Skip to main content

We've all read his work -- 'Godfather' of Helvetica font dies at 84

<a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/27/tech/web/helvetica-typographer-dies/index.html'>Mike Parker</a>, considered the "godfather" of the Helvetica font family, died on Sunday, February 23. Mike Parker, considered the "godfather" of the Helvetica font family, died on Sunday, February 23.
HIDE CAPTION
Famous Helvetica-inspired logos
Famous Helvetica-inspired logos
Famous Helvetica-inspired logos
Famous Helvetica-inspired logos
Famous Helvetica-inspired logos
Famous Helvetica-inspired logos
Famous Helvetica-inspired logos
Famous Helvetica-inspired logos
Famous Helvetica-inspired logos
Famous Helvetica-inspired logos
Famous Helvetica-inspired logos
Famous Helvetica-inspired logos
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mike Parker, who helped make Helvetica famous, died Sunday at age 84
  • In a documentary, Parker praises the "firm" quality of the font
  • He helped start the first company dedicated to producing digital fonts

Editor's note: Some of the logos in the gallery that accompanies this story did not represent the Helvetica typeface. The gallery has been edited to reflect that.

(CNN) -- Look at the letters in these words. Really look at them: the shape of the circle that makes the "o" and the roundness of the "c."

Look at how wide and tall they are. Look at the spaces between them.

How do the lowercase letters make you feel? HOW ABOUT THE CAPITALS?

A lot of consideration goes into designing a font, but somehow we're all able generally to accept the typefaces around us, ignoring their subtle design quirks as though they're as ordinary as air. We read their content but don't think too much about their form.

Mike Parker appeared in the 2007 documentary \
Mike Parker appeared in the 2007 documentary "Helvetica."

In this way, the Helvetica font has established itself. There's even a movie about it -- the 2007 documentary "Helvetica."

One of the people responsible for the popular use of Helvetica, Mike Parker, died Sunday at age 84.

His son, Harry Parker, considers his father to be the "godfather" of the Helvetica font, as a Fast Company headline described him.

"My dad didn't draw Helvetica, but he was very instrumental in it," Harry Parker said.

Many different companies use corporate logos inspired by Helvetica. The typeface is clear, legible and "good for everything, pretty much," Massimo Vignelli, a designer, said in the "Helvetica" film.

Words printed in Helvetica tell you what stop you're at on the New York subway. You might also see it in house numbers and tax forms.

Interviewed in "Helvetica," Mike Parker praised the "firm" quality of the font and the way that the spaces between characters "just hold the letters."

"It is not a letter that's bent to shape; it's a letter that lives in a powerful matrix of surrounding space," he said. "It's -- oh, it's brilliant when it's done well."

Helvetica was born as "Neue Haas Grotesk" in 1957, a collaboration between Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffmann, for the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland. The original, pre-digital font is different from what we know today.

In the post-World War II era, design was seen as part of a movement toward social responsibility, openness and reconstruction, design writer Rick Poyner said in the film. Swiss designers in the 1950s were pushing the idea of "rational typefaces" for information that would "present those visual expressions of the modern world to the public in an intelligible, legible way," Poyner said.

Linotype machines were commonly used in printing at that time. Mike Parker comes into the Helvetica story as the director of typographic development at Mergenthaler Linotype Co.

"He oversaw its development into a font published for the Linotype machines," Harry Parker said.

Under his leadership, more than 1,000 typefaces, including Helvetica, were added to the company's library, which became an industry standard.

Parker made a name for himself by bringing fonts to the world, while his original career path might have unearthed rocks and minerals.

Born in London in 1929, Mike Parker had intended to become a geologist, like his father, Harry Parker said. He then turned to painting but discovered that he was colorblind.

"What does a colorblind painter do? Type is black and white so that was the logical direction to go in," Harry Parker said.

Parker graduated from Yale University with an undergraduate degree in architecture and master's in design. He got a job at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, a museum with an extensive historical typography collection, and "that's where Mike fell in love with the whole thing," font designer Matthew Carter said.

After Linotype, Carter and Parker formed a company called Bitstream in 1981, the first company dedicated to producing digital fonts, ex-wife Sibyl Masquelier said.

Parker also founded a company called Pages Software in 1990, which featured a word processor developed on the NeXTSTEP operating system, developed by Steve Jobs' early company NeXT Computers. Pages was in the beta stage when NeXT was discontinued in 1995, Masquelier said. Apple later named a word-processing program Pages.

Parker additionally served as the historian for the Font Bureau, a typeface design foundry.

He would often bring conversations back to typography, Masquelier said. She remembers him complaining about how fonts he had once overseen were being used on trucks, or how ugly other typefaces looked in magazines.

"He hated the fonts that looked like they had a machine gun shooting them," she said. "Mike was all about classy style."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 2313 GMT (0713 HKT)
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Singer George Hamilton IV died at a Nashville hospital following a heart attack. He was 77.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1530 GMT (2330 HKT)
Northern Ireland's former first minister and former Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley has died. He was 88.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
Richard Kiel, the actor best known for playing the James Bond villain "Jaws," died at age 74 in a California hospital.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 2056 GMT (0456 HKT)
Actress Molly Glynn, who played an emergency room doctor on several "Chicago Fire" episodes, died from injuries after a tree fell on her during a storm.
S. Truett Cathy, the fast-food entrepreneur who turned a single restaurant into the multibillion-dollar Chick-fil-A empire, has died at age 93.
September 6, 2014 -- Updated 1757 GMT (0157 HKT)
Simone Battle, an "X Factor" finalist and G.R.L. singer, was found dead in a Los Angeles home, a coroner's spokesman said. She was 25.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 0226 GMT (1026 HKT)
Joan Rivers, the sassy comedian whose gossipy "can we talk" persona catapulted her into a career as a talk-show host, author and red-carpet maven, has died.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
Jimi Jamison, who belted out the hits "The Search is Over" and "Burning Heart" for 1980s rock band Survivor, has died. He was 63.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1253 GMT (2053 HKT)
CNN lost a much loved and respected colleague with the sudden passing of photojournalist Sarmad Qaseera.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1954 GMT (0354 HKT)
Acclaimed actor-director Richard Attenborough has died at 90, the actor's agent said.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
The founder of the University of Phoenix, Dr. John G. Sperling, has died. He was 93.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Don Pardo, the announcer whose velvety baritone voice introduced "Saturday Night Live" hosts on NBC for decades, has died at age 96.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1934 GMT (0334 HKT)
Jim Jeffords, who shifted the balance of power in the Senate when he bolted from the Republican Party in 2001, died at age 80.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
Former Z-Boys skater Jay Adams died after a heart attack while vacationing in Mexico with his wife. He was 53.
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Actress Arlene Martel, who "Star Trek" fans know as Spock's bride-to-be, died of complications from a heart attack. Martel was 78.
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Ed Nelson, best known for playing a doctor in the 1960s nighttime soap opera "Peyton Place," has died at 85.
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 0308 GMT (1108 HKT)
Actress Lauren Bacall, known for her distinctive, husky voice and sultry sensuality, has died at age 89.
ADVERTISEMENT