At first sight, David Jonathan Ross thought Forma was boring. He went on to draw a well-considered, fresh take on this strong mid-century grotesque that we’re lucky to have back.
In 1968, in response to Helvetica’s success, Nebiolo published Forma: a rational, tight grotesque, drawn by Aldo Novarese with the assistance of a panel of advisers. While the idea of a Helvetica-ish thing designed by a committee may seem soul-crushing, Novarese achieved a powerful new take on the mid-century grotesque. With its tight spacing, slightly heightened contrast, and subtle flaring, the design exhibits a self-confident poise and tension, a collected presence on the page that Helvetica, for one, never had.
David Jonathan Ross’ revival — Forma DJR — was initially commissioned by Roger Black for his redesign of Hong Kong Tatler, and is now available for retail licensing. In Ross’ capable hands, not just the logic of this metal typeface made the jump to digital, but its feel on the page, too, received a thoughtful contemporary translation. With subtle, simply constructed flares and slightly softened corners, his drawing recaptures the warmth and atmosphere of ink on paper — without betraying either the Modernist intent of the design or its new digital medium.
Much of Forma’s personality lies in its uncommonly dense texture. “It sets so differently than other faces”, Ross told me over the phone. “I really had to unlearn what I knew about spacing”. Type spaced this tightly, especially, must adapt as it gets smaller to stay legible — a challenge the original mastered beautifully and this revival addresses somewhat enthusiastically, coming in a square design space of five weights and five (!) size variants (all of this in roman and italic). The size-specific adjustments feel perhaps a little less generous than in the metal version, though; they mostly address spacing and detailing. With weight and proportion remaining constant, the new Forma seems especially reluctant to let go of its displayish flavor, which lingers in the smaller sizes. That’s not necessarily a fault. If every revival is a subjective take on a model, Forma’s particular, dense texture has been pushed to the foreground here, and its fantastic power, especially at large sizes, is impossible to deny.
Nina Stössinger is a type-obsessed designer and overall curious person who is currently a Senior Typeface Designer at Frere-Jones Type in Brooklyn. Nina studied multimedia design in Halle (Germany) and type design in Zurich and Den Haag, and previously worked as an independent graphic designer, typographer, and type designer in Switzerland and the Netherlands. Nina has spoken at numerous international events, and was appointed a Critic at Yale School of Art in 2016. Follow her on Twitter.