A stylish revival of the classic Italian sans by DJR and Roger Black.
Kinda like Helvetica, except for absolutely everything about it.
Originally released in 1968, Forma was the Italian type foundry Nebiolo’s answer to Helvetica. It was created by a team of eight designers, led by the legendary Aldo Novarese, that Nebiolo assembled to design a more mature and humane neo-grotesque. As a result, Forma’s rationality is tempered by its warmth, and its trademark single-story a sets it apart from the rest.
Issued in metal over a decade after Helvetica and Univers, Forma was relatively late to the neutral sans serif game. It never made the jump to phototypesetting and virtually disappeared after Nebiolo closed its doors in 1978. However, publications designer Roger Black always continued to admire the design, and in 2013 asked me to revive it for his redesign of Hong Kong Tatler magazine.
I’ll admit it: when I first looked at Forma, I thought it was a bit boring. But through Roger’s eyes, I began to see the typeface in a new light. Gazing at his old type specimens, we looked beyond its obvious Helveticaishness and saw the culmination of an entire era of typography: an era when formal purity was the ultimate design achievement, when the spacing of headlines was outrageously tight, and when neutral neo-grotesque sans serifs were actually something fresh and exciting to read. Our digital interpretation, named Forma DJR, seeks to revive that excitement.
Seeking the warmth of the printed page.
Forma DJR embodies the peculiar collision of midcentury modernist precision and the smudgy realities of metal, ink, and paper. This revival is not based on Forma’s original drawings, nor does it try to truly capture its designers’ original intent. Instead it brings new life to a bygone typographic era, and seeks to recapture everything that Roger has loved about Forma for so long.
Expert type hunter Indra Kupferschmid obtained a casting of the original Forma in lead, and printed fresh proofs for us to use as source material for our revival. We found that many of the most interesting details were not present in Forma’s original drawings, but were instead byproducts of the printing process. Stems that were supposed to be straight swelled at either end. Corners that were supposed to be sharp were rounded. We believe that Forma comes alive in these unintentional details, and worked to incorporate subtle bits of unevenness into our digital interpretation.
Multiple optical sizes of Forma used in Roger Black’s redesign of Hong Kong Tatler. See more on SPD »
Tight but not touching, no matter the size.
One of Forma’s most distinguishing features is its letter spacing, or rather its total lack thereof. Following the razor-thin sidebearings of the metal original, Forma is spaced in true late-60s/early-70s fashion, favoring “tight but not touching” letterforms over evenly balanced white shapes.
The tight-but-not-touching technique is extremely sensitive to size: what looks perfect at 100pt is virtually illegible at 10pt. To account for this, each of Forma DJR’s five weights also comes in five optical sizes, ranging from Banner (for 72pt and above) to Micro (for 8pt and below). Within each size range, the spacing of each variant is tuned to walk that fine line between retro and ridiculous.
In the smaller optical sizes, I also exaggerated the rounded corners and tapered stems in order to ensure that the typeface retains its distinctive character in text. The changes are subtle, but they make a world of difference.
Swiss alternates, Italian style.
While Aldo Novarese and his team created Forma as an alternative to the rigidity of the ever-popular Swiss style, they also realized that Forma could operate comfortably within it. They offered three Helvetica-style alternates that completely changed the tone of the typeface: a G with a beard, an R with a curved leg, and a two-story a. In our revival, we have preserved these Swiss-style alternates, and added a tailed j to round out the set.
A celebrated foundry, a legendary designer, and a rich history.
To commemorate Forma’s revival, Indra and Roger published a series of articles on Type Network documenting the history of the Nebiolo foundry and its principal designer, Aldo Novarese; the origins of Forma; and the process of our subsequent revival. Check them out! »
Mille grazie to Roger Black, my guide on this adventure; Indra Kupferschmid, whose type hunting, printing, and research made this revival possible; Alessandro Colizzi, who provided us with additional perspective on Forma’s one-of-a-kind history; Robb Rice and Jefferey Zeldman, for taking a chance on the in-progress typeface; and to the staffs of The Font Bureau and Type Network, who offered support at every step of the way.