The legendary font designer Hermann Zapf died last week at the age of 96. Many users of his most ubiquitous font, Zapf Dingbats, probably thought Zapf was a nonsense word: after all, Dingbats certainly is. The “diamond flower” symbol used as an ornament in Legenda’s chapter headings is lower case “v” in the Zapf Dingbats font:


(The rest of the typography here uses regular, italic and semibold weights of Bembo MT Pro, named after Pietro Bembo, an Italian Renaissance author.)

“Dingbat” is an American coinage going back to 1838, according to the OED, which helpfully defines it as “= THINGUMMY (cf. DINGUS)”. It entered use in typography at least as early as 1921, when Hyde’s Handbook for Newspaper Workers gave the definition: “Dingbats, heavy, wavy pieces of cut-off rule sometimes used beneath banner headlines. Also applies to any ornament.” Zapf was three in 1921, so he and the word most often put after his name were about of an age.

A hopeless soldier, Zapf spent the second world war as a cartographer (in spite of being dismissed from the artillery for confusing right and left), and it was only in the 1940s and 1950s that he rose to prominence. But the computer age made him an immortal, when his 1948 font Palatino was shipped free with laser printers and Macintoshes in the 1980s. Zapf is also survived by Optima, Euler and a dozen others.

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