Hermann Zapf, the Genius Font Designer Behind Dingbats, Just Wanted to Make Reading Easier

The great German type expert died this week. His work lives on.

Hermann Zapf, the German font designer who died Sunday, believed his famous Zapf Dingbats font should be used sparingly. Though Zapf Dingbats, which broke big when Apple integrated it into 1986’s LaserWriter Plus, has long been popular among extremely amateur cryptographers, it was actually aimed at fontsetters and design professional looking to gussy up box frames using new Unicode systems. Zapf, who made his name with Palatino, envisioned a system of modular text illustration then created the emoji out of, more or less, full cloth.

ITC Zapf Dingbats, which was licensed by the International Typeface Corporation, included 360 symbols selected from the over 1000 that Zapf designed. Among those symbols were simplified and stylized versions of cultural memes (though they wouldn’t have been called that at the time). A hand making the peace symbol, a happy face, a cross, a Star of David, and a pair of scissors were included in the politically neutral mix along with an impressive array of stylized asterisks.

The typeface was used largely for notation until more user-friendly programs like Word arrived and kids started messing around (and playing with Wingdings, a playful Microsoft knockoff). Zapf was chill about his great invention being repurposed but he remained a purist, who believed in fonts’ ability to make everything more efficient.

“Typography is two-dimensional architecture, based on experience and imagination, and guided by rules and readability. And this is the purpose of typography: The arrangement of design elements within a given structure should allow the reader to easily focus on the message, without slowing down the speed of his reading.”

Granted, Dingbats made reading more efficient and pleasurable, but could be hell on typists. Here’s a look at the original keyboard commands.