We’re all accustomed to making huge usage of fonts with our computers, but not everyone is aware that behind every single typeface there is a story…
Franco Grignani, as early as in 1964, drew the Magnetic font, inspired by the IBM numbers and printed with magnetic inks: “I was doubtful about its lack of legibility (although I had used them for the cover of “Pubblicità in Italia 1964-1965”) but in 1966 these characters were taken up in America, transferred to photocomposition and immediately applied to the futuristic titling of thousands of publications” [probably under the name Gemini by Filmotype™ – Ed.].
Twenty years later, in 1984, he added: “In recent years there has been a flourishing of new alphabets no longer subject to the veto on the difficulty of reading because through our continuous experiences of new graphical elements, logos, signs, free graphic expressions, the eye has acquired a greater interpretative speed in reading. […] Until a few years ago, modern graphic design was administered on modules, seeking order, harmony of composition, resulting in a static concept. Now, however, it is not looking for balance, stability, but a field of visual stimuli in a continuous transformation that reinvigorates the possibility and quality of its sign from time to time.”
But let’s come back to the mid ‘60s in Italy…
The Nebiolo foundry of Turin, founded in 1852, was formerly the biggest type and printing equipment manufacturer in Italy. In the early 1960s, with rapid changes caused by the advancing technologies of photocomposition and offset printing, Nebiolo found itself in serious financial trouble, and in 1964 the ownership was taken over by the Italian bank IMI.
Thus, in 1965 the foundry management set up a research committee of graphic designers to sit beside Aldo Novarese, director of Nebiolo’s ‘Studio Artistico’ since 1952. A working group of first three, then eight prominent figures from Milan’s graphic design scene was set up to collaborate on new typefaces together with the advertising department. The team included initially Franco Grignani (who was already well known as an advertising designer for Domus, Dompé, Mondadori, Montecatini, and Alfieri & Lacroix – see Gallery) and Pino Tovaglia, and soon after Giancarlo Iliprandi, Bruno Munari, Ilio Negri, Till Neuburg, and Luigi Oriani. This unique design process is documented in an issue of Nebiolo’s corporate magazine ‘Qui Nebiolo’ (n° 10, 1969, cover by Grignani). Remarkably, the designers’ team (the ‘Dream Team’) would remain active for over a decade (well after Novarese’s retirement) and it is worth noting that all of the designers agreed to undertake consultation on a voluntary basis over such an extended period of time.
In the mid-1960s, what Nebiolo had to offer seemed somehow dated in comparison with the need for a commercially viable product to compete with other European grotesque fonts like Univers, Helvetica, Folio, Akzidenz Grotesk, preferred by the leading Italian graphic designers of the time.
This documentary on Helvetica (released in 2007 along with the 50th anniversary of the typeface’s introduction) well illustrates the mainstream atmosphere in those years (and in those who were to come)…
Grignani himself made sometimes early use of Helvetica and Univers, especially in ads (he often signed his ads in Helvetica and in lower case).
The discipline of visual communication was emerging in Italy too, and there was clearly a gap in the market between tradition-bound printers and graphic designers for an ‘objective’ typeface.
Professor Alessandro Colizzi (former professor at the School of Design of UQAM in Montréal, and currently at Milan Polytechnic – Communication Design) has observed in an extended article (part 1 & part 2, also available in pdf) that the problem was that Nebiolo’s traditional market consisted of Italian printers, who had very traditional expectations, while Italian active graphic designers were looking abroad…
Such situation was summed up by Grignani: “We are typographers who use few typefaces, only those which represent the spirit, the architecture of modern graphics.”
Therefore, visual perception, optimal legibility, neutrality and speed of reading were assumed as prime factors for an ‘ideal’ typeface.
But opinions varied considerably within a group made up of such strong personalities, and sometimes the discussions were heated and the critique sharp.
This statement by Franco Grignani describes the heart of the conflict well: “In my opinion, there is a break between your work [Nebiolo/Novarese], which is close to traditional typography, and ours, which is close to the problems of aesthetics in graphic design … Someone who only ever draws typefaces can’t know the secrets of another part of the world that deals with other visual problems instead”, thus underlining the difference between typefaces suitable for a traditional typographic work that followed established patterns and optical conventions, and typefaces for commercial graphic and advertising design, which Grignani imagined to be “less predetermined and more forward-looking”.
Grignani ended up the discussion in this way: “At this point, I wonder, how do we get rid of the traditional character?”
As well outlined by the already mentioned Professor Alessandro Colizzi, the process which followed was quite laborious, with meetings spanning across two years, but after more redrawing and comparison some agreement was reached within the group. Grignani expressed his satisfaction: “We wanted an impersonal typeface, and we got it, therefore it can’t be no more of a single designer, but if it is true that it reflects in the totality of its signs the informative judgment of the study group, it follows as a direct consequence that Forma is the character of the team”. It was the typeface they were looking for: grey, uniform, depersonalized, with characteristics of good readability and maximum versatility, receptive to the personality of the design it would be used for. And as for personalization, Grignani replied to criticism about the apparent monotony of the font at a public round-table discussion held at the Hotel Principe & Savoia in Milan on December 11, 1968, as follows: “The typeface is a block, I have to give it the movement. A typeface has the responsibility of being read, and as such it wants a mechanical order that is the expression of mental order.”
Forma, as the typeface began to be called from 1967 on, would be a no-nonsense jobbing sans serif, aiming to challenge market leaders by improving legibility while also being available for photocomposition for offset and photogravure printing. As its name implied, Forma aimed at representing the ideal letterform of its time, as neutral and self-effacing as possible, suited for any context, for continuous text as well as titling, potentially appealing to graphic designers, advertising art directors, and printers alike, on the wave of the success of the other famous fonts from the Swiss school.
During 1968 the designs were finalized and went into pre-production. Each designer in the team was asked to create specimens and advertisements, which were published in different ways in leading Italian periodicals.
Forma has been the Italian answer to monotonous Helvetica, which, since the mid-1970s, was already overly familiar and overused, even if Hoffmann, principal of the Haas typefoundry, defined Forma “a blatant copy of Helvetica”. The new typeface won a special mention at ADI’s (Associazione per il Disegno Industriale – Industrial Design Association) annual Compasso d’oro award in 1970 – the first time a type design had been awarded such an honor – and another special mention at Gute Form 1970, the annual award promoted by the Internationale Design-Zentrum in Berlin. Forma also targeted at the newspaper market, since most Italian newspapers still set headlines by hand.
The designers’ teamwork continued after Forma’s release. Following Forma’s positive reception, Nebiolo pressed for a companion, echoing the aesthetics of typewriter, as was its name – Dattilo – released in 1972.
The typeface got an even more successful response from the graphic community, as confirmed by positive marketing results.
In a 1972 ad article for Dattilo, Nebiolo presents Franco Grignani as follows: “well-known, very well-known graphic-painter, painter-graphic. Rigorous interpreter of a visual dynamics that translates a set of tensions into balance. The kinetic structure as a constant solicitation for active participation of the beholder. A precise belief in the character understood in its more rational structure as a reading tool”.
In order to provide a survey of legibility studies to the group, the psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa, a representative of Gestalt Psychology well known for his studies on perception, was invited to join the group, thus following an unusual scientific practice for graphic designers of the time.
Work on a third one, called Modulo, was stopped only shortly before completion when the foundry ceased operations.
In fact, although initial sales were encouraging, Nebiolo could not really compete in a market already saturated by competitor typefaces which were available for all the main composing systems; while major type foundries were already shifting from photo to digital/CRT photocomposition, Nebiolo prolonged support for hand-setting — which in the mid-70s was a dead technology (in 1963 Compugraphic Corporation brought into the market the Linasce, a typesetting computer, thus marking the beginning of the computer age in America, while, in the same year, Univers will be offered in the IBM-72 Selectric type catalog). In 1976, Fiat, the industrial Italian giant of Turin, came in as the main shareholder and tried to reorganize the company. But Nebiolo went into bankruptcy and the foundry closed in 1978.
The rumor was that everything at the Nebiolo foundry had been lost or scrapped, including punches and matrices, after it ceased production, and probably also for this reason Forma did not make it to the digital era, until 2013, when a metal font of Forma Light, still in its original package, was found in one drawer of a print shop in Dresden. As a result, after being off the stage for 40 years, Forma appears now in a fresh, contemporary role (today Women’s Wear Daily or the new Hong Kong Tatler appear all dressed up in the new digital Forma).
‘Franco Grignani’s blog’ would therefore appear like this: