Font Designer – Hermann Zapf


Hermann Zapf Remembered

World-renowned German font designer Hermann Zapf died on June 4, 2015 at the age of 96. The creator of many internationally recognized and popular fonts, such as Palatino, Optima and Zapfino, had a close personal and business relationship with D. Stempel AG (later Linotype AG, now Monotype GmbH) that spanned decades.
Read our obituary, written exclusively for by journalist Andreas Weber: “Mastery through precision and passion”.

Mastery through precision and passion
Or: In the beginning was the word, and the word found a new beginning.

A memorial in words dedicated to Professor Hermann Zapf. By Andreas Weber, Mainz

“The role played by Hermann Zapf in helping transform an invaluable communication medium to enable it to transcend the analogue Gutenberg Galaxy and enter our digital information society was quite simply unique. We cannot and shall not forget him.”

“I first saw the light of day in Nuremberg, where I was born on 8 Novemberg 1918, just before the abdication of Kaiserg Wilhelm II.” These are the opening words of Hermanng Zapf’s book “Alphabetgeschichten” that appeared in 2007 under Linotype GmbH’s Mergenthaler-Edition imprint. On dipping into Zapf’s highly readable history of his technical developments, one emerges amazed. How could one single man have produced so much and of such high quality? By what alchemy were creativity, manual skills, universal artistic talent and technological know-how all melded together in this way?

The life and work of Hermann Zapf have already been dealt with extensively elsewhere, not least by Hermann Zapf himself. He is one of the most important font artists, typographers and calligraphers of all time and almost four generations came to know him as a designer, author and teacher. And he is also among the select few in human history whose efforts opened up new horizons for others. It was this that the typographer and printer Hermann Rapp chose to stress in his contribution to the 90th birthday tribute to Hermann Zapf in autumn 2008: “He [Hermann Zapf] has strived throughout his life to achieve perfection. Those who have come into contact with him either found themselves drawn along on this idealistic quest or withdrew to find themselves a less demanding objective. The only way he has been able to work is to absorb everything, to process it and make the outcome of this process, whether calligraphy or alphabets with all the details required for many different languages, available for books and other printed texts.”.

To see Hermann Zapf in the correct light requires not just admiration but also humility and gratitude. But not because he was somebody who stood alone, but since we know he will be, forever and always, one of the leading lights among the elite of graphic artists. Yet he himself never became self-absorbed or condescending. Well into his old age, Hermann Zapf actively sought contact with others, particularly young and struggling individuals, who he would listen to, speak with, help, assist and encourage. He worked as a teacher for decades (in Germany and the USA) and collaborated with Linotype from 1989 at the TypoMedia and TypoTechnica conferences. Zapf had close contacts with Linotype and its predecessors for more than 70 years, hence significantly contributing to the development of the company and its global activities for over half its lifetime, since its foundation by Otmar Mergenthaler in 1886. And such involvement seeks its equal, not only in the world of graphic arts but also in the corporate universe as a whole.

Lead type for the computer screen?
In 2001 and in collaboration with a young, international team drawn from Basle, Mainz and New York City, Hermann Zapf published his multimedia CD-ROM “The world of alphabets by Hermann Zapf". The master himself developed the layout, specified the contents, prepared the scans and selected the music. The young team (who had only very rudimentary tools at their disposal at the time) had less than 100 days in which to complete this interactively designed product. Hermann Zapf personally gave the multimedia presentation in California in the fall of 2001 – "appropriately digital and computer-assisted", as Zapf remarked sardonically. The reason for the trip to California was that Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse and Hermann Zapf were invited by the non-profit organization “The Friends of Calligraphy” and the “San Francisco Public Library” to accept the "Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Calligraphy and Type Design”. The award ceremony was part of a group exhibition and series of events called “Zapfest, Calligraphic Type Design in the Digital Age. An Exhibition in Honor of the Contributions of Hermann and Gudrun Zapf”. A further 14 internationally renowned font designers took part. Sumner Stone, Susie Taylor und Linnea Lundquist. Gudrun and Hermann Zapf also held lectures at the San Francisco Public Library as a part of the event.
In addition, Gudrun and Hermann Zapf visited Apple (he met Steve Jobs and Peter Lofting) and Adobe. Both companies are among the pioneers and designers of our modern digital communication technologies and had the highest respect for Hermann Zapf.

The following year (2002), Hermann Zapf and his wife, the renowned typographer, calligrapher and book-binder Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse, visited what was considered at the time “the most creative multimedia agency in the world” based in Wiesbaden. There the pair held an audience of two dozen young designers spellbound for hours. And Hermann Zapf explained to the multimedia specialists that the very latest technology is never quite perfect from the start: “What you are doing in effect is trying to invent the lead type, but this time for the computer screen. But don’t worry, the technology available to you to use on the web will gradually get better over time.”

Zapf’s openness to and lifelong interest in innovation and progress, value and culture, communication and design are to a considerable extent attributable to his awareness of his responsibility for his own abilities and actions. He explained this in the following words: “More attention to detail and thoroughness is required of a font designer than of persons working in other disciplines. There is almost no other creative activity that has a comparable global influence – and this includes advertising, and book and magazine production.” Hermann Zapf never did anything half-heartedly and never relied on chance despite the fact that he was always exploring new worlds – in some cases, since the 1960s, in the company of Dr. Ing. Rudolf Hell, whom Zapf venerated as the “Edison of the graphics industry”.

To put the significance of the work of Hermann Zapf and his oeuvre as a typeface designer into its true perspective, it is sufficient to recall that every computer currently in operation worldwide (desktop or handheld) has access to Hermann Zapf’s typefaces as they are part of the basic configurations of operating systems and are typeface library bestsellers. Large sections of the world’s literature, leading journals, corporate and private documents, certificates and even inscriptions on monuments use fonts designed by Hermann Zapf that over the course of the last 60 years have been continually adapted to the needs of the latest technological developments.

An inexhaustible spirit of innovation to his last breath
From manual and mechanical typesetting through photosetting to the various digital techniques – Hermann Zapf modified and extended his character sets and alphabets for all these. It was an especial pleasure for him to work with the latest digital technologies, particularly the OpenType font format, as here he was no longer hampered by any of the technical and physical limitations that font designers had had to overcome in the past. In the last decade of the 20th century and the first of the 21st century, the already elderly Hermann Zapf would appear on an almost weekly basis in the font studio of Linotype to modify his most popular typefaces (Palatino, Aldus and Optima) to the needs of the most recent technological advances. And he would not just transform his alphabets and characters, but create whole new additions to his families, such as Palatino Nova and Palatino Sans.

There can be little doubt that the most spectacular of his creations is Zapfino. In the early 1990s, the Californian David Siegel (who was subsequently to become famous as a web design guru) contacted Zapf. Siegel, at the time in his mid-twenties, wanted to collaborate with the over 70-year-old Zapf on the design of a new digital typeface that would enable users to produce calligraphic texts with a computer. The more options that became available, the more complex the project became until it looked as if it was doomed to failure. But with the support of Linotype, the calligraphic font and worldwide innovation that had been christened “Zapfino” was ready for its market launch in late 1998. Apple CEO Steve Jobs was enchanted by the product and purchased a license for Zapfino. Ever since, Zapfino has been a component of the OS X Apple operating system. Calligraphy has thus become an element of the “Digital lifestyle” propagated by Steve Jobs.

“TypoZapfy” – global appeal and inspiration for upcoming young talents
Unsurprisingly, when it came to typeface design, Hermann Zapf refused to be restricted by the boundaries of western languages and cultures. He incorporated Slavic languages, Cyrillic, Arabic and much more into the world of his fonts. Everyone on the globe who can read and write and every organisation will at some point encounter the works of Hermann Zapf, the master of typeface design. In some cases, Hermann Zapf was responsible for inspiring career decisions. In the 1980s, a young Akira Kobayashi in Tokyo came across journal contributions by Hermann Zapf that had been translated into English. His desire to find out what Hermann Zapf was saying was so great that Akira, who knew no English, decided to teach himself that language.

As a result, Akira Kobayashi’s fascination with the artistic peak of calligraphy and typography – an infatuation that one might call “typoZapfy” – was awakened. Akira abruptly took himself off to London to study, designed his own typefaces, won competitions and has since become Type Director at Linotype. Interestingly, the corresponding post at D. Stempel AG, which was later acquired by Linotype, had been held by Hermann Zapf more than 50 years previously. No wonder that Hermann unreservedly and enthusiastically embraced the support and skills offered by Akira Kobayashi in the completion of his oeuvre in Linotype’s font studio and which helped him to concentrate on innovation, precision and mastery almost until his last breath.

Hermann Rapp, quoted above, concludes his encomium on the output of Hermann Zapf as follows: “Hermann Zapf has given us and those who come after us a wonderful tool. If we use this tool wisely and properly, in other words, if we communicate for communication’s sake, make what is worth reading easy to read, then what we leave behind us will not only be to our credit but will also honour the creator of our tools: our Hermann Zapf.”

Hermann Zapf’s output and his mastery are inimitable and without comparison. Nearly four generations were witness to his perfecting of the graphic arts. And he not only inspired and supported the professionals, the designers, artists and media producers throughout the world, but his active participation in the work of refining digital communication media has meant that everyone now has the opportunity to make use of top-quality graphic arts. Text and text-based communication has undergone a rebirth thanks to Hermann Zapf. The role played by Hermann Zapf in helping transform an invaluable communication medium to enable it to transcend the analogue Gutenberg Galaxy and enter our digital information society was quite simply unique. We cannot and shall not forget him.

About the author:
Andreas Weber (born 3 January 1959 in Homburg/Saar) has been living and working in Mainz since 1978. In the city of Gutenberg’s birth, he studied the history of art, archaeology and book production, turning to communication science in 1987. He has since worked as a communication manager and analyst, publicist, consultant and coach. He has founded various companies, the most recent being Value Communication AG, which he manages as CEO and is specialised in the field of innovative technologies and communications systems. The author first met Hermann Zapf in Paris in 1988. In 2001, he produced for Hermann Zapf the multimedia work “The world of alphabets by Hermann Zapf“. It was Weber who arranged the visit of Hermann and Gudrun Zapf to the then “most creative multimedia agency in the world”, Scholz & Volkmer in Wiesbaden. In 2008, Weber produced an extensive volume in tribute to Hermann Zapf’s 90th birthday.
Read our online features about Hermann Zapf:

Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for Hermann Zapf (May 2010)
On 25th May 2010 Hermann Zapf has been awarded with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Looking back at his career – a special statement from Hermann Zapf himself (October 2008)
For the occasion of his 90th Birthday, Hermann Zapf has written a statement he wanted to share with you! Here he takes a look back at how he began with type design and his amazing 70 year relationship with Linotype.

The Art of Hermann Zapf – A video of him working (October 2008)
Back in the 1960’s and 70’s Hermann did several exclusive typefaces for Hallmark Cards. As a side project, Hallmark commissioned a video of Hermann explaining the basics of calligraphy and how he worked.

70 years of designing type! Two very abridged biographies (October 2008)
Both born in 1918 in Germany, the Zapfs are one of the most productive working couples in design.

Hermann Zapf Birthday Celebration and Palatino nova premiere (November 2005
Still looking for refinements at 87 – Linotype celebrates Hermann Zapf’s birthday and Palatino nova premiere

The lifestory of Hermann Zapf (August 1999)
Written ty the typographer himself exclusively for Linotype.

Celebration in honour of Hermann Zapf (November 1998)
Kupferberg Terrasse, Mainz, Germany – On 26 November, Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG and Linotype have honoured a friend and partner, whose work has been shaping the industry for 60 years and which continues to do so today.
The Know How section offers detailed background knowledge to deal with all enquiries about the use of fonts.