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Words Into Type 

Jim Parkinson designs the letters that let you read

Wednesday, Nov 26 2003
"I like things that have letters on them," Jim Parkinson explains as he leads me into his studio, a sunlit space tucked into a top back corner of his Oakland home. Three walls of the room are covered – top to bottom, edge to edge – with posters, signs, notes, ads, newspaper headlines, sketches, magazine covers, certificates, and even metal letters. One small card is the diploma Parkinson's mother received for her penmanship; a photograph of legendary type designer Fred Goudy and his cat is signed "From 'Marmalade' and me."

Parkinson, an Oakland native who has lived in the Bay Area most of his life, created many of the logos we see on magazine newsstands and on the mastheads of newspapers today; his typefaces (not just the letters, but the space around them and their relationship to each other) can be seen on numerous book covers. He has designed the logos for dozens of publications, from Activa (a Spanish lifestyle mag) to the Wall Street Journal, the National Enquirer to the San Francisco Examiner (old and new), InStyle to Newsweek; a trio of his fonts – called Golden Gate, Motel, and Catchwords – graces the cover of the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Bay Area author Michael Chabon. Parkinson can barely recall all the places his work appears: "There's so much."

This is not to say that he's blasé about his accomplishments; Parkinson is modest, but not coy. One of the images on his wall is a cover from the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine, for which he designed the logo (and several typefaces) back when it was still based in San Francisco. The page's logo is marked up with black pen – a curlicue added here, a letter shape made funkier there – courtesy of Jann Wenner, the publication's founder. The final version (with some of Wenner's suggestions incorporated) is perhaps Parkinson's best-known creation, and is getting further life in a knockoff for the movie School of Rock (not to mention SF Weekly's "Rock Ninja!" cover of last week).

The irony of Parkinson's work – and that of every type designer, regardless of where his letters appear – is that it's so recognizable and yet so anonymous. It's an invisible art, in a sense. It may not be necessary to know the people behind the letters, but anybody who publishes would do well to think about how her points get across in print. Type designers put a human face on the ideas in our heads, provide a bridge from my brain into yours. As Robert Bringhurst writes in The Elements of Typographic Style, "If the book appears to be only a paper machine, produced at their own convenience by other machines, only machines will want to read it."

Whenever he travels, Parkinson takes photos of everyday items: manhole covers, street signs, words on buildings, billboards, architectural details, banners hanging from storefronts. The images sometimes show up in his fine art – the large-scale, retro, almost cartoony paintings he creates just for fun. (The spacious, elegant house he shares with his wife, Beth, is filled with his pieces and with even larger paintings of hers; she prefers softer palettes and subjects like pets and vegetables.) "Lettering always weaseled its way in" to all of his art, Parkinson says – from the cartoons he drew as a teenager in Richmond to the cards he created working for Hallmark in Kansas City in the '60s to the ads he designed when he moved back to Oakland at the end of the decade. "I think about letters more than reasonably healthy people should."

When he was a kid in Richmond, Parkinson lived next door to a fellow named Abraham Lincoln Paulsen – aka "Wizard Penman," "Paulsen the Pencilmaniac," and "World's Champion Gymnastic Penman." The lettering artist would perform at exhibitions, trade shows, and World's Fairs by drawing what appeared to be columns of numbers that, when spun upside down, would spell out a message (much as you can write "hello" by pressing "01134" on a calculator, only by hand and much more quickly). He'd paint what looked like Chinese calligraphy and turned out to be a person's name, and demonstrated many other feats. "When I was seven years old I would spend hours watching him work in his studio," Parkinson writes on his Web site ( "That was the beginning of my life-long love of lettering."

His father, an architect and artist who ended up working for the phone company after the Depression, didn't think Parkinson could make a living in art and encouraged him to go into accounting. Parkinson lasted not quite a semester at the University of Nevada. Back in the Bay Area, he ended up at what was then known as the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) in Oakland, studying fine art and advertising art. There were no classes in type design, so he taught himself how to do it.

Freelancing for anyone who'd take him, he did lettering on ads, record covers (the Doobie Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival), the bass drums of friends' bands, a banner for the "Grand Opening" of a Pizza Hut (for which he was paid with coupons for free pizza). At that time Parkinson – a handsome, trim man with once-shaggy but now thinning gray hair and a salt-and-pepper goatee – was "a hippie-artist wannabe." In a voice betraying the grit and twang of a guy who was once "deeply into drugs and alcohol," he explains that he "elbowed my way in" to the community of underground publications and art, with which he was more "karmically aligned" than an ad agency. He started doing spot art for Rolling Stone ("stupid little drawings"), and when famed art director Roger Black, now credited with helping to create the overall look of the magazine, needed a logo designer, a mutual friend recommended Parkinson. It was the start of a long, fruitful collaboration – and a successful career.

The fourth wall of Parkinson's studio is one big bookcase, filled mostly with specimen books – samples of the fonts sold by printers and foundries – to which he turns when he's looking for ideas. (The term "font" once referred to a block of lead letters those companies sold, but it's now interchangeable with "typeface.") When the people from InStyle magazine wanted him to create a hip, modern logo, for example, he based his effort on an alphabet from a type book published in 1896. They loved it.

For most of his career, Parkinson worked in pencil and pen on paper, drawing and redrawing letters; in 1990 he started using computer software (his favorites are Fontographer and FontLab), which is "just a pleasure, like a video game." For each typeface he must produce around 250 characters – not just the letters and numbers, but all the punctuation, the symbols for expressions like "greater than" and "percent," the foreign characters, the ligatures that connect two f's or an "a" to an "e."

When he's working for a client, he has to consider whether a particular title looks good in a particular font, whether it's readable, whether people will see the word without thinking of the lettering. But when he's designing typefaces, he can get more creative. Most of the 80 on his Web site are simple and elegant, but some – like Comrade, which looks like something chiseled on the Flintstones' license plate, or Mojo, with its groovalicious letters straight off a '70s Fillmore poster – clearly display Parkinson's sense of humor. (In a rare show of pride, the face he designed for Rolling Stone is called Parkinson.) He licenses his fonts, like software, through 10 different companies for $20 to $150 per computer, and also does custom work.

But when a schoolteacher in Texas e-mailed that her yearbook class was having trouble making its title – the Rocking Hawk – look like the lettering for School of Rock (and, by extension, like Rolling Stone's logo), Parkinson did the design for free. "I'm working on my karma," he says.

Parkinson may never reach rock star status working in this "invisible" field, but perhaps in his next life more of his work will carry his name.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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