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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