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Hermann Zapf and Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse

- History

Hermann Zapf – A great luminary of typography in conversation

Hermann Zapf (1918–2015) was beyond question one of the most influential and worldwide most respected typographers of all time. He has designed over 200 typefaces in the course of his career; innumerable distinctions and honours followed him through life. In one of his last interviews, Hermann Zapf talked to our correspondent Herbert Lechner.

Hermann Zapf mit seiner Frau Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse
Hermann Zapf mit seiner Frau Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse


These last 90 years have been an exceptionally disturbed and disturbing era, full of new departures and revolutions – particularly so in the creative industries. What do you see as having been the most significant milestones? What has had the greatest impact on artists and designers?

Hermann Zapf: The invention of the computer. As a machine it had me enthralled from the start, though there were plenty who eyed the thing up very dubiously at first. I was very soon thinking about how it could take much of the hard toil out of designing and developing typefaces.

In retrospect, what were the most important creative events and developments for you personally over the last few decades?

Hermann Zapf: I think the really fundamental thing was digitalisation. In typography, in music, in everything we have around us. It led to a further great dispersion of knowledge. You can see that every time you use the internet – how quick and easy it is to get information, and also how using different typefaces is a matter of course now for everyone, worldwide.

Hermann Zapf Optima-Nova


Among artists and designers, who were most important in your life? Who influenced you in a lasting way?

Hermann Zapf: Most of all, that would be Rudolf Koch, and the infinite pains and patience he devoted to writing and typeface design.

And which innovation or fashion of these last decades in particular do you think we would have been better without?

Hermann Zapf: The practice of copying typefaces. It has become so easy to copy a typeface, or failing that you can use the data from an existing one to make a new one without much effort. But where’s the creativity in that?

The quantum leaps in technology have probably had most impact of all on typographical development. You were among the first people to get into photocompos?ition and digitalisation – and you saw the potential, but also the challenges. What, in your eyes, was the most important single step here?

Hermann Zapf: For me, creating Zapfino was a big thing: the discovery that my handwriting with all its different outlines could be reproduced on the computer in a flowing, constantly changing »hand« really was, I think, a major milestone. My next development along these lines was Zapfino Ink, in which the letters have individual colour gradations, so that the text looks as if it has been written in ink with a fountain pen, because in a pen the ink flow is not constant. On this one we are technically still not quite there, but that too will be sorted quite soon.

Hermann Zapf Persian


Your typefaces are ageless, in the best sense. They have proved their worth irrespective of the rise and fall of typographical trends and fashions, they are compatible with any technology, and their potential is still being further explored. What do you think might explain that success?

Hermann Zapf: In my first-draft typefaces I have always stuck close to the proportions used in the classic faces like Garamond or Kis. These suit people’s reading habits; also, I felt it was important that the typeface didn’t overdo the curlicues, and so I was always working on familiar ground as a designer, even when I tackled new design forms like the superellipse in Melior.

On the basis of all your experience: where, today, do you see the richest creative potential for the future?

Hermann Zapf: I believe that the process of digitalising our world will continue, and that applications in every field will become even easier to handle. It could well happen that in advertising on mobile devices the typeface will no longer be a permanent component of the image, difficult to change, but will be on top of the picture, like in web fonts, enab?ling readout to be personalised.

Interview: Herbert Lechner

This interview was first publish in our jubilee issue novum 06.14. In there nine famous designers talked about nine centuries of graphic design. Single copies of this collector’s edition are available here:


You will find more interviews of this series here: