Parkinson studied advertising design and painting at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, graduating in 1963. In 1964, he worked as a lettering artist for Hallmark Cards under Myron McVay with some consultation from Hermann Zapf. Afterwards, Parkinson moved back to Oakland, CA and freelanced as a lettering artist doing work for rock bands (including Creedence Clearwater, Taj Mahal, The Doobie Brothers, Kansas, et al.), sign painting, advertisements, packaging.
In the mid-1970s Dan X. Solo introduced Parkinson to Roger Black who was, at that time, the newly appointed Art Director for Rolling Stone magazine in San Francisco. Black hired Parkinson to design a series of typefaces and redesign the logo for Rolling Stone magazine.
Although Parkinson's lettering sensibility is rooted in old wood type and signage from the 19th century and during the first part of his career he used pen and ink for finished pieces, in 1990 Parkinson put away his pen and ink and embraced digital technology while working for the San Francisco Chronicle, designing fonts.
Parkinson now operates his independent type foundry Parkinson Type Design in Oakland, CA. Some of his more high-profile clients include: Fast Company, Esquire, Billboard, Newsweek, the San Francisco Examiner, and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. His font designs have been inspired by lettering and often by the work of William Addison Dwiggins, including adaptations of his Metro and Electra typefaces for the Chronicle and Letterform Archive.
Typefaces designed by Jim Parkinson include:
- Amador, 2004
- Amboy, 2001
- Antique Condensed No.2, 1995
- Avebury, 2005
- Azuza, 2001
- Balboa, 2001–2003
- Benecia, 2003
- ITC Bodoni (with Janice Prescott Fishman, Holly Goldsmith, and Sumner Stone), 1994
- Bonita, 1996
- Cabazon, 2005
- FF Catchwords, 1996
- Chuck, 2004
- Commerce Gothic, 1998
- Comrade, 1998
- Diablo, 2002
- Dreamland, 1999
- El Grande, 1998
- Fresno, 2001
- Generica, 1996
- FF Golden Gate Initials, 1996
- Hotel, 2001
- Industrial Gothic,
- Jimbo, 1995
- FF Matinee, 1996
- Modesto, 2001–2003
- Mojo, 1960
- Montara, 2002
- FF Motel, 1996
- Parkinson, 1994
- Parkinson Electra, 2011
- Poster, 1993
- Pueblo, 1998
- Richmond, 2003
- ITC Roswell, 1998
- Showcard Gothic, 1993
- Showcard Moderne, 1995
- Sutro, 2003
- Wigwag, 2001
Parkinson has designed and cleaned up numerous newspaper and magazine nameplates, making subtle adjustments to letterforms and character spacing to improve their appearance and legibility. Redesigned nameplates include the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Houston Chronicle, New Zealand Herald and Los Angeles Times daily newspapers; Rolling Stone, Esquire, Fast Company and Newsweek magazines; the Daily Californian college newspaper at the University of California, Berkeley; and alternative weeklies Santa Cruz Weekly, North Bay Bohemian and Pacific Sun.
- “Creative Characters” Edited by Jan Middendorp, MyFonts. The Netherlands: BIS Publishers, 2010
- “Indie Fonts 2” Edited by Richard Kegler, James Greishaber and Tamye Riggs. Buffalo, NY: P-Type Publications, 2003
- "Designer Bio on Identifont"
- "Designer Bio on MyFonts"
- Jan Middendorp, "Creative Characters Interview with Jim Parkinson", MyFonts, April, 2008
- John D. Berry, "dot-font: Logo Designer Jim Parkinson Sets Type First", Creative Pro, June 8, 2001
- Paul Shaw (18 April 2017). Revival Type: Digital Typefaces Inspired by the Past. Yale University Press. pp. 193–4. ISBN 978-0-300-21929-6.
- Parkinson, Jim. "Balboa". MyFonts. Parkinson Type Design. Retrieved 30 April 2017.
- Stephen Coles, "FontCast #10 - Jim Parkinson, Part 1", FontFeed March 25, 2010
- "Electric". Jim Parkinson Type Design. Retrieved 10 November 2017.
- "Richmond". MyFonts. Retrieved 2 October 2016.
- Parkinson, Jim. "Parkinson Electra". MyFonts. Linotype. Retrieved 2 September 2015.
- "Recasting Electra as Aluminia". Letterform Archive. Retrieved 10 November 2017.
- Crewdson, Andy (January 22, 2001). "Bay Area Native Gives New Life To Daily Cal Logo". dailycal.org. Daily Californian. Retrieved 30 May 2015.[permanent dead link]
- Pulcrano, Dan (2015-05-29). "The Sun's new rise". Retrieved 2015-05-30.