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January 2013

The iconic London Underground typeface turns 100

I wrote a short little thing for Wired UK about the history of the Johnston Underground typeface. I was worried that I could only barely scratch the surface in 500 or so words, but people seem to enjoy it anyway:

Last week we celebrated 150 years of the London Underground, but 2013 also marks the centennial of its iconic typeface, first commissioned in 1913. Edward Johnston, a British calligrapher and lettering artist, was asked to create a typeface with “bold simplicity” that was truly modern yet rooted in tradition. Johnston’s design, completed in 1916, combined classical Roman proportions with humanist warmth. This mix of qualities, driven by Johnston’s approach to the written letterform, also influenced his student Eric Gill, who assisted with the design of the Underground typeface and developed some of its ideas in his own Gill Sans in the following decade.

“Underground” — later known as “Johnston” — was circulated as a lettering guide for sign-painters and also made into wood and metal type for posters, signs, and other publicity materials used throughout London's transport network.

Johnston himself only drew one weight of the typeface. He based its weight and proportions on seven diamond-shaped strokes of a pen stacked in a row. This gesture even shows up in the typeface itself, with the characteristic diamond used as the tittle of the “i” and “j”. He felt so strongly about the weight of the design that when another student of his agreed to create an accompanying set of bold capitals, Johnston wouldn't speak to him for decades afterward.

Johnston’s type became a distinctive feature of the Underground brand over the years, but by the late ’70s it was less practical to use the old wood and metal fonts. Inevitably, the brand was getting watered down as other typefaces were chosen for different uses around the system. In 1979, London Transport asked design agency Banks & Miles to modernise “Johnston” and prepare it for the typesetting systems of the day, such as the Linotron 202.

Eiichi Kono, a new designer at the agency, was asked to revise and revive the family. Not only did he redraw the proportions for better display and even out some of the inconsistent details of the original, but he also took on the challenge of adding two new weights and accompanying italics for the full set, giving the family much greater versatility. Some years later, this design was further refined and expanded by Monotype, with even greater support for different languages. Known now as “New Johnston”, the fonts are used exclusively by Transport for London today as its brand typeface.

Other versions are commercially available to the rest of us, each taking a different approach to adapting Johnston’s design.

P22 Type Foundry released its faithful, officially licensed version of Johnston’s original in 1997, also offering a number of lively graphic elements such as ornaments and borders that draw on TfL’s rich visual history. P22 London Underground was later updated as P22 Underground Pro with many more weights and typographic features.

While P22 revived “Johnston” as a display typeface, designer Dave Farey was interested in refining the concept to work better for text in his 1999 design of “ITC Johnston”. His first iteration included three Roman weights that were redrawn and respaced with a freer hand, using the original as a starting point and a model. When adding italics later, Farey looked back to Edward Johnston’s legacy as an influential teacher of calligraphy and writing, and he devised a more cursive set of forms that drew on a very English tradition of lettering.

So happy birthday to the Underground and its namesake typeface, in all its flavours.

Sina in the hood

My good friend Sina: this is the photo of him that was made part of the big montage/diary comic of his featured in the new Pink Mini — Clothes Make the ’Moavailable here.

Zine: The Analog, Pre-Blog

Kate Nancy

Just a quickie: a link to a nice little article about zines written by Kate Nancy, who I met when she stopped by the Pink Mince stall at Zinefest Berlin last November. The article includes a couple of quotes:

“For me, the latest explosion of zines is very much about a return to paper, a reaction to years of content and interaction only happening online,” says Rhatigan, who published a zine called Rumpus Room in the early ‘90s and maintained activity in the zine community for more than a decade. He describes a wave of zine-makers - wearied by the costs of mailing and photocopying - defecting to online publishing en mass. “But a decade later the Internet was clearly figured out by regular media, so it doesn’t surprise me that people react against that once again to find ways of making things they care about tangible and more permanent, more special.”


Times Square

Why yes, as a matter of fact I will be spending all of February back in New York City, on IMPORTANT WORK BUSINESS. That's a much better way to return for a spell than than two years ago, when I had to flee England because of my expired work visa. Going back with a purpose and a fancy play to stay for a month will be much more invigorating.

[Image via Cam Chuck]

A good review that counts

I forgot to mention this wonderful little review from Howard that really made my bitter little heart melt a little and swell with pride. It's always nice feel appreciated by people who you think are intimidatingly talented.

Up for auction: Pink Mince

This guy actually sells a lot of amazing zines, old physique mags, and other material of interest, but I've always been a little frustrated by his prices. (I have given in and bought stuff from him in the past, and always been a happy customer, mind you.) In this case, though, I feel compelled to point out that Pink Mince #4 is still in print and you can get it right from the source for just a fiver.

Still I love the mini-review embedded in the description:

By using vintage yearbook pictures of guys and athletes mixed with classic physique photography, this issue of Pink Mince creates the homoerotic school you wished you were part of in your horny fantasies.

This is the stuff that will be collectible in the future, limited release, stylish, classy, hot.  Limited run.


The Lengths

The Lengths, issue 1

Now that he has completed his ambitious, tricky, and emotional comic series The Lengths, I'm really pleased to see my pal Howard Hardiman get recognition for the achievement. Check out, for instance, this majorly fantastic review from The New Statesman (an excerpt):

The Lengths is an important work. It covers topics largely passed over even in prose literature, let alone the diversity-challenged world of comics. In giving a voice to the voiceless, Hardiman deserves praise — and behind the anthropology, The Lengths is a love story sweetly told.

The best way to check out the series for yourself, of course, is to support the artist and buy it here.

from The Lengths, issue 5

The Mystery of the Stilla Swash


Ever since I first found this cover to a gentleman’s magazine on Tumblr, I’ve been perplexed. First, let me say that I think that is a brilliant piece of graphic design, regardless of what you may think about the subject matter. The composition is superb, there is a spare use of only the most essential elements, and the typography is exquisite.

It’s the type that has been a captivating mystery. Obviously, that title is set with Stilla, Fran├žois Boltana’s sublime titling face from 1973. But I had never seen that swash L in any version of the font before. Letter-by-letter, Stilla is gorgeous. However, all those exuberant shapes often fit together very awkwardly, so it’s a difficult face to use, especially in all caps. An L that drops below the baseline like that is just what would be needed to pull off a word like BOLD (as well as some very careful letter spacing). I wondered if that version of the L had been drawn separately and pasted in alongside the type, but that really seemed like overkill for a stroke mag.

I should have guessed that my trusty 1989 Letraset catalogue would hold the answer:

Letraset Stilla

There it is. The very swash L I’d been wondering about, as well as a couple of TT ligatures to help out that tricky combination. I found a sheet of Letraset Stilla recently, but it was only the lowercase letters. It wasn’t until I was checking a detail of that sheet in the catalogue that I noticed the solution to the puzzle.

Things like this are all too common, unfortunately. It was perfectly feasible — and often invaluable — to have alternate characters with Letraset, a product that required letters to be chosen and applied one at a time, with care. Those extra touches are the sort of thing were rarely carried into the early days of PostScript fonts, with their meagre limit of 256 characters (many of which were reserved by generic symbols). Unless fonts proved to have enduring popularity, those lost elements tend to be forgotten. Maybe, if I have a few spare hours at hand, I can sneak the extra characters back into Stilla. Hmmmm, maybe that’s exactly what I ought to do...

Art in Transit


I remember stumbling across this book in the New Dorp branch of the library on Staten Island when I was young. Looking at the publication date now — August 1984 — I realize I must have seen it just when it came out, right before I started my freshman year of high school. It had to be at least that early, because I distinctly remember being on the lookout for Keith Haring's subway drawings all through high school, when I commuted to the Upper East Side every day. Sure enough, I saw them show up a few times at East 86th Street a couple of times, and occasionally in other stations. I had no clue that Haring was already a name in the art world, so these always felt like secret treasures to me, connecting them only to this little book I found in a local library when I was looking for stuff about drawing cartoons.

This little book — and Haring himself — made an impression for all kinds of reasons, not all of which I could really pinpoint when I was just turning fourteen. It was the first time I thought to think of street art as real art, or vice versa. It was art that was fun, an idea I was starting to wake up to. I loved the drawings shown — so much! — and I also loved that they were quick, forbidden, and took advantage of really specific opportunities:

The advertisements that fill every subway platform are changed periodically. When there aren’t enough new ads, a black paper panel is substituted. I remember noticing a panel in the Times Square station and immediately going aboveground and buying chalk. After the first drawing, things just fell into place.

That seemed so cool to me when I was just a kid who drew comic books but was getting ready to jump into the wider world around me. Also, Keith Haring was cute — so cute! — in a goofy, nerdy way that was great; not like a model or a TV star but a real way. Although I couldn't make any sense of that reaction at the time it certainly fit a pattern that would eventually be clear.

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