The Legend of Type Designer and Typographer Mike Parker –
By Janelle Sullivan
On February 24, 2014, Mike Parker, the man, the legend, passed away. I am sure that many of you have never even heard of this man, but to me, Mike Parker fit the bill to be called a legend in his own time. If you are a type designer or typographer, you are well aware of this man’s work, even if you don’t realize it. I would like to take a few moments to pay tribute to this man.
Who was Mike Parker?
Born in London in 1929, Mike Parker was the son of a geologist. He hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he was colorblind, and this stood in the way of fulfilling his dream. He went to Yale and graduated with an architecture degree as well as a master’s degree in design. Fresh out of college, he became assistant and heir to the director of Mergenthaler Linotype Company. Parker’s job here was to establish a library of typefaces that customers could choose from. He did so much more: He developed in excess of 1,000 types to add to the library, and his success followed him. He discovered a type that had been designed but was unavailable for linotype. It was called Helvetica. In 1981, digital media was changing the face of printing, so Mike Parker moved with the times and co-founded Bitstream. This company was the first of its kind, offering digital typefaces that were licensed for use by everyone.
There is no doubt that you know the typeface called Helvetica. Street signs, advertisements, and even your federal tax forms are all printed using this style. It is widely recognized as being readable, thus making it a good choice for many print jobs. There is a good chance that your computer has Helvetica as a typeface choice. I bet that a few of you just checked to see if I was right, didn’t you? Because of his affinity for this typeface, Mike Parker is often referred to as the godfather of Helvetica. To others he was simply called “the font god.” Whatever you call him, typographers the world over share Parker’s enthusiasm for this typeface. They see the perfection in Helvetica that captured Mike’s attention. The following quote explains a bit about how he felt about his “godchild” typeface: “I mean, you can’t imagine anything moving; it is so firm. It is not a letter that bent to shape; it’s a letter that lives in a powerful matrix of surrounding space. It’s… oh, it’s brilliant when it’s done well.”
Thank you for letting me tell you a little bit about a man known to me through my role as a type designer and typographer. My hope is that now that you know who Mike Parker was, you will glance at a subway sign, somewhere, sometime, and think of him. Developing typefaces may not seem like important stuff to many people, but when he started his job, Parker was responsible for making sure that you could read your printed material. As his life progressed, he assured that you could find a style of your own when you were creating digital work. Thank you, Mr. Parker, for your amazing contributions to typography. May you rest in peace.