It was in 1935 that Zapf started on his course to becoming one of the 20th century’s most significant type designers and calligraphers by buying writing manuals of Rudolf Koch and Edward Johnston, and teaching himself. In 1938 he worked at the workshop of Paul Koch in Frankfurt, learning about punchcutting and other techniques of fine printing. He joined Stempel later that year, alongside the punchcutter August Rosenberger. He began to design type for them the next year. During World War II Zapf was a cartographer.
Zapf has designed some of the 20th century’s most important fonts, including Palatino and Optima. 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.