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
updated 11:19 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
updated 5:27 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Thomas Menino, who retired this year as the longest-serving mayor in Boston history, has died at 71 after a battle with cancer.
updated 4:22 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Elizabeth Norment, best known for her role as loyal secretary to Kevin Spacey's character on "House of Cards," died of cancer at 61.
updated 11:03 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Zambian President Michael Sata, who was nicknamed "King Cobra" for his fiery comebacks and larger-than-life personality, has died. He was 77.
updated 8:07 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Jack Bruce, bassist for the legendary 1960s rock band Cream, has died at 71.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Ben Bradlee, the charismatic Washington Post editor who guided the paper through the era of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, has died. He was 93.
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Legendary fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, who spent half a century putting high society in haute couture, has died. He was 82.
updated 10:53 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam (right) in Sydney with former Labor Party leader Kim Beazley. Whitlam, one of the nation's most admired figures who led the country through a period of massive change, died on October 21, 2014, aged 98, his family said.
Edward Gough Whitlam, the former Australian Prime Minister who strengthened ties abroad, has died.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Singer and model Joanne Borgella, an "American Idol" contestant in 2008, died at age 32 after a battle with cancer.
updated 1:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
"August: Osage County" actress Misty Upham was declared dead by a Washington coroner after her body was found along a river in suburban Seattle.
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Actress Elizabeth Peña has died of natural causes after a brief illness. She was 55.
updated 8:19 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Isaiah "Ikey" Owens, the keyboardist in Jack White's backing band, has died at age 38. The musician also played with bands such as Mars Volta and Free Moral Agents.
updated 9:13 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Mark Bell, who founded the highly influential techno music duo LFO and later collaborated with Bjork on several iconic albums, has died.
updated 10:09 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Actress and comedian Jan Hooks died in New York. She was 57
updated 7:29 AM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
Geoffrey Holder, a versatile artist known for his ability as a dancer, actor and -- most famously to most of America -- a pitchman for 7Up, has died at age 84.
updated 10:58 PM EDT, Sun October 5, 2014
Paul Revere, leader of the 1960s rock band Paul Revere and the Raiders, has died at age 76.
updated 8:03 PM EDT, Sat October 4, 2014
Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier died of a heart attack in Port-au-Prince at the age of 63, a family member told CNN.
updated 11:42 AM EDT, Sun September 28, 2014
Former U.S. Rep. James Traficant of Ohio died after suffering injuries in an earlier accident on his farm.
updated 11:36 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Eric "The Actor" Lynch, who became a celebrity among celebrities by calling in to Howard Stern's radio show, died at age 39.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
Emmy-winning actress Polly Bergen, whose TV and movie career spanned more than six decades, has died at age 84.
ADVERTISEMENT