The Typehead Chronicles: Optima
      Of Thomas Christensen, ABCedminded Typesetter  

homeward bound



Identifying Characteristics

  • italic is a sloped roman, not a true italic
  • although a humanist sans serif, optima has a purely vertical axis
  • tapered slopes similar to serifed faces


Designed by Hermann Zapf, 1952-1955 and released in 1958 by Berthold. The Bitsream version is called Zapf Humanist. A new reworking, called Optima Nova, replaces the original sloped roman with a newly designed (by Akira Kobayashi with Zapf) true italic. It also adds a new titling font.

Character and Use

Much used from the late 50s through the 60s. Has a kind of faux classy quality, so many graphic designers gravitate toward it.

Looks good at large sizes so it's often used in signage where pure functionality is less important than a feeling of "style." Optima Nova thickens the thins to make the font work better at text sizes, but the previous version might be preferable for display, unless you prefer the new wider titling font.

Was used for engraved names on Vietnam Memorial.

Is used by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Say What?

"The taper of the stroke derives from unserifed Greek inscriptions and the unserifed roman inscriptions of Renaissance Florence, but in other respects the architecture of Optima is Neoclassical."
      -- Robert Bringhurst






top of page