Gramma: what is micro does not look like what is macro

Gramma is a robust and (apparently) geometric typeface good for headlines and main bodies of text. Designed by Riccardo Olocco and first released in 2014, it's now available in 5 weights with their matching italics

Interview by Massimo Gonzato

Working well both for branding and publishing, Gramma is a compact sans with a big x-height available in 5 weights. Riccardo Olocco, CAST co-founder and designer, started designing it in 2009 and in 2012 it was included in the new layout of Progetto Grafico, the international graphics magazine published by AIAP. Together with Brevier, Luciano Perondi’s Divenire and Dic Sans, in 2014 Riccardo Olocco’s Gramma was one of the first typefaces released by the CAST foundry. Recently Riccardo further developed Gramma and completed the italics. We asked him to tell us more about this font family.

Gramma in use in Progetto grafico, the international graphic design magazine issued twice a year by the Italian association for visual communication design AIAP. Starting from #21 (Summer 2012) until #29 (Spring 2016) the magazine opted for a new identity and changed its typography.

Why did you call it Gramma?

‘Gramma’, from the Greek ‘gráphein’ (to write), means ‘letter’, ‘line’ or more properly ‘engraved sign’. I thought it was a good name for my design, as it reflects the clarity of its construction, which might be less geometric than a first-glance perception.

How did you approach this project? 

When I started designing it in the summer of 2009, my goal was to create a compact sanserif with a sizeable x-height, one that would work well for both short and long bodies of text. Moreover – and this is a risky ambition in type design – I wanted it to have a distinct personality.

Compactness, handsome x-height, squared counters and ‘bird-beak’ terminals are Gramma’s main features.

Gramma shows a somewhat chameleonic aptitude: it changes a lot according to the size. It seems to have more than one personality. Don’t you agree?  

One factor in letter design that’s always fascinated me is the micro and macro-reading of the letters: the digital letters we design today can be reproduced at any size, from minute to gigantic, and such size differences alter how we perceive them. With Gramma, I played around with this peculiarity. 

When Gramma is reproduced in small sizes, the unconnected junctures tend to close up and the beak-shaped terminals are softened. Such alterations are optimal for setting bodies of text, when continuous reading mustn’t be interrupted by any extravagances.

In small sizes, the unconnected junctures of Gramma tend to close up and its terminals are softened.

Did you follow any model or inspiration?

I’ve always been attracted by the compact and rhythmic forms of the Rustic capitals and at the earliest stage I took these as a model. But after the first few attempts I realised that the proportions were too far from what we’re used to today, and their geometric synthesis produced bizarre letterforms.

So, although I abandoned the rustics I hung on to the ‘compact’ idea and continued the ‘geometric quest’. And that’s when I decided to look at humanist letterforms, using them as points of reference for design and proportions.

At the same time, alongside Michele Patanè, I was completing an investigation of letter widths and proportions. We compared alphabets from different sources, spanning from macro reproductions of Renaissance types to early 20th-century Monotype catalogues, to digital fonts such as Gerard Ungers’s Swift. This research influenced several design decisions while working on Gramma.

How did you manage such a variety of inputs to get the consistent and effective design of Gramma?

The initial constructions were assembled from a few well-defined geometric modules and then they were polished into more organic forms, though some geometric orthodoxy remains, for example, in the shoulder of the a. The arches of the letters are quite squared, and the counters and other internal spaces push outwards, creating a tension that balances the compressed letterforms.

The beak-shaped ends (found in many letters, including the c, e, f, s…) replicate the unconnected junctures between stem and curve, visible in the a, b, d, g, h… This lack of connection, much like stencilled letters, is reminiscent of Francesco Simoncini’s experiments with type and perception in the 1960s, as we can still see in his Delia and notably in the unpublished Selene.

Gramma’s geometric modules are developed into organic forms.

You’ve just completed the italics, tell us about your design decisions.

Today we are used to italics that are not too different from the romans. While designing italics for seriffed faces we tend to depart as little as possible from their roman companions, from their colour and shapes. This trend is obviously stronger with sanserifs, whose italics are very often slanted versions of their romans.

Though in my initial plans I aimed for a geometric synthesis of a Renaissance chancery italic, I had to settle for a sloped roman with italic shapes for a, f, g and a few other letters. I suspect that a Gramma chancery italic would be very hard to sell. One must admit that Stanley Morison’s ideal italic as expressed in the 1920s is still valid today. 

Gramma’s italics are a mix of slanted roman and true italic.

How would you portray Gramma in a nutshell?

Gramma is a versatile, robust and apparently geometric sanserif easily recognisable from its ‘bird-beak’ terminals.