Johnston Typeface

Pictured: Frank Pick Memorial, Piccadilly Circus Underground Station: a permanent art installation by artists Langlands & Bell that was unveiled at Piccadilly Circus Tube station on 7 November 2016.

Fiona MacCarthy writes in Eric Gill (1989) Chapter Eight: Ditchling Common 1913-24:

The early dreams of the Gill and Johnston families for building a house somewhere up under the Downs…never quite worked out and the Johnstons had started Ditchling life in a rather ugly villa on the outskirts of the village. But their old intimacy had to some extent been recreated, and Gill had been involved with Johnston in the early stages of the sans serif design for the London Underground. Gill always acknowledged this project as a precursor of his own famous sans serif type design…

…The Arts and Crafts movement was in the main agnostic…But catholicism suffused life and work at Ditchling…

…After the war, the life on Ditchling Common was more emphatically, more demonstrably Catholic than it had been before. This was one of the main reasons why Edward Johnston, who had once been in the thick of the new plans for the community, and had even come to live near the Gills up on the common, very soon moved back into the village and then gradually rather faded from the scene…Johnston himself was perhaps a creature too solitary by temperament for organised religion…Evelyn Waugh’s theory was that he was “so good and holy and odd that he never felt the need of it”.”.

From sources including Wikipedia:

Johnston (or Johnston Sans) is a sans-serif typeface of 1916 designed by and named after Edward Johnston. The typeface was commissioned in 1913 by Frank Pick, commercial manager of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (also known as ‘The Underground Group’), as part of his plan to strengthen the company’s corporate identity. Johnston was originally created for printing (with a planned height of 1 inch or 2.5 cm), but it rapidly became used for the enamel station signs of the Underground system as well. Johnston also redesigned the famous roundel symbol used throughout the system.

It has been the corporate font of public transport in London since the foundation of the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933, and of predecessor companies since its introduction in 1916, making its use one of the world’s longest-lasting examples of corporate branding. It remains a copyrighted property of the LPTB’s successor, Transport for London.

Johnston’s work originated the genre of the humanist sans-serif typeface, typefaces that are sans-serif but take inspiration from traditional serif fonts and Roman inscriptions. His student Eric Gill, who worked on the development of the typeface, later used it as a model for his own Gill Sans, released from 1928. As a corporate font, Johnston was not available for public licensing until recently, and as such Gill Sans has become more widely used.

Unlike many sans-serifs of the period, Johnston’s design (while not slender) is not particularly bold. Gill would later write of his admiration for how Johnston had “redeemed” the sans-serif from its “nineteenth-century corruption” of extreme boldness.

Not all his students were happy with his decision to create a sans-serif design for the Underground, in a style thought of as modernist and industrial. His pupil Graily Hewitt privately wrote to a friend:

“In Johnston I have lost confidence. Despite all he did for us…he has undone too much by forsaking his standard of the Roman alphabet, giving the world, without safeguard or explanation, his block letters which disfigure our modern life. His prestige has obscured their vulgarity and commercialism.”

Pick specified to Johnston that he wanted a typeface that would ensure that the Underground Group’s posters would not be mistaken for advertisements; it should have “the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods” and belong “unmistakably to the twentieth century”. Pick considered a sans-serif best suited to transport use, concluding that the Column of Trajan capitals were not suited to reproduction on flat surfaces.

The font family was called a variety of names in its early years, such as Underground or Johnston’s Railway Type, before later being generally called simply Johnston. (A similar problem exists with Gill Sans, which was at first often referred to by other names such as its order number, Series 238, Gill Sans-serif, or Monotype Sans-serif.)

Johnston was originally printed using wood type for large signs and metal type for print. London Transport often did not use Johnston for general small printing, with many documents such as bus timetables using other typefaces such as Gill Sans and Granby.

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