To the letter

Jim Parkinson knows how to create a distinctive, charismatic masthead, which might explain why his work endures when inferior designs are cast aside. Colin McHenry meets one of the masters of US graphic design

Wander into any international newsagent and, chances are, US graphic designer Jim Parkinson has created mastheads for most of the publications on the shelves. From Rolling Stone and Newsweek to Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest and The National Enquirer, he’s done it. He’s created logos for regional papers, including the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and Daily Californian, and even the Herald on Sunday in New Zealand. There are also rumours that he is currently working on a British title.

I first came across Parkinson in 2000 at a Society for News Design conference. Tucked away in the typography sessions under the banner ‘Jim Parkinson, type letter repairer’, he was a cool Californian in his early 60s; he could have been the sixth Beach Boy.

In contrast to the UK, in the US a career in regional newspaper design is a natural progression for many excellent young designers. Their regionals (in the US most papers, even well known giants such as the Washington Post or the New York Times, are classed as ‘regional’) are lessons in great design. This means a creative of Parkinson’s calibre is in constant demand, reworking existing mastheads or creating new designs.

Born in Oakland, California, Parkinson’s first job was in Kansas City as a lettering artist for Hallmark Cards, under typographer Hermann Zapf, who was consulting for the company. In the mid-1970s he did some lettering for Rolling Stone, and found that designing for a magazine was more fulfilling than other lettering work.

How did the iconic logo evolve? ‘The original was drawn in 1967 by Rick Griffin, one of the great San Francisco psychedelic poster artists,’ Parkinson says. ‘It was just a sketch, but it was published untouched for eight years. In 1975, it was redesigned by John Pistelli, best known for his typeface Pistelli Roman.

‘In the early 1970s, Roger Black was appointed art director at Rolling Stone and he commissioned me to design a new logo and typefaces. To me, [the logo] was a sacred icon, so my first sketches were very timid, similar to the existing logo and probably worse. I put the logo job aside and started designing typefaces [for Black] instead,’ he recalls.

‘As the typefaces took shape, he suggested I try some logo sketches based on them. The Bold Italic became the point of departure for the new logo – Rolling Stone logo number three. This lasted a couple of years. The fourth logo (my second) is the one it still uses today.’

Black and Parkinson have a long working history. Black’s company, DaniloBlack USA, has designed mastheads for Newsweek, Esquire and the Houston Chronicle. Parkinson also works with newspaper design consultant Mario Garcia, with whom he created the masthead for The Wall Street Journal.

Masthead longevity, such as that for Rolling Stone, is quite hard to achieve, Parkinson believes. ‘I ask a lot of questions [of the client] about what’s wrong with the logo they have. The type of publication affects the masthead too, of course. Newspapers are the most conservative, major magazines less so. Smaller magazines, or special interest magazines allow the most freedom,’ he says.

‘I try to make the logos timeless. I want it to be difficult for people to know when they were designed. Most publications want to project the feeling that they are established. At the same time, they don’t want to look old and shopworn. If a publication has a [typographic] history, a series of earlier logos, I study them for various details I can bring forward into the present.

‘I avoid typographic fads. Today there is an endless parade of new typographic styles. I feel if I draw from contemporary styles, the logos will become dated,’ he adds.

As Parkinson points out, the masthead is usually the first piece of typography the reader sees. ‘As the product logo it should represent the publication in the best possible way. A properly restored masthead can revitalise a paper’s visual image. Even the most subtle changes can make a huge difference in terms of the subliminal, subconscious impression the paper or magazine leaves on its readers.’

Colin McHenry is group art director of Centaur Communications

Latest articles