a blast from the past: optima

This is from late 2009, after release of Diaspora and, more significantly, being (correctly, I think) criticized for using Optima as body type.

The choice to set Diaspora in the typeface, Optima, was not a casual one. It was considered, nuanced, and ultimately probably wrong, though the vision — the text as I hoped it would be — would still be set in Optima.

First and most obvious, Optima is the titling Face for Traveller (albeit the oblique in that document). Certainly Diaspora contains many homages to Traveller and setting the text in Optima was something that the original authors of Traveller probably could not readily do. So in the sense that we were updating that game, I chose to also update the physical text. I wanted to at least in part be what that could have been if done with modern tools and the same early vision. So, homage.

It was more than that, though. Optima is a heavily modulated sans serif, which is a rare beast. It lacks terminal ornamentation, yet its strokes change from thick to thin as though drawn by a human being with a brush. It is both man and machine. This was thematically consistent. Optima was also a Linotype font — it was designed for use in a machine that performed typesetting by taking keyboard input and actually casting a slug of metal type inside a compartmentalized foundry. An assembly line took the input, chose letter forms from molds, poured molten metal into them, cooled them, and dumped them into a page board as a complete line set in metal. When complete, the typesetter would remove the page of type and use it to perform letterpress printing or to press a proof for photography as part of a lithographic process.


This kind of early mechanization has parallels with the Diasporan view of technology: the first step in automating a process is to make a machine that does exactly what the process did. It was a long time before we cut the metal type out of the process altogether. Imagine a machine that actually performs molten metal casting in its innards — a word processor with a foundry inside it!

The fact of this early mechanization imposed restrictions on font design. One could not kern letters (because the type was set as a line, unlike the later Monotype machines which set by letter and could be manipulated at that unit) and so fonts built for the linotype have horizontally truncated f’s. They lack elaborate tails and serifs. The upper case Q never swoops into neighbouring territory. The idea of being constrained by technology is part of the Diasporan theme, and so again, Optima resonates. Another Linotype choice would have been Palatino, but this quasi-Renaissance letter form didn’t have the stark industrial feel of a sans serif face. Nonetheless, we do see use of Palatino in the text — the fiction blocks are set in Palatino Italic.

We could summarize that by saying that Optima is, at its very core, a “retro” choice. Not just because it’s old, but because it is representative of the way that nascent technological upheavals force art and culture. Before we figure out how best to use technology, it already begins to mold us — to determine how best humans are used in the service of technology.

The downside to Optima was something that did not show up in proofing the text: Optima is meant to be set with metal and so it assumes the high resolution of analog production methods. It is a beautiful and highly legible font digitally at 1200 dots per inch. It remains elegant at 300 dpi (common laser printer resolution) provided the black is consistent. Sadly, with an inconsistent black and low resolution, the strong modulation of the type can undo it — the thin lines become swamped by the thick. The d, the f, the c all start to look a little blobby and anemic by turns. So when I discovered that our printer’s blacks were less than perfect, my delight in the finished product was wounded. Not slain, but injured. And so the best and well considered intentions of the human behind the technology is undermined by the technology itself.

And so, this is a kind of apology. Diaspora could have been more legible with more attention paid to the demands of technology. Fortunately, the failure is thematic: should I, the conscious, free-willed, human mind sacrifice my vision — even my autonomy, to some extent — to service a technology’s failure? Perhaps I should — Optima itself is just such a compromise. And as technology advances we make these same kinds of compromises: we answer the phone even when we don’t want to, we treat humans as machines when we talk to them through a machine, and we choose convenience over beauty to stay ahead of the game. And these choices are part of what Diaspora explores. And so it’s a failure I embrace.