Hermann Zapf designed Zapf Dingbats, but he designed so much more as well – in fact he could really be described as the world's first font superstar, so much has his work shaped the appearance of our writing. In an era when the average person actually hand-writes fewer than 50 words per week, the calligraphy in our computers assumes enormous significance, dictating the appearance of books and newspapers, letters, signs, tickets, even examination papers – and of course the appearance of the computer screen itself. All Scottish school examination papers are printed in Palatino, one of Zapf’s most famous creations.
His personal story is as interesting as the work on typefaces. Born and raised in inter-war Germany, Zapf’s career ambition to be an engineer was thwarted because his father’s trade union activities were disapproved of by the Nazis; indeed Zapf senior was one of the first to be sent to a concentration camp (Dachau) after it opened in 1933. His own ambitions to become a high-quality printer were also dashed, but eventually one firm took him on as a calligrapher. A combination of ill-health and this skill as a calligrapher – the Germans needed specialists who could write in the Germanic script the Nazis wanted to encourage – helped Zapf stay out of the front line during the war.
Next time you want to send someone one of those online personalised cards, think of the skills involved in spacing the letters correctly as they type. And at the same time give three loud cheers for Hermann Zapf.