His boundless knowledge, spirit, and enthusiasm riled up scores of designers to create literally thousands of fonts of hundreds of typefaces.
This tribute serves to honor Mike’s indelible imprint on the type industry as we know it today.
His career has spanned the great constellation of changes that have occurred during our typographic lifetimes—from his degrees at Yale University and the cataloging of type artifacts at the Plantin-Moretus Museum, to his leadership at Mergenthaler Linotype Company, to the co-founding of Bitstream, and finally on to his work with Font Bureau. His boundless knowledge, spirit, and enthusiasm riled up scores of designers to create literally thousands of fonts of hundreds of typefaces.
Mike Parker—on behalf of all those whose lives you have touched, we salute you and thank you for keeping it all going.
Mike Parker brought type and typography into the digital era. As Director of Typographic Development at Mergenthaler Linotype Company from 1959 to 1981 he changed the typographic world forever.
He managed an extensive and classic hot-metal library and presided over its conversion to photographic typesetting, CRT typesetting, and laser typesetting. He organized the five worldwide members of the Linotype Group to develop and improve the standard type library of all time.
He was a type historian: At the famed Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp—the largest physical manifestation of printing history anywhere, of any period—he cataloged hundreds of 16th-century foundry punches, matrices, and molds. He was a type “app developer”: He co-founded Pages Software based on his patent for software that provided flexible design solutions for documents published for reading on screen or paper.
He was a type designer: He influenced hundreds of type designers and their designs and worked on his own Starling, the true predecessor to Times New Roman.
He was a typographic pioneer: Along with Cherie Cone, Matthew Carter, and Rob Friedman, he created Bitstream and made type independent of output technology. Mike Parker helped to advance digital design and production, desktop publishing, and personal computer use and made them all virtually universal.
Throughout his career, Parker oversaw the development and production of literally thousands of fonts. Working with designers like Matthew Carter, he acted less as a boss, demanding how things should be, and more as an equal collaborator, offering assistance and feedback. Parker was also responsible for identifying styles that had potential for success and bringing them to larger audiences, as he did when he worked out the deal to bring Helvetica to the United States.
Below are a just a few examples of some of the typefaces that Mike played a role in bringing to the world.
When I was a boy I used to read my grandfather’s copies of Reader’s Digest, kept neatly on the shelves in the garage. In those days there was a regular article called “The most unforgettable person I’ve ever met”, always a good read. My choice of subject would be easy; the hard part would be knowing where to begin. A few highlights at random:
Waking up after a long car ride from Idlewild airport to the Massachusetts-Vermont border on my first day in the U.S. and seeing the aurora borealis in the sky and kerosene lamps in Mike’s country house (I had been expecting the bright lights of Broadway). Mike driving a rental car down a long flight of steps in Basel to the horror of passersby (a shortcut; we were late leaving for the airport—typical!). Eating a wonderful dinner of Dover sole in a seaside restaurant in Ostend and then ordering the entire meal over again (you don’t find real Dover sole in the U.S.). Other escapades, such as liberating the heavy stone doorstep of a house in Brooklyn, afterwards discovered to have been Walt Whitman’s, and transporting it to Mike’s backyard to make an outdoor table, are anecdotes I’ve heard repeated so often that I seem to remember the legendary event although I wasn’t actually there. I could go on.
And then there was the work we did. When I signed on at Mergenthaler in 1965, type was designed by “letter drawers” who were essentially factory hands working under two layers of strict supervision. The evolution from that lowly status to a separate design office outside the company, to the less formal practice at Bitstream, and to the even more enlightened system at the Font Bureau (and similar companies) where designers work largely independently and are responsible for all aspects of the job is an evolution that is perhaps taken for granted but that I consider to be Mike’s achievement as presiding genius of the industry. Mike’s passion for type is matched only by his passion for doing things the right way; and that, in the end, is why I and so many others owe him so much.
I met Mike Parker in 1976, and going to work for him at Mergenthaler Linotype changed my life forever. One didn’t work for Mike so much as work with him, and it was incredibly exciting to see him in action. He was strong-minded, intellectually fascinating, and frankly, relentless.
We had a great working relationship, and in the course of our many adventures, he gave me an MBA in twelve simple words: “Follow through and check it out to see that it is done”. It didn’t matter what it was, or if it was remotely related to one’s job. If there was a need, fill it. If something wasn’t getting done, do it. If the object of the game was to move the company forward, then no task was beneath any of us. I watched and learned, and to this day, I’m better for having worked alongside Mike. I’ve seen him get coffee and a sandwich for a designer who’d been working nonstop for hours. I’ve seen him single-handedly save a multimillion-dollar sale to a critical customer. And I’ve seen him do everything in between.
So deceptively simple: Follow through and check it out to see that it is done. I’ll never forget those amazing words, and I’ll never forget the honor and challenge of working with Mike Parker.
Mike Parker defined the role of type development director in our time, as Morris Fuller Benton had a hundred years before, or Stanley Morison in the 1920s, or Chauncey Griffith in the ’40s.
This job was an early example of what we now call director of product design—part artist, part businessman, part politician. Benton used new type-founding machinery to make more and better fonts, precisely and quickly. Morrison harnessed scholarship to create a library of fine typefaces that spanned a civilization. Griffith, essentially an industrialist, turned out products globally for millions of end-customers.
Mike, following in each set of footsteps, pushed the change from mechanical type to film . . . to digital, and came out the other side as a winner. Without his leadership, without his effort to put the control of type into hands of designers, the modern type design profession and the culture that has grown up around it might have happened anyway. But not so well. Or with so much fun.
He is an essential link between 500 years of mechanical type and the digital era. Without him, much would have been lost. And by joining Font Bureau toward the end of his career, Mike insured that this connection between type history and present-day technology lives on in a new generation of type designers, one that can use all those lessons learned on Vrijdagmarkt in Antwerp, Ryerson Street in Brooklyn, and First Street in Cambridge.
I’ve had the extraordinary good fortune to count Mike Parker as both mentor and colleague. Not many people can talk about Van den Keere or Benton as if they were old pals from back when, or teach a Smithsonian curator about his own collection, or sense the most subtle personality of a letterform. If it weren’t for the quick laugh and easy chatter, he’d probably be too intimidating to be a teacher. It would be too hard to keep pace with that omnivorous intellect. But luckily for us, he’s a charmer, and I can’t think of him any other way.
In 1904 William Starling Burgess, Boston racing sailor, designed his second type. Six years later, now the Wright Brothers’ partner, Starling quit type, returning the drawings to Monotype. Frank Pierpont collected the nameless roman for British Monotype, passing it to Stanley Morison in 1932 for the London Times. Mike Parker found the original superior, and prepared this Starling series for Font Bureau, who found it to be “the right stuff” and published it in 2009.
Back when I worked at the Font Bureau, Mike would call for periodic chats/type history lessons. I’ve never met anyone who can tell a story quite like Mike can—each punch line is not the end, but rather the setup for another punch line to come. I will admit that I lied to Mike a few times when he asked, “Have I ever told you the real story behind Times New Roman?” just because I wanted to hear the story again.
|1929||Born May 1 in London to Russell Johnston Parker and Mildred Grace Best Parker.|
|1942||Moved to America.|
|1949||Father killed by bomber on a passenger airplane.|
|1951||Received BA in Architecture from Yale University.|
|1952–1954||Served with the United States Army in Korea as Executive Officer of an Engineer Combat Company.|
|1956||Received MFA from Yale’s School of Graphic Design, led by Alvin Eisenman|
|1957–1959||Organized and cataloged historical typefounding materials at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp under a grant he received with help and encouragement from Alvin Eisenman, Ray Nash, and Harry Carter.|
|1959||Joined the Mergenthaler Linotype Company as assistant to Jackson Burke.|
|1963–1981||As Director of Typographic Development at Mergenthaler Linotype, managed the expansion of the Linotype library from a collection of 150 American hot metal designs for text-setting to an inclusive library of nearly 1,500 international digital designs for full page setting. In this role, brought together internationally known typefaces (like Helvetica) and designers (like Matthew Carter, Adrain Frutiger, and Hermann Zapf) to build a library that became the standard of the industry.|
|1981||Left Linotype with Matthew Carter, Cherie Cone, and Rob Friedman to found Bitstream Inc., the world’s first independent digital type foundry.|
|1987||Founded The Company to market the fonts and software of Dr. Peter Karow while developing a fast and intelligent rasterizer, Nimbus Q.|
|1990||Founded Pages Software, Inc. with Victor Spindler to develop a powerful word processing and page layout application on Steve Jobs’ NeXT computer platform. The Pages software was in the beta stage of development when the NeXT Computer and the NeXTSTEP platform were discontinued.|
|1994||Published evidence that the design of Times New Roman, previously credited to Stanley Morison in 1931, was based on Starling Burgess’ 1904 drawings for the Lanston Monotype Company.|
|1995||Licensed the Pages patent to Design Intelligence, Inc. and joined the company as an in-house consultant.|
|2000–2014||Worked as consultant, type designer, and type historian at Font Bureau.|
|2006||Signed a settlement with Apple over use of the Pages patent.|
|2007||Interviewed for the documentary film, Helvetica, about the typeface’s design and his role in bringing it to an international audience.|
|2009||Released the Starling type family with Font Bureau.|
|2011||Awarded the TDC Medal from The Type Designers Club of New York.|
|2012||Received the SoTA Typography Award from the Society of Typographic Aficionados.|