Ode to a Master

Hermann Zapf was one of the most influential typographers of the early digital age. Following his death early last month, I was reminded of his broad career accomplishments that changed and influenced visual communication.

As you most likely know, many of the fonts Zapf drew are considered classics today—Palatino, Optima and, of course, the Zapf dingbats which formed the basis for Unicode’s symbols. He started designing type in a completely different era when he discovered the work of German font designer Rudolf Koch at a 1935 retrospective and was inspired to move into the new realm of type design. Zapf drew his first typeface, Gilgengart, in 1938. And, after WWII, he moved back to Germany to become artistic head of Stempel AG. Stempel was a German typographic foundry producing type fonts from 1895 through 1985, when it was purchased by Linotype. He was a type designer who crossed boundaries, moving into teaching and book design. As he aged, he embraced the way computers allowed for variations and details to be determined for fonts he’d created, redrawing them for this new technological age. His fonts were used for projects including the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial designed by Maya Lin, which uses Optima to recognize fallen soldiers. Clinique uses the Optima font to position the Clinique brand. His typographic contributions have seamlessly inserted themselves into our visual life. His artistic skills were so immense and so focused that, for those of us in the computer generation, it’s hard to envision. I recently saw a “video” on Vimeo called The Art of Hermann Zapf: a film on the purpose and techniques of calligraphy by Hallmark. In this video, which is really a film, the opening sequence captures Zapf’s extraordinary hand skills. In one take, he draws an entire alphabet—beautifully, perfectly, astonishingly. Let’s take a moment to honor Zapf and those typeface designers who benefit us all—sometimes in small ways, but always by adding something wonderful, beautiful and meaningful to our lives. Hermann Zapf was one of the greats. Does that make sense?

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