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.
1) Dan Reynolds: Who’s the Johnston-student who created the accompanying set of bold capitals that Johnston wouldn't speak to for decades? And where can I see pictures of those caps? (Jan 17, 2013 10:10 AM)
2) sparky: Dave Farey lent me a beautiful book that reprints the wood type at full size. I'll photograph those caps for you. And I'll have to ask him to remind me of that other guy's name. I loved that anecdote. (Jan 17, 2013 10:21 PM)
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