The Influence of the Modernist Typography of Herman Zapf on Modern Typography


At the end of the World War Two, Designers and Artists had began to discover new design techniques starting from the ground up. Hermann Zapf became a major influence in typography and was one of the pioneers of typography in the digital age.

In this essay it will be explained how some of the Modernist rules were implemented to lay the foundation for Hermann’s style of typography and also compare his style with another typographer of the similar style from the same era.

The influence of Hermann’s work with companies to design graphics that were inspired by and eventually evolved into the current day Emoji.

Modernist typography began as a result of a decision to reject the ideas and traditions set out by typographers before. Typography in the past had been utilised in the necessity in which it was both manufactured and produced. The process of printing manuscripts right up to mass production using the printing press had used the same principals as it was needed to create the fonts. In other words: the tools in which the designs were made from coincided with the style of typographic images being made.

After the First World War, the mechanical age was growing and new techniques for production were being introduced and implemented. In Europe, places like the Bauhaus a German art school, like-minded masters of design were educating students about this new design philosophy, but during the war, Adolf Hitler’s German party were suspicious of any rebellious ideas as it may have been considered in opposition to their leadership, By the end of the war, many artists and designers had fled from the conflict to other parts of Europe and had continued their work and had proposed a new philosophy of rejecting old traditions in favour of a simplified non-ornate style as well as creating a universal style than can be appreciated by everyone.

One of the ideas was to design with the emphasis on functionality rather than unnecessary embellishments and the design’s usefulness equal to its beauty.

Many modernist type designers and typographers who took this approach, believed that the old tradition of using serifs for type was also not necessary as it was functional in its time, but it was not needed visually to convey the information.

Hermann Zapf was born in Germany in 1918 and died in 2015. Hermann was a typographical designer and calligrapher. “The reputation of Hermann Zapf in twentieth-century graphic design is that of an enlightened traditionalist, interested in working with the historical foundations of typography but also ready to adapt designs for use with new technologies”

Hermann Zapf

Hermann designed many typefaces including Optima, Palatino, Fapfino, Chancery and Dingbats as well as many more. Hermann adapted both traditional and modernist approaches to his typefaces. He was self-taught, and around 1938 Hermann he started studying the manuals of Rudolf Koch and Edward Johnston. In 1938 he worked in Rudolf’s son Paul’s workshop learning punchcutting and other techniques of fine printing.

Hermann as a traditionalist designer, also wanted to incorporate modernist principals created typefaces using both serif and sans-serif typefaces. With Hermann’s Optima font family, it can be called a san serif typeface, but it should described as be a serifless roman instead. According to the website “True to its Roman heritage, Optima has wide, full-bodied characters – especially in the capitals. Only the E, F and L deviate with narrow forms. Consistent with other Zapf designs, the cap S in Optima appears slightly top-heavy with a slight tilt to the right. The M is splayed, and the N, like a serif design, has light vertical strokes. The lowercase a and g in Optima are high-legibility two-storied designs.”


The features of Optima share their roots with calligraphic seriffed types. “It can generally be described as a humanist san serif, although its italic variant is more typical of a realist face such as Helvetica, as it is in essence a sloped roman rather that true italic”

Each of these techniques aided Hermann in his designs, from his calligraphic writing styles ” He recently worked with David Siegel, Apple, and Linotype to create Zapfino, a font of his calligraphic handwriting; special features enable it to adapt itself to the text it is displaying.”


Some modernists wanted to create typefaces that would be simple and legible therefore easy to understand. These include text, display and decorative typefaces. To make an image work well depends on the mixture of these typefaces and how they interact with each other. Hermann designed a typeface called Zapf Dingbats a collection of these characters is called a pi font. “The word comes from an old hand typesetter’s expression, in which to “pi” type was to spill a large quantity of type into a heap, such as pulling out a type drawer too far and dumping its contents. A pi font, then, was one made up of an assortment of possibly unrelated odds and ends.”

ITC Zapf Dingbats Regular

The most common use for these characters is for highlighting such as bullet points  named after the character for a bullet) “In a bulleted list, the bullet should be followed by a space: either a word space, a thin space, or an en space. Bullets are often used with hanging indents.”

Since a font family may not include a character that is wanted, other characters can be substituted, although the character may have a different baseline, weight or size so the character may have to be adjusted to fit. Unlike traditional typefaces, pi fonts were not designed in tilted forms in the same way a typeface can be designed with an italic typeface.

The influence of these characters when set at a very large size can be lost when placed in contrast to the information that is being portrayed. The main idea is to put across as much information as quick as possible without over saturating the desired effect that is desired. The hierarchy of importance must be followed as in all font sizes to dictate the importance of each piece of information.

The Modernist idea to simplify the type down to geometric shapes may have been an important step for the designers, yet Hermann did not completely abandon the traditional way of designing. Another designer who began his career similarly in stylised handwriting was swiss born Adrian Frutiger. His inclusions to typography were the typefaces Univers and Frutiger. In keeping with the modernist ideas, the functionality of the Univers typeface was designed by Frutiger with visibility in mind. “During early 1970s, upon the request of the public transport authority of Paris, Frutiger inspected the Paris Metro signage. Moreover, he recreated Univers typeface in a variant font. It was a set of capitals and numbers designed for white-on-dark-blue backgrounds visible especially under poor lighting.”

Univers by Adrian Frutiger

A side by side comparison of some of Adrian Frutiger’s Univers and Hermann Zapf’s Optima

Hermann’s Optima type does not adhere to a uniform baseline as it shows on the letter J which descends below the baseline in comparison to the letter Q which stay on the baseline in the Univers typeface. The thickness of the strokes of the Univers typeface are equal in size whereas the stokes of Optima have an influence of roman style and showing Zapf’s skills with calligraphic types.

How Dingbats paved the way for currents graphic designs such as emojis

Creator of Dingbats Hermann would be considered a pioneer of the digital age when it comes to typography. Rob Alderson wrote: “…it's Zapf's Dingbats that may have had the biggest impact on modern communication, as this collection of scissors and stars, squares and pointing hands, formed the basis for Unicode's symbols, which in turn paved the way for the now-ubiquitous emoji. The combination of design talent and lasting impact led Jerry Kelly to compare Zapf to Michelangelo and Beethoven in the New York Times' obituary.”

The inclusion of the Dingbats typeface to early computers a made it possible to include graphics in with text. Dingbats as a graphic can be considered the precursor to the modern Emoji. However, Hermann was modest about this accolade as he only mentioned it in merit once in his biography for Linotype. Hermann wrote: “We eventually agreed on 4 alphabets, throwing some letters out and adding a few new ones. At the end we still had to include 100 ornaments, pen flourishes, index characters, etc. Index characters are usually black hands, but Zapfino has ladies’ hands as pointers. This is not a concession to women’s lib on my part. I think I used such symbols for the first time ever in Zapf Dingbats which I designed for the International Typeface Corporation in New York in 1973.

A collection of Open Source Emojis

Early on when mobile phones were in their infancy but starting to gain popularity, there was an issue with limits to how many words could be sent as a message due to functionality but also to cost. Because of this, characters on the screen were utilised in such a way that the first emoticons (emotion icons) were made. An example would be a semi-colon or colon followed by a dash and an open or closed bracket when put together if turned on their side can resemble a happy or sad face or with the semi-colon a face winking, depending on the way they were arranged 😉

A Japanese internet company designed a set of emojis that would be used by mobile carriers. Unfortunately, these were not compatible with other carriers so were not universally welcome. These characters are very basic as clarity and resolution and also digital technology could only allow limited digital information to be sent at the time. Some of the characters are similar to Hermann’s Dingbats but at a lower resolution.

Original collection of 176 emojis designed for i-mode

In a push to create a universal standard for emojis, Google applied to have all emojis conform to a universal standard, The Unicode Consortium agreed and all emojis create can be universally recognised when sent form any digital device to another.

One of the main benefits of the emoji is they are helpful for creating shorthand messages and conveying a short and to the point message. As of 2018 there are 157 emojis. New emojis are introduced with evolving trends and, if a demand for a symbol or gesture becomes popular it may become necessary to included them as well. Emojis introduced by Google, Apple and Microsoft recently.

To Conclude

Modernist designers aimed to regulate their style and to appeal to people on a universal scale, by stripping back their ideas and starting from the beginning with the end user as the main focal point and catering to their needs.

Hermann Zapf, although he had a grounding in traditional styles, working with script and the influences of old Roman typefaces and his brilliant work in calligraphy, he always was associated with new technology and also was willing to try different approaches to his work.

The influences of Hermann’s typefaces not only paved the way for the universally known emoji but he also had a part in the re-emergence on script and calligraphic typefaces as well using new technology to adapt his typeface Zapfino to work.

Having the intellect to adapt to both modernist ideas as well as incorporating old styles to create something that was still radical shows how much Zapf’s contribution impacted modernist typography as well as introduced the concept of post modernists to pick and choose design ideas that benefit the most to produce the style needed.

As part of the Modernist principals having a design that is simple and effective and universally appreciated, Hermann’s inspiration and contributions are continuing to be felt today.


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07 July 2022
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