Words Into Type

Jim Parkinson designs the letters that let you read

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.

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