagonal junction with the stem of the letters) and subtle flaring of its terminals, where Garamond and Centaur have their serifs. If there are any guidelines, Optima should be set more open than tight. It’s not that legibility is affected when too snuggly set, just that the light grey colour of the type is disrupted by letters set too tight and loses that unhurried elegance. Use of Optima can look modern as well as classic. It is often used on large advertisements, where a message to the public needs to be displayed. During the 1960's and 1970's, many graphic designers used Optima as their main type for advertisements, brochures, catalogues, and magazines and it was considered as one of the most attractive fonts during the period. Optima has was also widely used over this period on monuments, for example the Memorial Wall for Vietnam Veterans in Washington DC.
Encyclopaedia Britannica®, 1989, Vol 29, p. 1028
Alphabet Stories by Hermann Zapf. RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press. 2007
HERMANN ZAPF (2012) Linotype Font Feature - The life story of Hermann Zapf Retrieved from: http://www.linotype.com/1494-12709/thetypefacespalatinoandoptima.html/
Unknown (Unknown). Optima - Fonts.com. Retrieved from http://www.fonts.com/font/linotype/optima
STEVEN HELLER (April 21, 2008). McCain’s Optimum Look.
Retrieved from: http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/optima-typeface/
Perceptive Graphic Designer thinking out of the box for discerning clients.