Although the Optima® design is almost always grouped with typefaces such as the Helvetica® and Gill Sans® designs, it should be considered a serifless roman. Compare it with typefaces like the Garamond™ and Centaur® designs, and you will find similar proportions, shapes and weight stress. Where these designs have serifs, however, Optima has a slight flaring of its stroke terminals.
The Optima typeface is a clear and precise font designed by the renowned type designer Hermann Zapf. Optima was inspired by classical Roman inscriptions and is distinguished by its flared terminals – the ends of letters. The curves and straights of the Optima fonts vary minutely in thickness to provide a graceful and clear impression to the eye.
In 1950, Zapf was researching Italian typeface design at the Basilica di Santa Croce, in Florence, and happened upon an ancient Roman gravestone that would have been missed by most tourists and casual observers. The letters cut into the gravestone were unusual in that they lacked the traditional serifs. These delighted Zapf and appealed to his classic sense of design. The problem was that he had run out of drawing paper just prior to finding the gravestone. As a result, the first sketches for Optima were made on a 1,000-lire bank note.
Zapf worked on the design, refining character shapes and proportions for two years before he turned final drawings over to Stempel’s master punchcutter, who made the first test font. This was in 1952; however, because making fonts in metal was much more complicated and time-consuming than making fonts using current digital tools, it wasn’t until 1958 that Optima was made available as handset metal fonts. Matrices for the Linotype® typesetter took even more time and these were not made available until two years later.
True to its Roman heritage, Optima has wide, full-bodied characters – especially in the capitals. Only the E, F and L deviate with narrow forms. Consistent with other Zapf designs, the cap S in Optima appears slightly top-heavy with a slight tilt to the right. The M is splayed, and the N, like a serif design, has light vertical strokes. The lowercase a and g in Optima are two-storied designs.
Encyclopedia Britannica®, 1989, Vol 29, p. 1028
Alphabet Stories by Hermann Zapf. RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press. 2007
Optima can be set within a wide choice of line spacing values, from very tight to very open. For example, Zapf once created an exceptionally lovely and highly readable book using Optima set nine on 24 point.
Optima also benefits from a wide range of letterspacing capability. The design can be set quite tight, with spacing as established by Linotype, or even letter spaced. If there are any guidelines, Optima should be set more open than tight. It’s not that readability is affected much when Optima is set on the snug side; it’s just that the unhurried elegance and light gray color created by the face are disrupted by letters that are set too tight.
Optima is not the first serifless roman typeface. The Stellar typeface, designed by R. Hunter Middleton for the Ludlow Typograph Company in 1929, predates it by several decades. This face, however, makes a stronger calligraphic statement and was limited to display usage.
In 1960, José Mendoza drew the Pascal™ typeface for the Amsterdam type foundry – a design that clearly was influenced by Zapf’s earlier work. Other newer designs that pay homage to Optima are the Mentor™ Sans face, by Michael Harvey, and the Augusta™ Cursiva design, by Jean-Renaud Cuaz.
Perhaps one of the most notable uses of the Optima typeface is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. for the etching of the names of veterans into the wall – meant to last as well as be read.
Optima is used to convey classic ideals as well as current trends. For example, it is used by skin care giant Estée Lauder as its official typeface design. Optima is also used by the Traveller™ science fiction role-playing games.
Optima is the company logo for the British retailer, Marks & Spencer, which also uses the typeface on administrative computers in their stores. Notable media coverage includes the use of Optima in John McCain’s campaign for the 2008 U.S. presidential election.
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