On June 4, 2015, the typographic world lost an iconic figure. Hermann Zapf died in Darmstadt, Germany, aged 96. As a type designer, calligrapher, author and teacher, Zapf was unique. His eye for harmony and detail was uncanny; his flexibility in designing for changing technologies exemplary. In a career spanning over seven decades, Zapf designed dozens of timeless classics, including the Palatino, Optima, and Zapfino typeface families — types that were modern yet true to tradition, and always elegant. He is survived by his widow, fellow type designer, calligrapher and bookbinder Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse, now 97. These past few weeks, we interviewed some of the people who knew him well — type designers who worked in close collaboration with a man they admired and loved.
Akira Kobayashi began his career as a type designer at Sha-Ken Co., Ltd. in Japan. In 1989, he traveled to London to study calligraphy and typography. On his return, he worked at Jiyu-Kobo, Ltd., and subsequently at TypeBank Co., Ltd., where he designed Latin typefaces to accompany the foundry’s digital Japanese fonts. Starting 1997 he worked as a freelance type designer, winning numerous international awards. In 2001 he moved to Germany to assume his present position at Linotype GmbH (now Monotype GmbH).
Hermann Zapf has been a key figure in your career as a type designer. While living and working in Japan, how did you come across him?
Back in the 1980s I was one of about two dozen designers in a Japanese phototypesetting machine manufacturer, where I was required to draw many kanji characters with a pointed brush every day. One day, feeling rather exhausted, I picked up a book from the bookshelf in the company’s design department. This was Hermann Zapf’s About Alphabets, a small book that changed my life completely.
I immersed myself completely in the beauty of his calligraphy and sketches. Since it was the first book I ever read in English, I had to use a dictionary every couple of lines. There were many things I learned from the book, but one thing which grabbed my attention is that he was a self-taught calligrapher and it took him a while to realize that he was holding his pen at the wrong angle — after all, Mr Zapf was also an ordinary man! I decided to follow in his footsteps. I left Japan for the first time in my life, and lived in London to experience the Western world first-hand. While there I studied Western calligraphy and read many books on typography and type design.
After returning to Japan in 1990, I started working as a freelance type designer. This time I was holding a mouse instead of a pointed brush, and developed original typefaces during my spare time. I was fortunate to win some awards. In 2000, at the prize-giving ceremony of the International Digital Type Design Contest in Mainz, I found myself on the stage, holding a first prize certificate. In my acceptance speech, I thanked Mr Zapf sitting in the jury’s seat and told the audience the story just mentioned above. So to me, the collaborative projects with Mr Zapf meant so much more than just redesigning typefaces.
Could you tell us a bit about your collaborations with Mr Zapf?
I joined Linotype in May 2001, and the Optima Nova project started a couple of weeks later. Following a short kickoff meeting at the office with Mr Zapf, we set to work by reviewing the digital version of the existing Linotype Optima. Our main communication method was by postal mail: we sent printed proofs to Mr Zapf and he wrote instructions on them and mailed them back to us. His instructions on them were very subtle — our printed letters were about ten centimetres high, and the differences from the old version were often less than half a millimetre.
One day, after a meeting I showed him how I work with type design software. He seemed impressed by the speed of the process. We all know that in the pre-digital era, type designers had to wait for weeks — or even months — to see the results of their work. From that moment on, Mr Zapf started to visit me almost every week, sometimes twice a week, and our collaborative work also brought significant changes to his approach to type design.
A typical collaboration day started at 8:30 am. Mr Zapf came to my office and sat next to me, looking at the computer screen and giving instructions. I made changes until he was satisfied with them. We usually worked until 5pm with no coffee break — he did not drink coffee and neither did I. Our lunch never lasted longer than twenty minutes; we simply loved working, and he was unstoppable. He was 83 at the time, but had the energy of a man in his middle age.
Any other memories that you would like to share?
During the Palatino Nova project, Linotype’s Otmar Hoefer asked Mr Zapf rather abruptly to design a new sans-serif. I remember Mr Zapf saying, without hesitation: “Warum nicht? (Why not?).” I was a bit surprised, but soon I understood his swift response. A few days later, he brought us photocopies of some sketches he had drawn in the past. The idea of Palatino Sans had been conceived in his mind several decades ago.
What were the most important things you learned from him? And did he learn from you?
One thing I learned from him was how to judge the quality of curves and letterforms. During the collaboration, Mr Zapf did not touch the computer; he gave me instructions in very subtle details — “Make this part slightly thinner,” or in a later stage‚ “Can you try to make this curve better?”. When I thought I knew how to make it better, showed him, and he nodded, that was proof that we had an understanding.
By looking at the same computer screen, we learned many things from each other. With my very basic explanation of the software, he understood quickly how to control Bézier curves, letterspacing, and even kerning. He also made drastic changes to letterforms or created spontaneously a handful of alternate glyphs and ligatures. He really enjoyed the new possibilities offered by the typographic environment in the 21st century.
Until his very last moment, he was eager to be involved in several projects, including Zapfino Arabic with Nadine Chahine. His passion for type design never stopped burning.