Remembering Hermann Zapf (Nov. 8, 1918 – June 4, 2015)

Hermann Zapf was the preeminent worldwide typeface designer and calligrapher who lived in Darmstadt, Germany. He was married to calligrapher and typeface designer Gudrun Zapf von Hesse. His typefaces include Palatino and Optima.

I first met him in 1960. I was the mail boy at the Mergenthaler Linotype Company in Brooklyn, NY and was delivering the mail to his cubicle on the 8th floor. He was adapting Palatino for the Linofilm. One day I got up the nerve to ask “Mr Zapf, what do you do?” He replied, “I correct the errors of my youth.” For example, the lowercase y had a curved calligraphic descender. He straightened it out. Those who stole Palatino from the hot metal version had something different from those who stole it from the phototype­setting version.

Thirty years later I would hold his professorship at RIT. He was a warm, genuine, honest man and we will all miss him.

Zapf was born in Nuremberg. He left school in 1933 for a career in electrical engineering but was not able to attend the Ohm Technical Institute in Nuremberg due to the political regime of the time and needed to find an apprenticeship. His teachers noticed his skill in drawing and suggested that he become a lithographer. He was interviewed by the last company in the telephone directory. They allowed him to become a retoucher, and Zapf began his four-year apprenticeship in February 1934.

In 1935, he attended an exhibition in Nuremberg in honor of typographer Rudolf Koch. This exhibition gave him his first interest in lettering. Zapf bought two books to teach himself calligraphy. He came into contact with the type foundries D. Stempel, AG, and Linotype GmbH of Frankfurt, and in 1938, designed his first printed typeface for them, a fraktur type called Gilgengart.

In April, 1939, Zapf was conscripted. He had developed heart trouble and was given a desk job, writing camp records and sports certificates in Fraktur. He was sent to train as a cartographer where he drew maps of Spain. His eyesight was so good that he could write letters 1 millimeter in size without using a magnifying glass, and this skill probably prevented him from being commissioned back into the army.

Zapf taught calligraphy in Nuremberg in 1946. He returned to Frankfurt in 1947, where the type foundry Stempel offered him a position as artistic head of their printshop.

From 1948 to 1950, Zapf taught calligraphy at the Arts and Crafts School in Offenbach, giving lettering lessons twice a week to two classes of graphics students. In 1951 he married Gudrun von Hesse, who taught at the school of Städel in Frankfurt. Most of Zapf’s work as a graphic artist was in book design.

Type design

Zapf transcended type technology. He designed types for hot metal composition, photo­type­setting, and digital typography for use in desktop publishing. His most famous typefaces, Palatino and Optima, were designed in 1948 and 1952, respectively. Palatino was named after the 16th century Italian writing master Giambattista Palatino. Palatino became better known after it became one of the core 35 PostScript fonts in 1984, bundled with virtually all PostScript devices from laser printers to imagesetters. Optima, a flared sans-serif, was released by Stempel in 1958. Zapf disliked its name, which was invented by the marketers at Stempel.

Zapf’s typefaces have been widely copied, usually against his will. Monotype’s Book Antiqua shipped with Microsoft Office and is often considered an imitation of Palatino. In 1993, Zapf resigned from ATypI (Association Typographique Internationale) over what he viewed as its hypocritical attitude toward unauthorized copying by prominent ATypI members. At a 1994 conference a panel discussion on designers’ rights he criticized the plagiarism of Palatino. In 1999, Microsoft worked with Zapf and Linotype to develop a new, authorized version of Palatino for Microsoft, called Palatino Linotype.

In the 1980s Zapf worked with Bitstream to make versions of many of his prior typefaces, including Palatino, Optima and Melior, all with “Zapf” in their new names.

Zapf did not work extensively as a calligrapher. His largest calligraphic project was to write out the “Preamble to the United Nations Charter” in four languages, commissioned by the Pierpont Morgan Library in 1960.

Computer typography

Zapf worked on typography for computer programs from the 1960s onwards. His ideas were considered radical, not taken seriously in Germany, and rejected by the Darmstadt University of Technology, where Zapf lectured between 1972 and 1981. With no success in Germany, Zapf went to the US where he lectured about his ideas in computerized typesetting, and was invited to speak at Harvard University in 1964. The University of Texas at Austin was also interested in Zapf, and offered him a professorship, which he did not take.

Zapf and his wife moved to Darmstadt in 1972. In 1976, the Rochester Institute of Technology offered Zapf the Cary professorship. He taught there from 1977 to 1987, flying between Darmstadt and Rochester. At RIT, he developed his ideas further, with the help of his connections in companies such as IBM and Xerox. A number of Zapf’s students from this time at RIT went on to become influential type designers, including Kris Holmes and Charles Bigelow, who together created the Lucida type family. Other prominent students include calligrapher/font designer Julian Waters and book designer Jerry Kelly.

In 1977, Zapf, Aaron Burns, and Herb Lubalin founded Design Processing International, Inc. and developed typographical computer software. It existed until 1986 with the death of Lubalin, and Zapf and Burns founded “Zapf, Burns & Company” in 1987. Burns, also an expert in typeface design and in typography, was in charge of marketing until his death in 1992.


In 1983, Zapf had completed the typeface AMS Euler with Donald Knuth and graduate students in Knuth’s and Charles Bigelow’s Digital Typography program at Stanford University including students Dan Mills, Carol Twombly, David Siegel, and Knuth’s computer science research assistant, John Hobby, for the American Mathematical Society. Euler digital font production was eventually finished by Siegel as his M.S. thesis project. Euler is a typeface family for mathematical composition including Latin, Fraktur and Greek letters. After David Siegel had finished his studies at Stanford and was interested in entering the field of typography, he told Zapf his idea of making a typeface with a large number of glyph variations.

Zapf remembered a page of calligraphy from his sketchbook from 1944, and considered the possibility of making a typeface from it. He had previously tried to create a calligraphic typeface for Stempel in 1948, but hot metal composition placed too many limits on the freedom of swash characters. Such a pleasing result could only be achieved using modern digital technology, and so Zapf and Siegel began work on the complicated software necessary. However, Siegel abandoned the project.

What would become Zapfino was delayed until Zapf presented the project to Linotype. They were prepared to complete it and reorganized the project. Zapf created four alphabets and various ornaments, flourishes, and other dingbats. Zapfino was released in 1998. Later versions of Zapfino used the Apple Advanced Typography and OpenType technologies to make automatic ligatures and glyph substitutions, especially contextual ones in which the nature of ligatures and substituted glyphs was determined by other glyphs nearby or even in different words.

There are many distinguished type designers in the world. Matthew Carter certainly comes to mind. But, it can be said without challenge, that there was only one Hermann Zapf. Fortunatey, his typefaces live on.

< Anatomy of ATF Type  |  Our Favourite Typefaces of 1915 >

Top ↑