Zapf intended Optima to be a typeface that could serve for both body text and titling. To prove its versatility, Zapf set his entire book About Alphabets in the regular weight. Zapf retained an interest in the design, collaborating on variants and expansions into his eighties.
Optima’s design follows humanist lines; its capitals (like those of Palatino, Hans Eduard Meier’s Syntax and Carol Twombly's Trajan) are directly derived from the classic Roman monumental capital model, reflecting a reverence for Roman capitals as an ideal form.
Optima is an example of a modulated-stroke sans-serif, a design type where the strokes are variable in width. The design style has been intermittently popular since the late nineteenth century; Optima is one of the most lastingly popular examples of the genre. Optima was originally targeted by Stempel's Walter Cunz as a competitor to Ludwig & Mayer's Colonia design, which has not been digitised. Shaw also suggests the little-known 1948 design Romann Antiqua, as well as Stellar by Robert Hunter Middleton as predecessors, and notes the existence of Pascal by José Mendoza y Almeida (1962) as a design with a similar set of influences. Optima is however quite restrained in stroke width variation; more display-oriented predecessors such as Britannic show far more differentiation in stroke width than Optima does.
Zapf began his design while visiting Italy in 1950 and examining inscriptions there, especially at the cemetery of the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence; an early draft of the design was quickly sketched on a 1000 lira banknote.
In his book About Alphabets, Zapf commented that his key aim, inspired by Roman alphabets, was the desire to avoid the monotony of all capital letters having a roughly square footprint, as he felt was true of some early sans-serif designs. Optima's 'E' and 'R' occupy a half-square, while the 'M' is splayed.
Zapf was inspired by combining the unserifed Italian letters with strong thick and thin contrast with the best features of the roman letters, which were all that were previously being used. Zapf began his designs for Optima in 1952, spending more than 6 years on the development of the typeface. Upon the suggestion of Monroe Wheeler of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Zapf decided to adapt his typeface to be used as a book type. “He thereupon changed the proportions of the lowercase, and by means of photography, he tested the suitability of the design for continuous reading application.” Zapf designed the capital letters of Optima after the inscriptions on the Trajan Column (A.D. 113). Optima is the first German typeface not based on the standard baseline alignment that had been used up until this point in time. Zapf states “ This base line is too deep for a roman, as it was designed for the high x-height of the Fraktur and Textura letters. Thus, too many German types have ascenders which are too long and descenders which are too short. The proportions of Optima Roman are now in the Golden Section: lowercase x-height equalling the minor and ascenders-descenders the major. However, the curved lines of the stems of each letter result from technical considerations of type manufacturing rather than purely esthetic considerations.”
Optima was first manufactured as a foundry version in 1958 by Stempel of Frankfurt, and by Mergenthaler in America shortly thereafter. It was released to the public at an exhibition in Düsseldorf in that same year. If it had been up to Zapf, Optima would have been named New Roman, but the marketing staff insisted that it be named Optima.
Zapf wrote later in his life of his preference for Optima over all of his other typefaces, but he also mentioned “a father should not have a favorite among his daughters.”
Optima Greek (1973)
Optima Classified (1976)
It is a variant designed by Matthew Carter, based closely on Optima Medium. Digital version has not been produced.
Optima nova (2002)
Optima nova is a redesign of the original font family, designed by Hermann Zapf and Linotype GmbH type director Akira Kobayashi. The new family contains 7 font weights, adding light, demi, and heavy font weights, but removing extra black weight. Medium weight is readjusted to between medium and bold weights in the old family scale. Glyph sets are expanded to include Adobe CE and Latin Extended characters, with light to bold weight fonts supporting proportional lining figures, old style figures, and small caps.
The initial and most common release of Optima, like many sans-serif fonts, has an oblique style instead of an italic: the shapes are merely tilted to the right. In Optima nova, this is replaced by a true italic. (In interviews, Zapf has said that this was his original goal from the beginning, but the need to release Optima quickly forced him to settle for an oblique.)
Even in roman fonts, letters such as Q, a, f are redesigned. The overall bounding boxes were widened in Optima nova.
Optima nova Condensed
It is a condensed variant which consists of light to bold weights, but no italic fonts. The glyph set does not support proportional lining figures, old style figures, or small caps.
Optima nova Titling
It is a titling capitals variant, which contains only capital letters, with restyled letterform. The glyph set is the same as Optima nova Condensed, but also includes extra ligatures.
In the tradition of hand lettering and lapidary inscription, the titling face shares similarities with the work of Zapf's friend Herb Lubalin, especially the exuberant ligatures (for which Lubalin's ITC Lubalin Graph and ITC Avant Garde are notable). Further influence of A.M. Cassandre and Rudolf Koch, whose work greatly inspired the young Zapf, can also be seen in Optima.
Optima Pro Cyrillic (2010)
In April 2010, Linotype announced the release of Cyrillic version of the original Optima family, in OpenType Pro font formats. Released fonts include Optima Pro Cyrillic Roman, Oblique, Bold, Bold Oblique.
The typeface Optima is used for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and was used by the 2008 John McCain presidential campaign. Optima is also used as the official branding typeface for Estée Lauder Companies, the University of Calgary, and Aston Martin. It is also used in the logo for banking company Desjardins. Optima is used iconically for Traveller, and Diaspora used it to pay homage to Traveller.
Optima was used in the official logo and most publications associated with Expo 67 in Montreal.
Optima is used by the Mexican Social Security Institute especially in his UMF Family Medical Units.
Optima was used in the Taipei Metro.
Optima was used as the original fonts used on The Smiths original 7-inch single covers and their debut album.
Marks and Spencer used the font for its corporate logo and as the default on all internal correspondence from 2000 but since 2007 it is gradually being phased out on all signage and packaging as part of another re-branding exercise.
Optima was chosen as the font to be used for the names of those who lost their lives in the September 11 attacks, carved into bronze parapets, at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which is named "Reflecting Absence".
The Optima font is used in the logo of the Indian Premier League.
Optima is used in the LDS Church conferences.
Optima is used on the labels of wines from Ridge Vineyards.
Optima is used in the text of all the rules and guidance notes for the classification of ships published by Bureau Veritas.
Opinions on the design have been variable, perhaps because of its extensive use. Erik Spiekermann described it as "used on parking garages & hospitals across the USA. Tired & inappropriate. I don’t blame the typeface but the designers." He also commented "Optima is patronizing. It hasn't got the guts to be either a proper Sans or Serif, so it keeps all its options open and appeals to the middle...It suits everything and pleases nobody. Optima would indeed make a good president. Hermann the German Zapf is a fine calligrapher and has designed some pretty amazing typefaces that have been over- and badly used, which isn't his fault. But Optima shows too much of its origin: post-war Germany, the early 50s. With the country in ruins and not enough to eat, there was an understandable desire to go back to wholesome type that promised peace and harmony after 12 years of Hitler and 5 years of occupation. Optima is a well drawn face, at least in its original version. And you hardly see it in Germany. Not sure what that says about our politics."
Optima was used on The Joy of Painting from 1989-1994 for credits and color names at the bottom of the screen at the beginning of the episodes.
As with many popular fonts, knockoff designs and rereleases under different names are common, some created by Zapf himself. These all tend to copy the original release, rather than the Optima nova design which represents Zapf's final thoughts on his design. In the Bitstream font collection, Zapf Humanist 601 is provided as an Optima clone. Other Optima clones include Optane from the WSI Fonts collection, Opulent by Rubicon Computer Labs Inc., Ottawa from Corel, CG Omega and Eterna. Freely available implementations include URW Classico (available with URW Font package from Ghostscript). Linux Biolinum is a libre font inspired by it. Zapf's Palatino Sans is a more informal typeface the same style, with a design reminiscent of brushstrokes or calligraphy.
In a memoir written for Linotype, Zapf commented "The name "Optima" was not my idea at all. It is for me too presumptious and was the invention of the sales people at Stempel."
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