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038: ITC Zapf Chancery: An Incomplete History of Type

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Name: ITC Zapf Chancery

Release Date: 1979

Designer: Hermann Zapf

Classification: Script

Owned By: Linotype

Claim to Fame: The first and only calligraphic typeface shipped with the first Apple computers.

Steve Jobs hand-picked this typeface to represent calligraphic styling on the first Apple computers in the 1980’s. Designed by a former WWII cartographer turned type designer and professor, this typeface would be seen and used on millions of computers around the world for decades to come. Today we’re talking about ITC Zapf Chancery.

ITC Zapf Chancery was designed by contemporary German typographer Hermann Zapf. Hermann was born on November 8, 1918, three days before the official end of World War I. When Herman left school at the age of 15, he wanted to pursue a career in electrical engineering however the newly established Third Reich made it difficult to do so. Hermann had to find a new path for himself in the form of an apprenticeship. His teachers suggested that he become a lithographer because of his drawing skills, however he had trouble getting a job because of political questions that would be asked in interviews and so it was actually the very last company in the telephone directory (who didn't ask any political questions in the interview) that hired him to become a retoucher. And that was the start of his four year apprenticeship.

In 1935 Herman bought two books all about calligraphy and taught himself how to write in this classic style. To supplement his self-taught education in calligraphy, he studied examples at the city library where he lived in Nuremberg. During his apprenticeship his skill for calligraphy was noticed and his work shifted to retouching lettering as well as helping his colleagues improve their retouching abilities. I love this example of following your passions and continuous education can lead to something so much more than he could have ever imagined when he picked up those books for the first time. When he paid for the books, I’m certain he didn’t think to himself, “this is the first step to becoming one of the world’s greatest typographers. My calligraphic font will be seen by billions, on every new fangled technological gadget all over the world for possibly hundreds of years!” I love that that’s what sometimes happens when you follow your gut.

He was conscripted to war in 1939, but he developed heart trouble after hard labor so in a few weeks he was given a desk job. He moved around a fair bit during the war; each time sent out into the battlefield and each time his weak heart and clumsiness bringing him back to a desk with a pen in his hand. He ended up in the cartography unit (map making) and he was happy there. It's been said that his eyesight was so good that he could write letters that were 1 mm in height without using a magnifying glass.

After the war Herman taught calligraphy and began working at a type foundry as artistic head of their print shop. After the war, he also married fellow typographer and teacher, Gudrun Zapf von Hesse, who is also an acclaimed calligrapher, self-taught because she wasn’t satisfied with her calligraphy education. (I bet their wedding invitations were INCREDIBLE.) However, her primary role was not of a calligrapher, but a bookbinder.

Although Hermann is one of the world’s best modern typographers, most of his work was actually as a graphic artist designing books. His biggest project in calligraphy (before designing ITC Zapf Chancery) was in 1960 for a library in New York City, for which he received a grand total of… one thousand dollars.

Some other typefaces that are famously designed by Hermann include Palatino (designed in 1948) and Optima (designed in 1952). The typeface Optima is a very interesting design because Herman decided to create a happy medium between serif and sans serif font, so Optima is considered a flared sans serif face. It's also designed as a chameleon: to work for both headings as well as passages of text. It was designed as both a display typeface, as well as the text typeface.

Hermann was keen to explore computer typography for computer programs starting in the 1960s. In 1976, the Rochester Institute of technology RIT offered Hermann a professorship in typographic computer programming, which was a completely novel role. For 10 years (between 1977 and 1987) Hermann flew between Darmstadt, Germany and Rochester, New York to teach. (What a commute!) It's interesting to note that other influential type designers we're students of Hermann at RIT. For example, Chris Holmes and Charles Bigelow, together created the Lucida type family and Wingdings, which we’ll explore in a future episode.

Let’s circle back to our typeface of the day: ITC Zapf Chancery. The typeface was named ITC for International Typeface Corporation (a type manufacturer founded in 1970), Zapf (for obvious reasons) and Chancery was the English name for a Renaissance handwriting style that inspired early printing letterforms. The typeface, shared with the world in 1979, was originally designed as a family of 6: Light, Light Italic, Medium, Medium Italic, Demi, and Bold. It was selected as an Apple Mac OS font in the early 1980’s for the simple reason that Steve Jobs liked it. It was the only calligraphy-inspired typeface he selected. However, he only adopted one of the six family members: Medium Italic. Perhaps he chose it for it’s happy-medium qualities?

In the age of digital typography, Hermann grew more concerned about copyright infringements and outright copying of his typefaces. For good reason: enter Monotype’s Corsiva. This wasn't the first time that Monotype knocked off Herman's typefaces. Book Antiqua looks suspiciously similar to Palatino… Interestingly, the Zapf Chancery vs. Corsiva case actually went to trial, but the case concluded that Corsiva was a sufficiently different design.

But even years before his design and release of ITC Zapf Chancery, Herman took a break from designing typefaces for about 10 years until the 1970s because he was so frustrated with the knockoff typefaces coming out from competing brands. In 1974 Hermann addressed the Library of Congress Copyright Office in Washington DC and pleaded for greater protection. He argued that in the age of non-digital type it was costly and time-consuming to make copies of letters, but it wasn’t nearly as difficult in the digital age. Designer’s rarely won cases where they tried to protect their design and it was determined that an alphabet cannot be patented. The same still holds true today. In the US, an alphabet can still not be protected… kind of. The only way to protect an original design is to patent each individual character… in every width, weight and style. Some digital alphabets have nearly 600 glyphs (characters, numerals, punctuation marks, alternate characters…) that it would cost so much more to protect a typeface than the possible costs of it being cloned and used without consent.

Perhaps, then, it was a well-intentioned slap in the face (if there is such a thing) that to mark his wife’s 100th birthday in January 2018, Monotype Corporation released a typeface in her honour: Hesse-Antiqua. Gudrun designed this typeface in 1947. This typeface was designed to be gold-foil stamped onto leather casebound books.

Thank you Mr. Zapf (AND Ms. Zapf-von Hesse), for your important contributions to an incomplete history of type. From the middle ages to the Middle East, from Futura to Freight, thanks for joining us on a journey across the type universe and going where no designer has gone before… next up: parchments and scrolls and tablets, oh my! We’re moving forward into the history of type with PAPYRUS.

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