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Remembering Hermann Zapf

Published on June 12, 2015

Frank remembers Hermann Zapf (1918-2015) as one of the world’s great type designers. He shares some personal stories and shows some of Zapf’s works. Includes commentary from Richard Romano.

Hermann Zapf, 1918–2015

By Richard Romano

Most people take fonts for granted. Virtually everyone interacts with type in some way (even the blind, either via Braille fonts or raised lettering on signage) and yet we often forget that someone had to actually design the letters we are reading or typing. The font—or, more correctly, the typeface—you are reading right now is called Lucida Grande; Lucida was designed in 1985 by Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes and has since grown to encompass many variations.

I mention this because last week the world lost a man who was responsible for a healthy chunk of the type we see on a regular basis, who designed some of the most popular typefaces used today—the sheriff of serifs, you might say.

Hermann Zapf, who passed away on June 4 at the age of 96, is said to have created more than 200 alphabets, and not just Roman alphabets; he also designed typefaces using Cyrillic, Arabic, and Cherokee. His career spanned virtually every typesetting technology, from hot metal, to phototypesetting, to digital type.

Ever been to Abercrombie & Fitch? Its corporate logo is set in Palatino, a typeface that was Zapf’s “breakthrough” back in 1948. Been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington? The roster of names uses Optima, designed by Zapf in the early 1950s. Ever needed a ballot box, an arrow, or a playing card suit symbol? That would be the eponymous Zapf Dingbats, designed in 1978.

“What Michelangelo was to sculpture and Beethoven was to music, that’s what Hermann Zapf is to type design and calligraphy,” said type designer and typographer Jerry Kelly, a friend and former student of Zapf’s, in the New York Times’ obituary of Zapf.

Another of his students said that Zapf’s calling in life was “to make beautiful letters.”

That he did.

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By David L. Zwang on Jun 12, 2015

What a warm and fitting tribute by 'The Romano's' to an important and historic figure in the field of design..


By Henry Freedman on Jun 12, 2015

Herman Zaph at RIT

During the 70's and early 80's RIT was an amazing place for many imaging technologies and of course all aspects of typography education. Led by Alexander Lawson, Arch Provan and a visiting Prof/Educator artist typographer /inventor for that modern day named Herman Zaph. When asking a classmate what was their next class/lecture was one would frequently here, I have "Herman the German." Herman fit in. Lothar Engleman who for years was the Dean of the College as well as Proff. Schuman who ran the photographic side of RIT Bldg 7 had a German accent so Herman carried the day as the next generation German accent in the halls at RIT where we all
received many benefits.


By Patrick Henry on Jun 12, 2015

After 30 years, I can't remember the venue or the occasion, but I do recall attending a presentation by Zapf in which he was critical of what digitization for the desktop was doing to type design. Some of the sins, he said, were being committed by type foundries in Germany. "No good news from Gutenberg's own country," was his gloomy comment at the time. But, I think he lived long enough to see typography become as well served by computers as it was by film and metal, thanks to the enormous influence he had in both the art and the business of typography.

Is it possible to pass a day without seeing at least one of Zapf’s families of letterforms on a page, in a sign, or on a screen? His body of work may be the most frequently viewed in the entire history of graphic communications. Millions who never knew him continue to be informed and guided by what he created. To have a personal recollection of him, even one as small as my own, seems an extraordinary privilege.


By John Galto on Jun 13, 2015

Frank, Thanks for your tribute to Herman Zaph. What a good mix of stories about the personal and professional life of a man who helped us communicate better. I used Optima for body copy when I was yearbook editor at RIT. Remember Techmila? As the Optima entry in Wikipedia notes: "Though classified as a sans-serif, Optima has a subtle swelling at the terminals suggesting a glyphic serif." I also like those Zaph Dingbats. And that comment about those type thieves at Compugraphic!


By Mitch Bogart on Jun 15, 2015

Nice piece! We are like children on the shoulders of giants. Herman Zapf must have started using real splines, the physical ones, before the term came to mean the curves defined by cubic parametric equations. Thank you, Frank.


By Jim Hamilton on Jun 15, 2015

Loved this video! Particularly this exchange:
Frank Romano: "Mr. Zapf, what do you do?"
Hermann Zapf: "I correct the errors of my youth."


By Bradley Elledge on Jun 17, 2015

Frank, I genuinely enjoy your reflections on an old industry, beset with change, honoring those amazing people, like Zapf, who gave us so much that we take for granted. Palatino: my favorite, and it's always just been just a selection on a drop down menu of Word for me. Now it is more thanks to your most appropriate eulogy.
We so appreciate your printing punditry.


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