Notebook, Typography

Optima and co – it’s a love/hate thing

Notebook: 21 November 2015 and updated 10 August 2016 | TYPOGRAPHY

Above: Optima graphic from website

Optima is one of those odd sans-serif fonts that has thick and thin strokes (rather than monoline strokes) that you would normally associate with a classic serif font – sometimes it is classified as a ‘contrasted ‘ or ‘modulated’ sans’. And sometimes it gets bunched into that category of sans fonts called ‘Humanist’ which have a softer feel as opposed to the harder, machined feel of say Futura or Univers. Once upon a time I must have really liked Optima because I remember using it in the first set of books that I ever designed, then I found it drab and old fashioned but now I’m warming to it again. It was designed by the German Herman Zapf (yep, the dingbats chap) in the early 1950s. He had travelled in Italy and was influenced by Roman inscriptions and the strokes of Optima have a characteristic flaring at the tips that reflect Italian stone carving. (Strictly speaking, Optima should be classed as an ‘incise’ or ‘glyphic’ font – that is one with flared strokes, rather than as a sans-serif.) It became a very popular font in the 1970s and 80s, suffered from overuse and then went off the radar, but now it, or at least its derivatives, seem to be enjoying a new popularity.

Nat Trust mag

Above: The National Trust magazine uses its own Optima-like font, National Trust

Six years ago the National Trust revealed their updated branding from Wolf Olins which included their own new house font National Trust in assorted weights and designed by Paul Barnes of Commercial Type. The Trust describe their font as having been inspired by old engravings from their stately home Stourhead. It’s similar to Optima although it lacks some of the grace of Optima. If you’re looking for a really elegant Optima-like font – maybe for use in a fashion magazine – then Sang Bleu (by the company Swiss Typefaces) is one to look at. It’s beautifully cut and comes in a good range of weights including a very classy hairline version – and there are serif versions. Vanitas by type foundry Reserves has a similar elegance.


Above: SangBleu Light and Hairline


Above: Radiant type specimen from ‘The Encyclopaedia of Typefaces’ 1958

Bolder thick and thin lettering – in other words letters with a higher contrast between the strokes – were popular in the first half of the 20th century in sign writing for posters and advertising. Brittanic and Radiant are two old fonts that were cut to follow this style. Nowadays they look quite crude and clunky and there are now some really well-crafted modern equivalents available. Font expert Stephen Coles lists a good selection in his web article here including Font Bureau’s Condor (retro feel) and Roxy (good condensed option) and Fatype’s Beausite (more contemporary). And if you’re looking for a more decorative typeface with flourishes in the italics, and that has a wide range of weights, then Domaine Sans is a good choice.


Above: Roxy designed by John Downer, 1990


Above: Beausite designed by Fatype, 2014


Above: Domaine Sans designed by Kris Sowersby, 2015

This summer (2016) there have been two new contrasted/modulated sans that have popped up on Twitter. One is called FS Siena and it, ‘blends classic elegance with modern simplicity’. It’s released by Fontsmith and comes in a very good range of seven weights. The other is Vinter, by the Norwegian foundry Monokrom – slightly quirkier in style than FS Siena and delicious in its lighter weights.

FS Sienna

Above: FS Siena


Above: Vinter

Love them or hate them, contrasted/modulated sans are enjoying a surge in popularity and the lighter weights are understandably popular for when elegant and stylish design is appropriate such as in high-fashion magazines or cosmetics packaging.

Finally there’s one well known, decorative sans-serif font with contrasting stroke weights, that needs to be mentioned. It’s Peignot and it’s been with us since 1937 and was designed by the famous poster designer AM Cassandre. Peignot is instantly recognisable by its quirky lowercase alphabet which is built up from many small cap characters. It was popular in the 1940s and enjoyed a revival in the 70s.


Above: Peignot Light by AM Cassandre, 1937