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Trailblazers: A type of art at Optimo Type Foundry

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Optimo was initiated in 1998 as a bachelor project by Gilles Gavillet, Stéphane Delgado and David Rust. It was a way for them to release their own fonts, and Optimo became part of the first wave of digital foundries to emerge in the 1990s as a result. Over the years, the foundry has developed a library of classic typefaces available for print, web and mobile environments designed by influential designers including François Rappo, Ludovic Balland, Joost Grootens and Team 77.

These days Geneva-based Optimo work with clients including The New York Times and Vogue. Here’s what they had to say about their craft...

Hello! First of all tell us about what it is you create.

As a type foundry we mainly develop and publish typefaces with fellow designers. Originally we come from graphic design backgrounds but as our interest in typography grew, production tools were becoming much more accessible so we ended up drawing our own letters and distributing them.

The typefaces we publish pursue an idea of timeless modernity, we like to look at our graphic legacy as well as at how to make models relevant for contemporary use. In addition to our carefully curated retail library, we also produce custom typefaces for clients with bespoke needs such as The New York Times, Vogue Magazine and the ICA.

Our proximity with graphic design practices is beneficial because during the design process our typefaces are always tested in output contexts. Among the many design-related decisions that occur in the process of developing a typeface, the input coming from graphic design is critical. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a large-scale corporate project or an artist’s book, practicing with a typeface always helps its design evolve.

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Photo credit: Ludovic Balland

How have your methods of working developed over the years with so many technological advancements?

When we started out we enjoyed the 1990’s DIY paradigm which meant you managed the whole process on your own - from drawing to distribution. But throughout history technological revolutions have always created opportunities and allowed for development within typography - both commercially and artistically.

Over the last 20 years, the parameters have constantly been evolving and this has impacted the way type is conceived, drawn, produced and used. The range of use of typography has grown so much that it now requests a technological knowledge. These days we require very specific skills from our collaborators as a result, from drawing all the way to tech support.

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Where do you see the area of typeface publishing headed in the future? How do you plan on staying relevant? 

At Optimo we’ll continue to publish type designs crafted with care which offer both a strong graphic identity and an unprecedented quality of drawing. But because the range of use is becoming more and more global with the advance of web and mobile environments, we will need to expand the language range covered by our fonts, notably in Cyrillic and Greek character sets.

Also, parallel to library management, we’re enjoying an increasing demand for customised typefaces which the aforementioned evolution of type-production tools makes easier to meet. Font families will continue to evolve as a result: both technically with modular character subsets, and artistically with tailor-cut solutions.

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Which of your typefaces is the most popular, which do people keep coming back to time and time again?

Since its release, Theinhardt by François Rappo has been an instant classic and it still interests new people. Its drawing synthesises the birth of the modern grotesque in a very contemporary way, and it continues to inspire many graphic and type designers.

Plain is also enjoying a moment right now thanks to its outstanding optical drawing: it is neither constrained by a geometrical approach, nor structured by the idiosyncrasy of the stroke. It’s a sophisticated design which makes it a fantastic tool for challenging projects, just like the new Dutch Encyclopedia designed by Joost Grootens Studio for Van Dale Publishers.

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In what medium do you most enjoy seeing your work published in?

The expanding use of retail typefaces on digital devices allows us to see our typefaces used in a ways which were not possible in print. Px Grotesk, for example, offers a compelling example of what a font can bring to screen design, both in terms of aesthetics and legibility. It was inspired by the rendering of curves on screens and developed in 2007 for the German artist Carsten Nicolas.

When we released it five years later after a long refining process though, it hit a market which had dramatically changed. With its geometrical simplicity, Px offered spectacular legibility and sharpness and this met the needs of many contemporary designers. It now features on many different technological mediums.

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What are you working on at the moment?

Our next release is called Next. Designed by Ludovic Balland it unites a geometric typeface with humanist elements in a disruptive yet iconic way. You will see very soon it on display at the Documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens - the exhibition readers use it both in Latin and Greek.

It will be followed by the release of Theinhardt Pan European, an extension of Theinhardt’s original character set to include Cyrillic and Greek which means the typeface will finally be available for non-Latin clients.

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Where do go for inspiration?

The Swiss Alps.

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