Zapfino, hard road to beauty

I’m back! I was just too stretched thin last week, and because I spent the 4th of July in DC, I just didn’t get home to do a write up… I know, excuses, and this weekend I’ll hopefully be moving into a new apartment, so if I’m going to post, it’s GOT TO BE tonight… Moving on.

Zapfino! Ubiquitous, script-y, calligraphic, GORGEOUS Zapfino.  This is among my favorite typefaces to just look at, though I’ve had little occasion to use it. But neither have you, so no judging. Seriously, it’s very pretty, and I just can’t justify using it for anything I’ve done.


Herman n Zapf designed his namesake typeface as we know it in 1998, but had long ago drawn it out in 1944. It’s apparent in the beauty of the design that this was his pet project, something he did dwell upon and obsess over for decades before finally laying down the first vector. At the same time, there’s a hint of self-doubt–there are extensive ligatures and variations of the letter forms.  This is a hallmark of a great font library, so don’t misunderstand. I’m just conjecturing that rather than he himself make a decision, he decided to realize every form he could and leave the decision to the user.  On another hand, that shows great faith that the user will use sound judgment in presenting his work as he would like it to be. Hmm… that’s something to ponder.


Realistically, this design and all the ligatures couldn’t have been realized until modern technology had advanced.  Lead slugs would have been very cumbersome to create, and in all likelihood wouldn’t have done justice to the beauty of the swashes.  In the early nineties, one of the programmers working on software to make this design feasible was David Siegel. He eventually had a life-issue, and dropped the project, but went on to work on bringing color to Macintosh computers.  Obviously, Hermann continued to work at it, and eventually got Linotype on board. In an interesting turn of favor, Zapfino is included with the Mac OSX font library as a way to show off how cool letters can look on a Mac.

So as much of the humanist touch is evident in Zapfino, it’s a typeface that would never have been possible without advances in technology. Even more super interesting, Hermann was born in 1918, is German, so piecing together the timeline, it’s not surprising his father was sent to a concentration camp. Not exactly the age/origin one would expect to have produced such ornate letter AND be so entrenched in technology! But anyway, he worked doing retouching in the 30s, and fell in love with lettering after seeing a Koch exhibition. (Again, was a difference in the elegance of design!) He had an unspectacular military career; between legitimate heart problems and unusual clumsiness, he ended up in cartography, writing very tiny letters. After the war, he had better success getting a job where he could dedicate himself wholly to designing letters and books.

Obviously, Hermann Zapf’s life story is kind of amazing.  Since I haven’t mentioned it yet, he also designed Palatino and Optima, which are less surprising considering Hitler’s fascination with Roman letter forms.  I personally choose Palatino when I use Outlook express(or whatever, that’s used on servers) since it look very nice printed.

And here are examples of Zapfino out in the world! It’s interesting to note that many companies turn to a script design to evoke a sense of the old world, and as you’ve read, Zapfino does not actually have the weight of history and antiquities behind it.  I can’t really account for the examples found but… you be the judge.

Instant noodles? Sure!

Give your water closet a touch of elegance?

That’s really about all I have to say about Zapfino, for now. Well, he married, and his wife designs type as well. Gudrun Zapf von Hesse worked in book binding, but also has several type designs to her name, and even won the Frederic W. Goudy Award. Ooo. Maybe I’ll write about Goudy next week.


One comment

  1. […] designed by Zapf in 1948, and later expanded with Akira Kobayashi.  Since I’ve already written about Zapf, I’ll write a bit about Kobayashi.  He has a career of designing type inspired by the past, […]

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