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, Pubblicità in Italia, 1965
Franco Grignani, Pubblicità in Italia, 1965 [1]

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 and unsurprisingly under the name Gemini by Filmotype™, from the denomination of NASA’s second human spaceflight program from 1965 to 1966 – 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.”

Magnetic was not an isolated example: in fact, Franco Grignani often created typefaces for pure experimentation, so that they could be an inspiration for future graphic uses:

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 May 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 and Pino Tovaglia, and soon after Giancarlo Iliprandi, Bruno Munari, Ilio Negri, Till Neuburg, and Luigi Oriani.

Novarese meets the 'Dream Team', 1965
(N)ovarese meets the ‘Dream Team’, 1965: (M)unari, (I)liprandi, (N)egri, (T)ovaglia, (N)euburg, (O)riani, (G)rignani – ‘mint’ is the name for the stamping matrix and ‘mintnog’ is a mint cocktail… – illustration by Giorgio Cavallo [a]

It was not only the typeface that was under discussion but for the first time, there was also the debate on the structure in which to insert it. This unique design process is documented in an issue of Nebiolo’s corporate magazine ‘Qui Nebiolo’ issue n° 10, 1969 (cover by Grignani), with many interventions by Grignani reported. 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 its 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 from the beginning. For example, for Armando Testa, who was present at the first meeting in 1965: “we know well how in American advertising not only more typefaces are used, but even typical typefaces are sought, linked to a specific advertising case …”, while on the other hand, according to Franco Grignani “making a typeface that is used only for business cards rather than for writing paper is useless […] Some typefaces have fewer defects, for example, if are printed on one paper rather than another. After all, Nebiolo is interested in preparing typefaces that are not personal facts, but universal types, as Bodoni may have been …”.

This statement by Franco Grignani describes the heart of the conflict well: “In my opinion, there is a break between your work [Nebiolo/Novarese, Ed.], 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 aforementioned 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, at an animated public round-table discussion held at the Hotel Principe & Savoia in Milan on December 11, 1968 (so well depicted in the pages of issue n° 10 of ‘Qui Nebiolo’), Grignani replied to criticism about the apparent monotony, “excessive perfection, and exaggerated tranquility” of the typeface, while “with advertising, we want instead to provoke” (Horst Blachian), as follows: “… but it is me as a graphic designer who must know how to create this provocation. 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.

Forma, Società Nebiolo – Torino, 1968
Forma, Società Nebiolo – Torino, 1968 [b]

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 periodicals in Italy and abroad [1 & 2]. A poster for Forma by Franco Grignani was exhibited at the V Warsaw International Poster Biennale in 1974.

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 it “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 (the oldest and most authoritative world award for industrial design) 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. After having introduced the Magister typeface in 1968, following Forma’s positive reception and as a reply to Times New Roman, 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 typeface understood in its more rational structure as a reading tool”.

Franco Grignani, Dattilo tondo chiarissimo, 1972
Franco Grignani, samples of usage of Dattilo tondo chiarissimo, 1972 [3]

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, even if in 1979 it was (posthumously) awarded with the Compasso d’Oro.

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 already a dead technology (even if, in the aforementioned first meeting of May 1965 it was noted by Ornella Linke Bossi: “I would draw a typeface that could find use only in twenty years, a typeface that will be imposed to us by electronic machines and that practically does not need any drawing, i.e. a typeface based on Cartesian coordinates” – in 1963 Compugraphic Corporation brought into the market the Linasce, a typesetting computer, thus marking the beginning of the computer age in the American market, while, in the same year, Univers was 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 a 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:


[a] “Qui Nebiolo” issue n° 10, 1969
[b] “Modern Publicity” issue n° 39, 1970
[1] graphéine
[3] CAST, courtesy of Alessandro Colizzi
[6] & featured pic from GARADINERVI, courtesy of Robert Rebotti
[7] AIAP / CDPG Centro di Documentazione sul Progetto Grafico: 1 & 2, courtesy of Lorenzo Grazzani

[this post is not CC BY-NC 4.0 due to some adaptations from CAST (part 1 & part 2) by Alessandro Colizzi, djr.typenetwork, fontbureau.typenetwork]

Last Updated on 04/07/2021 by Emiliano