Tribute to Hermann Zapf

Last weekend Hermann Zapf, one of the greatest font designers and typographers of our times, has passed away at the age of 96. Much has been written about his life, his immense sphere of influence, his excellent typefaces, and some of the links to other obituaries can be found here at the end. There is nothing of value I can contribute, but let Hermann Zapf speak for himself with a few images from two books by or dedicated to him.


The books I have taken these photos from are:

  • Manuale Zapficum Typographic arrangements of words by and about the work of Hermann Zapf & Gudrun Zapf von Hesse. Cary Graphic Arts Press, Rochester 2008 (shown on the right below).
  • Alphabetgeschichten Eine Chronik technischer Entwicklungen von Hermann Zapf. Mergenthaler Edition, Linotype GmbH. Cary Graphic Arts Press, Rochester 2007 (shown on the left below).


In his long life, Hermann Zapf has created a wide range of typefaces, some if which have become the main staple in the printing business, most notably Palatino, Janson, Optima, and Zapf Dingbats. But there are many more:


While probably not as popular anymore as some years (decades?) ago, Palatino still is one of my favorite typefaces. I often wished to have the freedom to choose my own fonts for publications, but normally that doesn’t happen. Palatino has found many offspring (or imitations?), and there are excellent renderings for use with (La)TeX, too.


Hermann Zapf also had connections with Don Knuth and the AMS (American Mathematical Society), and he designed for the AMS the Euler typeface, using Knuth’s MetaFont program.


Last weekend, when I heard of Hermann Zapf’s death, I was at a conference at Tsukuba University. What a coincidence that all the signs in the building (floor numbers, indications, etc) were set optimain another of his great typefaces, the Optima. I had a strange feeling, and reset my presentation in Optima/Euler in honor of Hermann Zapf’s great life.

Although I never met Hermann Zapf personally – I missed the TeX conferences where he participated – it was to a great extent his influence that years ago I got started in typography. Living a life like he did, dedicating himself to the beauty and expressiveness of letters, design, calligraphy, seems like a dream for me. But beauty can be found even in the strangest equation in mathematics, the queerest theorem in logic. While not all of us are as gifted as Hermann Zapf in creating beauty, we should strive to increase our ability to appreciate the beauty.

The beauty of letters is subtle, evasive, and needs training, that is practice, to be appreciated. Hermann Zapf taught us how even self-training can lead to excellence. His letters, which I meet every day, are a permanent reminder to strive for beauty and clarity, and never relent in our exercise.

Thanks Hermann Zapf.


Links to tributes around the world


Linotype (Type foundry where Zapf started working)
Bigelow and Holmes (Type designers)
The Museum of Printing, Massachusetts
New York Times (Newspaper)
Type Drawers
Quartz (News magazine)
Kaveh Bazargan (next president of TUG)
TeX Overflow (Q&A website concerning TeX)

Bit unrelated and linked from the Quartz article above, this is a great video: The Art of Hermann Zapf (Vimeo)


FontShop (Type foundry and internet shop)
Deutschland Funk (News station)
Süddeutsche (Newspaper)
Echo (Newspaper)
Heise (Techology News page)

Thanks to Barbara Beeton for careful reading and corrections.

5 Responses

  1. Karl says:

    lovely photos and words, norbert. i will always treasure a fax that hz sent to me of “KB” in his inimitable calligraphy after some minor tug administrivia communication. along with a cd of his typefaces!

  2. Indeed, as Karl has commented, lovely photos and words! Have seen several tributes in my circuit, but nobody delved into the work of HZ as you’ve done now, many thanks for sending out these lovely pictures.

  3. Hi Karl, Hi Radhakrishnan, thanks for your kind words. We owe Hermann Zapf much more than a short tribute, I can only contribute by little abilities here.

  4. Liam Quin says:

    I shall treasure my copy of Pen and feather even more now. Thnak you for these images and memories.

  5. kaveh1000 says:

    Thank you for the touching tribute, Norbert. I was one of those lucky to have been at the EuroTeX conference. Now I wish I had tried to spend more time with him or ask him to scribble something for me. But at least I have the memory of a man amazingly alert and healthy looking for a then age of 86.

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