Mike Parker, a life dedicated to typography

The talented typographer, whose name is associated with the Helvetica font, one of the most used in the world today, Mike Parker died in Portland (Maine) on February 23 at the age of 85 years old.

Born in London on May 1, 1929 Mike Russell Parker and his family moved to the United States in 1942. Seven years later, his father died in the explosion of an aircraft in which a man had placed a bomb to kill his wife. After studying architecture and graphic design at Yale University he moved to Belgium to work at the Plantin Moretus Museum in Antwerpen (Holland), which has the oldest printing presses. he was responsible for cataloguing documents related to typography such as boards of characters, sketches, breakages (characters pellets or wood), etc..

In 1959, Mike Parker finally joined the Mergenthaler Linotype Company, known for revolutionizing the typesetting technology, as Jackson Burke’s assistant, and within two years he was appointed Design Director. As Design Director Parker accomplished the expansion of the Linotype library from a collection of 150 American hot metal designs for text-setting to an inclusive library of nearly 1,100 international digital designs for full page setting.

Helvetica Simplified and Enriched

Being originally from the UK and having worked in Belgium, it comes only naturally that Parker looked for inspiration in Europe. He particularly liked the new Swiss style of letter design, in which, Parker said, “you draw the counters and let the black fall where it will.” Parker soon discovered Neue Haas Grotesk, a sans-serif typeface created in 1957 by the Swiss designers Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman of the Haas Type Foundry. There was only one little problem: Neue Haas Grotesk wasn’t designed to be used in a Mergenthaler Linotype hot metal typesetting machine. Therefore, Parker and his team began reworking Haas’s original drawings to adapt them to Linotype’s machines. The design had, indeed, to be significantly altered for the limitations of the Linotype machine. Soon after that, he also enriched the family with Hebrew and Greek scripts.

Indra Kupferschmid mentions:
“The Linotype machine casts one line of type at a time from a row of individual molds, or “matrices”. One matrix can be used to cast two forms of the same character: usually either regular and italic, or regular and bold. As such, both forms have to be exactly the same width. This “duplexing” inevitably leads to compromises: italics often appear to be too wide, bold styles too narrow.
Helvetica was created for the Linotype by refitting all styles of Neue Haas Grotesk, making the regular weight looser and the medium weight more dense. The italic (technically an oblique) was completely redrawn by Stempel, and the medium weight was made slightly bolder. Also, the size of each glyph had to be slightly reduced to accommodate uppercase accents.”

The modified design eventually became known as Helvetica, as the name was considered more commercial than Neue Haas Grotesk for the international market, and especially for the U.S.

Brochure Helvetica/Neue Haas Grotesk, 1963. Designs by Hans Neuburg and Nelly Rudin

In the years to come Helvetica becomes a standard typographic symbol of modernity, one to be found everywhere, from magazines to books, and from signs in the New York subway, to the base of countless brand logos and companies (Microsoft, Toyota, Jeep, American Apparel, etc..) or pre-installed on almost every computers… even on the Internet as default. It’s true that Helvetica was so ubiquitous, that someone can argue it barely says anything any more. Not to mention that many of the qualities Helvetica was once associated with aren’t quite as appealing anymore: corporate dominance, machine-like indifference, bland conformity, etc. It’s since the mid-2000s that Helvetica has become again a cult subject among many web designers.

The ultimate accolade: MoMa, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City organizes from April 2007 to March 2008 a major exhibition dedicated to the “50 Years of Helvetica”. The film by the independent filmmaker Gary Hustwit that was projected on this occasion was simply entitled Helvetica. It’s undoubtedly the first that a font acquires the status of a cultural symbol.

The Intuition of Change

His contribution to Linotype doesn’t end with the invention of the most celebrated font. After Helvetica, Parker has created more than a thousand fonts on behalf of the Linotype (legend has it that the exact number is 1100, who knows…) for over two decades. He would also occasionally use the support of some other internationally known designers such as Matthew Carter, Adrian Frutiger or Herman Zapf. But more importantly, he introduced an organization of shared typeface development between the five separate companies in the Linotype Group worldwide.

But Parker is not only an avid typographer. He is also somehow a visionary who has the intuition of change in the field of graphic arts. In the late 1970s, with the advent of phototypesetting, he understood that the time for heavy systems such as Linotype is over, and that typography must be reconceived and remarketed. In 1981 he co-founded with Matthew Carter, Bitstream, the first font company based purely on digital technology. He is also responsible for creating the site MyFonts (in 2000), the first online marketplace for digital fonts.

Apart from a catalogue of “classic” typography, available for the first time in digital format (often presented under different names for licensing reasons), Bitstream also offered original creations. Among them the Swiss 721 BT, which is actually a clone of Helvetica enriched with a condensed and a rounded version.

But Parker is not only an avid typographer. He is also somehow a visionary who has the intuition of change in the field of graphic arts.

In the 90s, the early days of the personal computer, Parker launched Pages Software a company that produced software for word processing on Steve Jobs NeXT Computer platform, which provided the writer with powerful graphic support. This collaboration didn’t last long as NeXT reached only the beta stage. Probably it’s not a coincidence that in 1997, when Steve Jobs came back to Apple he named Apple’s new word processor Pages. Upon the closing of Pages Software in 1995, Parker licensed the Pages patent to Design Intelligence in Seattle and joined the company as an in-house consultant. In 2000, Design Intelligence was bought by Microsoft.

The Revival of Type Design

Finally in 2000, Parker was hired as a consultant by the digital foundry Font Bureau created by Roger Black and David Berlow, one of his former colleagues in Linotype. Berlow knew well that Parker was as much of a scholar of type history as someone who was aware that type design is part of an ongoing evolutionary process. So, Parker became at the same time a type historian and creative director of Font Bureau.

Cyrus Highsmith mentions:
“Part of Font Bureau’s release process at that time was to send a specimen of the new typeface to Mike. Then he would write the 60–70 word blurb about it for the specimen page. It was marketing. We called them the font bios. It was through this process, that I got to know Mike.
After I sent him a specimen of my typeface, he would call me at the office or at home so we could talk about it. And we’d talk for hours. And thanks to these conversations, I learned about ideas in my work I didn’t know I had, how my typeface fit into typographic history, how it fit into the future. Mike took my work seriously in a way that no one else did.”

Through his collaboration with Font Bureau Parker participated in the revival of typographic design of the mid 90s and early 2000s that came with the boom of personal computers in the graphic arts.

From Times New Roman To Starling

Font Bureau Starling Typeface

After a lifetime spent organizing, coaching and producing typographic creations for “others”, the collaboration with Font Bureau finally gave him the opportunity to release Starling, on which he devoted several years of intensive work.

Starling is a Roman font with a matching italic series based on the 1904 original design of William Starling Burgess for the unreleased Font №54, a project for Monotype, that as Parker argued, it had served as the basis for the design of Times New Roman (the font for the London Times), credited up to then to Stanley Morison.

Considering Starling Burgess version far superior than Morison’s — he accused the latter of plagiarism — Parker decided to return to the original spirit of the design of the font and develop the few sketches that William Starling Burgess had left behind before giving up typography to pursue naval architecture. The Final Cut.

New York City metro signage. Photo Marcin-Wichary, (license CC by)

Notabene — Originaly published by “Typorn” greek online magazine dedicated to the glorification of typographic design & culture.

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