Zapf's work has suffered the two-edged sword of veneration, as his designs, which include Palatino and Optima, have been widely admired yet perhaps the most egregiously plagiarized of the twentieth century. The best known example may be Monotype's Book Antiqua, which shipped with Microsoft Office and was widely considered a "knockoff" of Palatino. In 1993, Zapf resigned from ATypI (Association Typographique Internationale) over what he viewed as its hypocritical attitude toward unauthorized copying by prominent ATypI members.
Zapf left school in 1933 with the ambition to pursue a career in electrical engineering. Unfortunately, his father had become unemployed. Zapf's father experienced trouble with the newly established Third Reich, having been involved with trade unions, and was sent to the Dachau concentration camp for a short time.
In 1935, Zapf attended an exhibition in Nuremberg in honor of the late typographer Rudolf Koch. This exhibition gave him his first interest in lettering. Zapf bought two books there, using them to teach himself calligraphy. He also studied examples of calligraphy in the Nuremberg city library. Soon, his master noticed his expertise in calligraphy, and Zapf's work shifted to lettering retouching and improvement of his colleagues' retouching work.
Through print historian Gustav Mori, Zapf came into contact with the type foundries D. Stempel AG and Linotype GmbH of Frankfurt. In 1938, he designed his first printed typeface for them, a fraktur type called Gilgengart.
World War II broke out in September, and Zapf's unit was to be taken into the Wehrmacht. However, due to his heart trouble, Zapf was not transferred to the Wehrmacht but was instead dismissed. But on April 1, 1942, he was summoned again for the war effort. Zapf had been chosen for the Luftwaffe, but instead was sent to the artillery in Weimar. He did not perform well, confusing left and right during training and being too cautious and clumsy with his gun. His officers soon brought a premature end to his career in the artillery.
Zapf was sent back to the office, and then to Jüterbog to train as a cartographer. After that, he went to Dijon and then Bordeaux, joining the staff of the First Army. In the cartography unit at Bordeaux, Zapf drew maps of Spain, especially the railway system, which could have been used to transport artillery had Francisco Franco not used narrow-gauge tracks to repair bridges after the Spanish Civil War. Zapf was happy in the cartography unit. His eyesight was so excellent that he could write letters 1 millimeter in size without using a magnifying glass, and this skill probably prevented him from being commissioned back into the army.
After the war had ended, Zapf was held by the French as a prisoner of war at a field hospital in Tübingen. He was treated with respect because of his artwork and, due to his poor health, was sent home only four weeks after the end of the war. He went back to Nuremberg, which had suffered great damage because of the air raids.
One of Zapf's products was a publication named "Feder und Stichel" ("Pen and Graver"), printed from metal plates designed by Zapf and cut by punch cutter August Rosenberger during the war. It was printed at the Stempel printshop in 1949.
From 1948 to 1950, Zapf taught calligraphy at the Arts and Crafts School in Offenbach, giving lettering lessons twice a week to two classes of graphics students. In 1951 he married Gudrun von Hesse, who taught at the school of Städel in Frankfurt.
Most of Zapf's work as a graphic artist was in book design. He worked for various publishing houses, including Suhrkamp Verlag, Insel Verlag, Büchergilde Gutenberg, Hanser Verlag, Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, and Verlag Philipp von Zabern.
Zapf was not given many jobs in calligraphy. The largest one was writing out the Preamble to the United Nations Charter in four languages, commissioned by the Pierpont Morgan Library in 1960 for $1000.
Because Zapf's plans for the United States had come to nothing, and because his house in Frankfurt had become too small, Zapf and his wife moved to Darmstadt in 1972.
In 1976, the Rochester Institute of Technology offered Zapf a professorship in typographic computer programming, the first of its type in the world. He taught there from 1977 to 1987, flying between Darmstadt and Rochester. There he developed his ideas further, with the help of his connections in companies such as IBM and Xerox, and his discussions with the computer specialists at Rochester. A number of Zapf's students from this time at RIT went on to become influential type designers, including Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes, who together created the Lucida type family. Other prominent students include calligrapher/font designer Julian Waters and book designer Jerry Kelly. Julian Waters was Zapf's choice to succeed him in teaching the calligraphy masterclasses at RIT, starting in 1988.
In 1977, Zapf and his friends Aaron Burns and Herb Lubalin founded a company called "Design Processing International, Inc." in New York and developed typographical computer software. It existed until 1986 with the death of Lubalin, and Zapf and Burns founded "Zapf, Burns & Company" in 1987. Burns, also an expert in typeface design and in typography, was in charge of marketing until his death in 1992. Shortly before, two of their employees had stolen Zapf's ideas and founded a company of their own.
Zapf knew that he could not run an American company from Darmstadt, and did not want to move to New York. Instead, he used his experience to begin development of a typesetting program called the "hz-program", building on the H&J system in TeX, in conjunction with URW Software and Type GmbH in Hamburg.
In 1983, Zapf had completed the typeface AMS Euler with Donald Knuth and David Siegel of Stanford University for the American Mathematical Society, a typeface for mathematical composition including fraktur and Greek letters. David Siegel had recently finished his studies at Stanford and was interested in entering the field of typography. He told Zapf his idea of making a typeface with a large number of glyph variations, and wanted to start with an example of Zapf's calligraphy, that was reproduced in a publication by the Society of Typographic Arts in Chicago.
Zapf was concerned that this was the wrong way to go, and while he was interested in creating a complicated program, he was worried about starting something new. However, Zapf remembered a page of calligraphy from his sketchbook from 1944, and considered the possibility of making a typeface from it. He had previously tried to create a calligraphic typeface for Stempel in 1948, but hot metal composition placed too many limits on the freedom of swash characters. Such a pleasing result could only be achieved using modern digital technology, and so Zapf and Siegel began work on the complicated software necessary. Siegel also hired Gino Lee, a programmer from Boston, Massachusetts, to help work on the project.
Unfortunately, just before the project was completed, Siegel wrote a letter to Zapf, saying that his girlfriend had left him, and that he had lost all interest in anything. Thus Siegel abandoned the project and started a new life, working on bringing color to Macintosh computers, and later becoming an Internet design expert.
Zapfino's development had become seriously delayed, until Zapf found the courage to present the project to Linotype. They were prepared to complete it and reorganized the project. Zapf worked with Linotype to create four alphabets and various ornaments, flourishes, and other dingbats. Zapfino was released in 1998.
Later versions of Zapfino using the Apple Advanced Typography and OpenType technologies were able to make automatic ligatures and glyph substitutions (especially contextual ones in which the nature of ligatures and substituted glyphs is determined by other glyphs nearby or even in different words) that more accurately reflected the fluid and dynamic nature of Zapf's calligraphy.
August Rosenberger 1893–1980; A Tribute to one of the Greatest Masters of Punchcutting, an Art Now All but Extinct is Zapf's tribute to August Rosenberger through Zapf’s recollections of their collaboration both during and after World War II in Germany.
The World of Alphabets by Hermann Zapf; A Kaleidoscope of Drawings and Letterforms is a CD-ROM that illustrates Hermann Zapf's typographic designs.
Spend Your Alphabets Lavishly! * The work of Hermann & Gudrun Zapf is a collection of the works by Hermann and Gudrun Zapf.
Alphabet Stories: A Chronicle of Technical Developments by Hermann Zapf (Alphabetgeschichten in German edition) is a narrative encompasses Hermann Zapf's life and work from his childhood days in Nuremberg though to his newest typeface releases with Linotype GmbH. The first edition was published in 2007. Second edition was published in 2008, which added a 2-colour insert of letterpress-printed broadside designed by Zapf, typeset and printed at the RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection using Zapf's metal Virtuosa font.