Hermann Zapf Optima 1958

Previously, type designers were unsuccessful in their attempt to create a sans-serif type that “could be considered both beautiful and utilitarian” (Lawson, 324). “For the better part of a century, sans-serif types tended to be unimaginative renditions of roman letter forms, although it was discovered that their monotone characteristics did allow for variations of weight and width that would have been more difficult to achieve with their roman counterparts” (Lawson, 324). Enter Hermann Zapf’s type Optima, also known as “the humanist sans-serif type” (Lawson, 324).

In 1952 Zapf began experiments where he attempted to recreate the unserifed lettering from Italian inscriptions “dated 1423 and 1430” (Lawson, 329). These experiments worked to combine “equally the best features of the roman letters and the sans serifs” and Zapf spent six years on their development (Lawson, 329). “The capitals of Optima… follow the proportions of the Trajan Column inscriptions, which date from A.D. 113” and were designed to “have strong thick-and-thin contrasts” (Lawson, 329). In 1954, on the suggestion of Monroe Wheeler, Zapf began “to consider adapting his developing letter as a book type” and in 1958 Optima was manufactured as such by Stempel in Frankfurt (Lawson, 329).

Optima’s uniqueness garnered global recognition as well as liberal use of the type and, unfortunately, mass plagiarisms (Lawson, 329). Notably, Optima was the first German type “not based on the standard baseline alignment established in 1905” (Lawson, 329).  Zapf’s changes to the baseline of his new Roman font, “lowercase x-height equaling the minor and ascender/ descenders the major”, are “now in the Golden Section” and are considered standards (Lawson, 329).

Optima’s success is a direct result of the shortcomings of sans-serif typefaces at the time. The earliest sans-serif types were considered ugly; titled “grotesque” in Europe and “gothic” in the United States. This disdain was a result of the type’s weight, which was “similar to that of the black letter” and “truly gothic fifteenth-century forms” (Lawson, 324).

I feel that Zapf’s Roman font project belongs in a portfolio of his work because it revolutionized the world of typography at the time and ushered in the use of sans-serif fonts in printmaking as well as advertising: “Optima is today widely used not only for display composition but also for continuous reading” (Lawson, 329).

Zapf, Hermann. Optima detail. http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_JjoC7eqPOTQ/THk5avta7BI/AAAAAAAAARI/Cdzakf4-_lY/w1200-h630-p-k-no-nu/Zapf_Optima.jpg


Lawson, Alexander S. Anatomy of a Typeface. David R. Godine Publisher, 1990.