Hermann Zapf 1918-2015


Last week a link to our somewhat distant past was cut, reminding us both of the role of economics and of lasting quality.


In my turn-of-the-millennium column in 2000, 


I talked about some of the best and worst graphic decisions/productions of the millennium, century, and decade. Typeface design has been around since the late 15th century, and I named one of the faces from that epoch, Bembo, as the typeface of the millennium.


For the typeface of the (twentieth) century, the obvious choices would have been Times Roman or Helvetica, in view of how ubiquitous their use has become. However, wanting to choose something both beautiful and mainstream, I chose Palatino, which is the same choice I would make today.


Its designer, Hermann Zapf, created it for the Stempel type foundry during the decade after the end of World War II. During the same period, he created his other lasting masterpieces, Melior and Optima. These faces will live for as long as we set type.


The remaining sixty years of his life were not wasted. He did some teaching and passed on a fine design sense. He participated in the 1980s trend toward faces with very large x-heights and tight letterfits; his major works in that genre, Zapf Book and Zapf International, have deservedly been forgotten. He has developed some very fine script faces, of which Zapfino, Medici Script, and Zapf Chancery stand out. And, of course, his set of Zapf Dingbats gets a lot of use. Still, you would have to say that his historical standing will be based on the first ten years of his professional career.


What changed? Technology, and economics. Zapf needed gainful employment after the war. Stempel provided it. They could do so because they could make money on his work; his designs were protected, not so much by law as by practicalities. Anyone wishing to buy Palatino was buying metal, which could not be duplicated, nor could it be replicated without the aid of someone of ZapfŐs skill.


With the advent of phototypesetting copying became much easier. Linotype, which owned the Zapf faces, refused for competitive reasons to license them to others. The others shrugged their shoulders, photographed the output, made a few cosmetic changes on the theory that it would keep the law off their backs, and released Palatino, Melior, and Optima as, using Compugraphic as an example, Paladium, Mallard, and Oracle, without giving Zapf a pfennig of royalties. Things got so silly in the 1980s that Bitstream, which prided itself on its type purity, unable to make a deal with Linotype, hired Hermann Zapf to knock off his own typefaces. Palatino became Zapf Calligraphic 801.


Zapf was a significant talent, but it would be idle to pretend that there could never be another similarly skilled practitioner; in fact I think that there have been. However, it is almost impossible to make a living designing type these days. Also, it is one thing to work in a time when it was prohibitively costly to own more than ten or twenty text faces. When something really good like Palatino came along it got attention. Today, there are tens of thousands of credible alternatives that cost almost nothing. 


Which, of course, makes it impossible that any of them will ever get a following big enough to displace Palatino, or Times Roman or Helvetica for that matter. And therefore, when scholars write about at the developments during our lifetimes a couple of centuries from now, the name of Hermann Zapf will still be prominent, and his faces are likely to be used in the typesetting.


Dan Margulis